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Mental Illness: stand with those who suffer

Kay Warren, the co-founder of Saddleback Church in California, told a virtual gathering of Christian journalists that mental health issues will affect one in five adults and children this year. She also said that the church of Jesus Christ has a particular role to play in addressing this problem.

While the stress caused by COVID-19 was hard on every American, the uncertainty, lockdowns, and loneliness were tougher on those with mental challenges such as depression, anxiety, panic attacks, schizophrenia or bipolar and eating disorders, Warren said.

“The stressors of the past year have only magnified the grief, routines, and loss of life,” Warren said in a keynote address to the Evangelical Press Association (EPA) last week. “It’s a lot to deal with.”

Where do these people go to find compassion, care, hope, and understanding? Warren said it is the Church.

“I really believe the church of Jesus Christ needs to be that safe, compassionate, welcoming place for all who suffer,” said Warren, whose son, Matthew, suffered from mental illness and committed suicide in 2013.

Warren quoted Scripture throughout her address, which she called “The Gospel and Mental Illness.” She pointed to Luke 4, where Jesus read Isaiah 61 in the synagogue and revealed that the Messiah would stand with those who suffer.

“If we, as followers of Jesus Christ, are going to fulfill our mission, if we’re going to do the same things that Jesus did, we’re going to need to stand with those who suffer,” Warren said. “Some of those who suffer the most intensely in our world are those who suffer severe mental health challenges.”


Bowed but not broken

Warren said 43 million people will be affected by mental health issues this year amid a shortage of mental health professionals and treatment beds. She lamented that prisons have become the de facto mental health system in America.

While government and non-profit advocacy groups do all they can, Warren said it’s time for the Church to step up and help.

“While there are so many people trying to help, there is a desperate need for the Church to engage with individuals with mental health challenges and their families,” she said. “The church is positioned to take strong leadership and to provide help that others can’t or won’t.”

After the death of their son, Warren and her husband, Pastor Rick Warren, founded Saddleback’s Hope for Mental Health Initiative.

“In the nearly eight years since he died, we have been devasted, but not destroyed,” Kay Warren said.

Warren said nearly 80 percent of Americans have a religious affiliation and there are 350,000 faith congregations. Meanwhile, 25 percent of those suffering from mental health issues will go to a religious leader before a mental health professional.

“Those facts tell me this:There are some opportunities for the Church to serve and care in unique ways and that we can make a significant dent in the mental health crisis in our country; we can fill in the gaps left by the government and by the public and private sectors; and we as the Church can provide what no one else is providing,” Warren said.

“We as the Church can help alleviate the suffering of more than 43 million Americans who will experience a mental health crisis in the coming year.”


All are welcome

Warren talked about her visit to Kalighat, the Home of the Pure Heart (formerly Mother Teresa’s Kalighat Home for the Dying Destitutes), in Calcutta, where she prayed for and comforted men and women in their final stages of life. She was struck that Christians from local churches were absent.

“Where were the believers in that city who would pick up the broken bodies from the gutters? Where were the families who would open their homes to the outcasts, so they don’t die alone? It’s not primarily the job of a charity like Mother Teresa’s. It’s not even the job of the government, per se. It’s the job of the Church,” Warren said.

“If we don’t do it, it’s not going to be done. I seriously beg you— don’t walk by the church of God on your way to engaging the world on serious issues like mental illness. It’s going to be messy. The Church is the only vehicle that God has chosen to spread His message of compassion and mercy, and at the center of it all is Christ and His body, the Church.”

“You can’t say you love Jesus and hate His church or have no use for it or ignore it. It is His body … and in His church, in His body, there is a place for everyone, absolutely everyone.”

To offer practical steps churches can take, Warren created an acrostic from the word CHURCH for her pre–recorded presentation:

  • Care for and support individuals and families (Psalm 69:20). Churches should be intentional about showing love and compassion toward those with mental issues and it costs no money or special training to befriend them. Many are “aching to be wanted,” loved, and accepted, she said. “It’s in our DNA to love,” she said. “If God is love, then we should excel at loving people.”
  • Help with practical needs (1 John 3:17). Form support groups at your church or help people find them. Warren said when she was recovering from breast cancer, people from her church provided meals, housecleaning, babysitting, grocery shopping, and transportation to the doctor. “Why not do that for people with mental issues?” she asked.
  • Unleash trained volunteers (1 Peter 4:10). The Church should teach volunteers to counsel and pray with people with mental issues and help them find professional help. “In your congregation are kindhearted people who are looking for something to do,” she said.
  • Remove the stigma (Ezekiel 34:4). Many people don’t get help for this reason. Probably the most powerful thing that you can do as a faith community is to remove the debilitating stigma and rejection those living with a mental illness encounter,” she said.
  • Collaborate with the community. Churches can work to augment the work already being done by the mental health community, hold seminars, and bring in professional speakers to educate your congregation.
  • Offer hope (Hosea 2:15). “We may not be able to cure someone’s mental illness, but the Church can offer hope that over time, a person can learn to manage chronic illness,” Warren said. “Hope is the most valuable commodity we have in the Church to offer people who are in profound pain.


“When people have serious physical conditions like cancer or other life-threatening illnesses, we would never turn our back on them if they don’t get well. We would walk with them to the end if that’s what’s needed.

“Why do we think it’s OK to treat people with serious mental illness or with a substance abuse disorder or addiction that way? The message has to be, ‘We will be with you when you’re doing well. We will be with you when you’re going through a crisis. We will be with you when the wheels fall off the bus completely. We will be with you to the end.’

“When people are seriously mentally ill, they might burn through all of their family relational bridges, but if they lose the family of God as well, where are they supposed to go? It’s not only dangerous, it’s potentially lethal, but the Church is to offer hope at every stage and phase of life. That’s what makes us different from every other organization trying to offer help in this space. We’re here to stay and to continue to hold out hope.”

by Robert Mitchell

image credit: unspash/Rosie Fraser

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