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Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Ed Stetzer on Christians, churches and mental illness

This past weekend Matthew Warren - the son of Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church and author of The Purpose Driven Life - took his own life after struggling for years with mental illness.  In the wake of this tragedy there has already been considerable reflection by many among the body of Christ about mental illness and what our reaction should be to it.

Ed Stetzer, the president of LifeWay Research, has a very good guest essay on CNN.com.  Titled "My Take: How churches can respond to mental illness", Stetzer relates his own experiences with Christians plagued with such conditions and how churches should and should not approach it.  From his article...

The first time I dealt with mental illness in church was with a man named Jim. I was young and idealistic - a new pastor serving in upstate New York. Jim was a godsend to us. He wanted to help, and his energy was immeasurable. He'd visit with me, sing spontaneously, pray regularly and was always ready to help.
Until he was gone.
For days and sometimes weeks at a time, he would struggle with darkness and depression. During this time, he would withdraw from societal interaction and do practically nothing but read Psalms and pray for hours on end. I later learned that this behavior is symptomatic of what is often called bipolar disorder or, in years before, manic depression.
I prayed with Jim. We talked often about the need for him to take his medicine, but he kept asking God to fix him. Eventually, at his lowest point and filled with despair, he took his own life.
As a young pastor unacquainted with how to deal with these events, I found myself searching for answers. I realized two things:
First, people with mental illness are often attracted to religion and the church, either to receive help in a safe environment or to live out the worst impulses of their mental illness.
Second, most congregations, sadly, have few resources for help.
Stetzer has much more to say about Christians and mental illness, but you'll have to click on over to read it all :-)

As a Christian with bipolar disorder, I can readily identify with Jim and his story.  In fact, everything he went through is something I have also had to endure except for taking my own life... and believe you me, I have felt like wanting to do that more times than I can count.  I've even been hospitalized more than once because of that. It does not mean that I or anyone else is weak or bad or beyond the forgiveness of God.  What it does mean is that we know a pain that is more excruciating and self-destructive than can be known by anyone without bipolar or other mental illness and we just want the pain to stop.  It IS that horrible a thing to live the rest of your life with.  Sometimes I honestly don't know how I've made it this far but if it's at all within my power, I want to use this blog to encourage others and help them find the strength to keep going.  Followers of Christ have it no easier to endure this than anyone else and sometimes I wonder if the spiritual expectations of ourselves might even make the pain worse.  Stetzer's article is a brief but brilliant resource from which to begin meditating upon being Christian and being affected by mental illness.

(Speaking of bipolar, I currently have four installments of Being Bipolar on the front burners... but I can't figure out which one to run with first!  Maybe the write-up I've been doing about what it's like to have one-on-one counseling.  Or the one about bipolar disorder and loved ones who are affected by your having it.  Or about drugs... yeah maybe the drugs one.  Drugs are cool.  No not like that...)

A very big tip o' the hat to Mark McGinnis for finding this article!  Be sure to visit the blog that Mark and his spousal overunit Dalerie maintain :-)