The news of popular evangelical pastor Rick Warren’s son taking his own life over the weekend hit close to home.
And, if you have ever struggled with the disease of depression or have loved ones who do, maybe you can identify. My prayers go out to Warren, his wife and family in the aftermath of the tragedy. But beyond that, I am also hoping for a sea change in the evangelical church when it comes to responding to mental illness.
My own experience is that depression and mental illness are one of those things the church isn’t very good at talking about. Either the church doesn’t talk about the issue, ignoring the elephant in the room- and it’s a big one, with one in five Americans over the age of 18 having experienced mental illness in the last year, according to a report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
Or, when the church does talk about the issue, it finds it easy, maybe from fear, maybe out of convenience or the desire to be a gathering of “pretty, successful people” (a lie we church people are remarkably good at telling ourselves), to dismiss and label those with various mental illnesses as “crazy,” “dangerous” or “nuts.” I have heard these same descriptions thrown around in church circles about individuals in their midst and it grieves me. We tend far too quickly to lump into one category those who struggle with various forms of mental illness and have beautiful contributions to make to our communities with those who go on killing sprees in schools and movie theaters. And if this response is natural and understandable, it is also prejudiced and unjust.
In some cases, I’ve even seen a genuine medical diagnosis reduced to a need just to pray harder for healing and deliverance from sin or a lack of faith. Surely a depressed person must have done something wrong to suffer so, some of us assume, much like Jesus’ interlocutors in the Gospel of John when they inquire about whether it is the blind man or his parents who sinned. Surely a depressed person needs to have more faith. Besides, if Jesus healed people of demons in his time, He can heal us of our depression and mental illness, too, we say. And while in principle this is true, it is also true that clinical depression, like most medical disabilities, is a chronic, life-long reality for many people. Just “getting over it” may be a valid hope, and one that we should pray for, but this hope must be tempered by a realistic appreciation for the nature of disability itself.
And here I wonder whether the church might, with the lead of Rick Warren and others who have watched loved ones struggle across lifetimes with depression and mental illness, begin to do a better job of making a space for all those with disabilities of any kind, be they a behavioral or emotional disorder or a physical handicap or impairment. What if instead of pretending these individuals do not exist or treating them as disposable, we instead got to know them better, maybe even sought to learn something from them? What if we began to recognize and honor their humanity in our midst, rather than assigning them some secondary status in the church?
We might discover that Jesus meets us there.
But, what do you think? What’s been your experience of depression, mental illness and disability in general in the church and out?