Last year the nation, and particularly the evangelical community, was stunned by the news that Pastor Rick Warren’s youngest son, Matthew, had died by suicide after a lifelong battle with mental illness. We can’t say what Matthew Warren–a young man with access to mental health care, a loving family, and a relationship with Christ–was thinking and feeling as he took his own life, but we can honor this family’s pain by considering how we interact with the people in our own lives who suffer from mental illness.
In the year since Matthew Warren’s death, we have seen the Warrens respond with courageous public advocacy for people like their precious son and families like theirs. We have also seen more losses to suicide, both inside and outside the church. During this National Mental Health Awareness Month, it seems appropriate to stop and consider the connection between suicide and our common responses to mental health crises. In responding to mental illness, even well-meaning people can do harm so easily.
Experts say more than 90 percent of people who die by suicide have a mental disorder; while most people with mental illness do not die this way, Matthew Warren is not the only sufferer to experience that impulse or to act on it. He’s one of about 38,000 in the U.S. to die by suicide each year, and thousands more attempt to do so, imagine it, or live out a number of other frightening symptoms of mental illness.
People with mental illness sometimes behave in ways other people don’t understand and can’t make sense of. People with severe depression sometimes stay in bed all day, unable to manage the most basic motivation to move. People with anxiety disorders can be gripped by irrational or even unidentifiable fears that don’t incapacitate other people. Those affected by psychotic disorders may see things that aren’t real, hear voices that don’t exist, and sometimes lose the ability to discern reality at all.
Sometimes people with mental illness mistreat or hurt the people they love–or themselves. Some who need medication stop taking it or won’t start. Some who seem to be doing well suddenly start showing symptoms again. And yes, some try to end their lives. When they succeed, their loved ones are left with a gaping devastation that cannot be patched with a Hallmark card or niceties about God wanting another angel in heaven.
All of this can be hard for us to understand. I’ve done my share of trying. When I was a teenager, I tried to communicate with my mother, who suffers from schizophrenia, during psychotic episodes. I desperately tried to understand why she was so afraid and how to help her. Later I tried to understand after she spent two years believing she was receiving special insights during church services–then she walked away from the church and into the occult. Another time, she was convicted of a crime and spent time in prison. These incidents were so far removed from her true character. My family agonized over them, but we couldn’t prevent or “fix” any of them, any more than we could understand them. And I still haven’t understood what to do with my own emotions when I once again feel that old bubbling sludge of anger, pity, horror, and sorrow when one of the people I love most makes another terrible choice, repeats a mistake, or hurts other people–and may or may not be responsible for her behavior. If she isn’t, who is?
Recently I’ve spent a lot of time writing and speaking up on behalf of people affected by mental illness and their families. I want to see the church embrace these people as we never have before, in keeping with our mission in this life. People who have mental illness can be a difficult group to reach, as their symptoms, efforts to cope with pain, and even side effects from medication can cause behaviors that make us uncomfortable or even alarm us.
When we see symptoms of mental illness, here’s how we often respond:
When we respond in these ways, we make ourselves irrelevant to people who need our help. We send the message that our faith has no answer or explanation for this kind of suffering. We suggest there is an easy answer to their suffering, yet it remains elusive to them for some reason, probably because they don’t deserve it and we do. We imply that God himself is ready to walk away from people in pain. All this from people who mean well but just don’t know what to do.
So what should we do? Here are a few better responses:
As followers of Christ and as his representatives, we are called to follow his example. We are called to reach out to suffering people, to stick with them rather than shrink away. We are called to believe that no one is ever beyond hope, past the point where God’s grace and love apply to them. God does not give up on people, even if they give up on themselves. After all, we are not called to have all the answers, understand all life’s mysteries, or fix everyone’s problems. But we are called to love.
© 2014 Amy Simpson.