Recently, Tyla and I attended a conference at Saddleback Community Church in Lake Forest, California called “The Gathering on Mental Health and the Church”.  The founding pastor of that church, Rick Warren, and his wife Kay, lost their son to suicide two years ago, a devastating tragedy that crystallized their concern for those suffering from mental illness and for those who love them.  They realized that many Christians harbor fears and misunderstandings about mental illness and that the church is often the first place people go to find help, with very mixed results.  Among other measures to address this need, they held the first gathering on the church and mental illness last year.  It was so well attended last year that they expanded it from a one day to a two day conference (actually three, as they had a full day of “preconference” workshops and a plenary session).

We listened to people who suffer from mental illness and have managed, with help, to find a substantial degree of health and happiness after years of pain.  We also listened to people whose loved ones are still suffering and who are as yet unwilling to receive the help they need.  We learned a new word:  anosognosia, meaning “to lack awareness of one’s illness”.  This is not the same as being “in denial” as with those are unwilling to admit that they have a drinking problem, for instance.  Rather, anosognosia is sometimes a symptom of various forms of mental illness.  The sufferer really doesn’t know they are sick and honestly doesn’t think they need help.  This makes it difficult to secure their cooperation with measures to bring about some degree of healing or stabilization.  We did hear, however, some encouraging testimonies of success in gaining cooperation through building bonds of love and trust rather than through trying to argue people out of the delusions caused by their illness.

Along with many inspiring as well as deeply moving personal testimonies we also heard from top experts in the field of mental health and in social problems greatly affected by the problem of mental illness, such as homelessness, drug addiction and our bloated prison system.  The sad truth is that when we shut down the state mental institutions (deplorable as they indeed were), we simply exchanged them for our jails and prisons, an even worse way to treat the mentally ill.  Overall, there has been a huge deficit in resources allocated for the treatment of mental illness.  Insurance companies have been very reluctant to include treatment for mental illness in their medical insurance packages.  The truth is, however, that lack of treatment is much more costly to society and the economy than providing adequate care.

The main purpose of the conference, however, was to remove the shame and stigma of mental illness, especially in the Church and among Christians.  Rick and Kay Warren had a great trio of affirmations that were repeated a number of times during the conference:  “Your sickness is not your sin, your illness is not your identity and your chemistry is not your character.”  While those who suffer from mental illness have a responsibility to seek help and cooperate with reasonable efforts to obtain relief, mental illness is no more a sign of sin, God’s disfavor or demonic activity than suffering a broken bone, the flu or cancer.  Why then will Christians readily ask for prayer (either for themselves or a loved one) for healing from these ailments but remain silent when there is a diagnosis of mental illness?  We need to get rid of the stigma and shame.  Our immediate family has two who suffer from anxiety/depression.  As we think of our congregation, there are many who also have family members who suffer from some form of mental illness.  If we include friends, neighbors, co-workers or acquaintances, everyone knows someone who suffers from a mental illness, whether diagnosed yet or not.

One reason the stigma must be removed and more information about mental illness disseminated among us is that many go for years without being diagnosed and getting treatment, needlessly prolonging their suffering and that of those closest to them.  One of our speakers was the singer, author and former co-host of the 700 club, Sheila Walsh.  She told us about how she tried for years to mask the deep anxiety and depression that plagued her mind.  She thought it must be because of sin or lack of faith.  She tried fasting and praying but to no avail.  One day, during an interview with one of her television guests, the guest turned tables on her and asked how she was doing.  Sheila broke down in a seemingly unstoppable torrent of tears.  She had to break off the interview and retreat to her dressing room.

Eventually, and against the advice of many well-intentioned Christian friends and colleagues, she checked herself into a psychiatric hospital run by Christians where she learned for the first time that she was not suffering due to sin or a lack of faith but from a diagnosable and treatable form of clinical depression.  Yes, she needed good spiritual counsel as well as some psychotherapy but she also needed to begin taking medication for her illness.  She soon began to experience an improvement in her condition that allowed her to gain a much better quality of life and effectiveness in Christian ministry.  She wrote a book about her experience, Loved Back to Life, which Tyla and I are currently reading.  Tyla spoke to Sheila afterward and told her how her talk gave her courage to speak more openly about her own struggle with anxiety and depression.   Sheila told her she would find her openness would help others to open up too.

There’s so much more I wish I could share with you that we learned at the conference and since.  We ask you to keep open the weekend of December 12-13 as we are working on plans to hold our own conference on mental health at the church.  While traveling to Kansas by plane, our daughter-in-law met a Christian woman who works for the County Mental Health Department who has offered to help us with organizing it.  Please stay tuned for further details in the coming week!