Rick Warren and Mental Illness

 By now, you are probably well aware that Rick Warren’s son, Matthew, took his own life in their family home last week after years of struggle with depression and mental illness. In a letter to his church, Warren described Matthew’s final day:

“In spite of America’s best doctors, meds, counselors, and prayers for healing, the torture of mental illness never subsided. Today, after a fun evening together with Kay and me, in a momentary wave of despair at his home, he took his life.”

“A momentary wave of despair” – what a piercing description of such a complicated ailment that we over-diagnose and over-prescribe and at the same time let slip through the cracks. The news of Matthew Warren led me to this recent article from The Walrus which dove into some of the cultural dynamics of mental illness:

Dismantling the moral judgments and fears that have persisted throughout human history proves to be a more Herculean challenge. For so many centuries, psychiatric problems were attributed to everything from demonic possession to feeble-mindedness, not to mention rotten mothers. Even as some conditions, such as milder forms of depression and anxiety, have become almost benign in the cultural consciousness, other manifestations of mental illness, like severe psychosis, remain foreign and frightening… Rooting out age-old prejudices appears just as crucial as research into causes and treatments. The best way to do this, though, remains a matter of some debate.

Unfortunately, it appears that age-old prejudices are not reserved for the mentally ill. In the aftermath of his son’s death, Rick Warren, the famous mega-church pastor and best-selling author, has received much hate from people with strong prejudices against Rick and what he believes.

In response to the hate, Warren tweeted: “Grieving is hard. Grieving as public figures, harder. Grieving with haters celebrate your pain, hardest.” The cruelty launched at Warren has also prompted Marc Driscoll to ask, “Why is there so much evil heaped upon one of the most loving, encouraging, and generous men I have known in my entire life?”

However, the hateful things that people are saying is not what I want to highlight here. There has been enough coverage on this for the time being. I want to highlight only the constructive responses that come out of such difficult news.

The first is a theological response to the question ‘how are Christians to respond to the moral dimensions of suicide?’ Here, I found Al Hsu at Christianity Today helpful:

Christians often take opposing views on suicide. Some consider suicide the unforgivable sin, believing that people who kill themselves go straight to hell. Others claim suicide isn’t a sin at all, minimizing the act. The truth probably lies in between.

Taking one’s own life may well be a sin, but it does not automatically separate someone from eternal life with God just because one can’t ask for forgiveness afterward. After all, many of us die without having asked for forgiveness for each and every sin we’ve committed. Suicide falls into the moral and literary category of tragedy, a person undone by a fatal flaw.

Ultimately, even in the midst of grief and loss, Christians can take heart that death is not the end. Through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has defeated death. Death is an enemy, but it is a defeated enemy. It does not have the final word. Through Jesus, we have hope of eternal life. Jesus promises us that someday there will be no more mourning and no more pain. He will wipe away every tear. Death will be swallowed up in victory, and we will never grieve again.

The most resounding response was that we need to stop keeping mental illness a “dirty little secret few people want to talk about,” as Rebekah Lyons at CNN’s Belief Blog observes. Lyons, a sufferer of mental illness who says “anxiety and panic are my nemesis,” goes further:

“As people of faith, let’s talk about mental illness, giving others permission to do the same. Let’s release the stigma that keeps this a secret, holding untold millions captive. All secrets lose power when they exit the dark. The church is a place where we should be able to come as we are, with our longings for what we hope to be. Jesus always pursued the weak with open arms. When we are broken and fragile, He draws us closer to Him in ways we’ve never known. In my own journey, I’ve never felt more loved and cared for by God than in my darkest hours. When we grieve, we are comforted.”

Simiarly, Roy Exum, someone who also struggles with depression, had this to say:

“What is mystifying – and has come to light after the Warrens’ tragedy — is the fact so many Christians never acknowledge mental illness, depression or the stark reality it is no more than any other disease. They don’t talk about dark things in most churches. One theory is that to admit mental struggles shows weakness, which is absolute hogwash because confronting it and asking for help instead proves your strength.”

Again, Ed Stetzer emphasizes the relational dimension of mental illness and points to the body of Christ as a source of strength in weakness:

Christians believe the church is the body of Christ—the hands and feet of Jesus—and that means going into the darkest places and the toughest situations to bring light. It means walking with those who are suffering, no matter what the suffering looks like.

The final response that I came across, and the one that I believe we need to be reminded of the most, is one of sober realism. Here Thomas McDonald explains what will happen when we have all but forgotten about Matthew Warren:

When this kind of high-profile act of self-destruction happens, we pretend to search for answers for a time. Society imagines it’s having a “national dialog on mental illness.” People will talk of what to do, how to recognize the symptoms, how to help those you love. Perhaps some will become more sensitive to the warning signs in the process. But in the end, things will return to where they were. People will go back to not understanding mental illness, because it is not something that can be understood from the outside.

Let us hope that things don’t return to where they were – not because we all learn to understand mental illness from the inside, but because we stand beside those who do and shoulder their burden.