Rising mental illness stirs search for appropriate Christian response

Timothy Fowler

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Tuesday, April 23 2013

The suicide of Matthew Warren, the son of pastor and author Rick Warren, has prompted a discussion among church leaders and thinkers about suicide among Christians.Saddleback Church

The suicide of the son of Saddleback megachurch pastor and author Rick Warren is prompting a new look at mental illness within the church.

Matthew Warren killed himself earlier this month at the age of 27.

Following his death evangelical leaders in the United States began a conversation about how their teachings might be impacting those with mental illness, according to The Washington Post.

"Part of our belief system is that God changes everything, and that because Christ lives in us, everything in our hearts and minds should be fixed," said Ed Stetzer, a pastor who also is a blogger and advisor to a number of evangelical churches.

"But that doesn't mean we sometimes don't need medical help and community help to do those things," he said.

Mental illness is on the rise throughout the Western world and although people are more aware, it still carries with it a great deal of stigma for people suffering from a brain or emotional disorder.

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About 25 percent of U.S. adults suffer from mental illness according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The number is even higher in Europe.

A study released in 2011 revealed that about 38 percent of European adults have nervous and mental disorders of some kind.

Suicide is becoming a leading cause of death in western countries.

Yet, the CDC indicates that only 25 percent of adults with mental health symptoms believe that people are caring and sympathetic towards them.

"The Church's response parallels society," Dorothy Coughlin, a director of the Archdiocese of Portland's Office of Disabilities told U.S. Catholic magazine in a 2010 article concerning mental illness.

Christian churches traditionally have responded to mental health issues in a variety of ways. One of the responses of the he church is to deny a problem exists.

U.S. Catholic cited a 2008 study by Baylor University which revealed that a group of 293 Christians who went to their various churches regarding their conditions were told that they did not have a mental disorder.

A 2009 study by Baylor indicated that depression and anxiety were the most frequent maladies dismissed by the clergy.

Yet study after study has shown that ministers are turned to first before mental health professionals by those suffering.

An article by Frank Viola in the Christian Post earlier in April is telling. His own experience is that there are three Christian responses to mental illness.

One is that the source of the problem is demonic. If the demonic influence is dealt with, the mental illness can be also.

Another response Viola said he has encountered is that mental disorders are "psychobabble".

In other words, they do not exist. Instead, it is determined that the problem is to sin on the part of the person with the issues.

The treatment is for them to repent of their sin.

Only one-third of the people in Viola's experience treat mental illness as something to be handled as a medical issue.

Amy Simpson, the author of Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church's Mission and a blogger who writes on mental health issues for Christianity Today offered Christians a long list of what she considers appropriate responses to those suffering.

Her advice to Christians in CT included admitting that they may not understand what a mentally ill person is experiencing, educating themselves, and encouraging the individual to get treatment.

Simpson also suggested that Christians prod those with mental disorders to get help spiritually as well, since they may not get this kind of care from a mental health professional.

"I want to see the church embrace these people as we never have before, in keeping with our mission in this life," said Simpson.

Connie Rakitan, a member of the Archdiocese of Chicago's Commission on Mental Illness, told U.S. Catholic that the Catholic Church's approach to mental illness is improving, but that it has taken more time than with its treatment of other disabilities.

Rakitan is the founder of a support group for people with mental disabilities. Others U.S. Catholic talked to recommended this approach to help the mentally ill.

Rick Warren on his church's website has asked people to sign a petition calling lawmakers, health care professionals, educators and congregations to raise the awareness and lower the stigma of mental illness.

Copyright © 2013 Ecumenical News

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