by Elin and Mary Widdifield
The death of a young person is one of life’s hideous and indelible experiences; it shakes a community to the core. As if this experience isn’t heartbreaking enough, a death by suicide adds a layer of bewilderment. In the grieving aftermath there are gut-wrenching examinations and questions. Why? How could it be? How could this tragedy have been prevented? In a packed church a few Saturdays ago, this was the somber scene I witnessed at a memorial for a twenty-five year-old man, the son of my friend.
Colin’s* memorial was filled with young people in their twenties. His friends and colleagues, confused and in disbelief, clung to one another for support. “Why did Colin do this?” I heard a young man whisper. Friends couldn’t fathom why a graduate from a prestigious university, who had achieved a level of success and tracked on an admirable career trajectory, would end his own life. How could it be? He was ambitious and well liked.
But in a gut-wrenching eulogy, his mother bravely told the story of Colin’s ongoing battle with a brain disorder. She explained there was a family history of depression, but still, she explained, loved ones were in utter shock by his death. There had been none of the typical warning signs such as previous attempts, loss of interest in work or friends, nor had he given away possessions. He seemed to be managing his illness.
… her mention of his illness further illustrates how hard he worked every day, therefore elevating his other accomplishments to greater significance.
It is remarkable that a mother burdened with unimaginable grief would make the point to speak openly about her son’s mental illness at his memorial. Or is it? Had her son struggled with cancer or any other chronic illness she would have been remiss not to mention his “brave struggle” in the context of his life. His illness, after all, was a challenge for him just as it is for one in four across the globe. And given how far we’ve come to understand brain disorders, her mention of his illness further illustrates how hard he worked every day, therefore elevating his other accomplishments to greater significance.
There is no logic in a life is cut short and in such tragic times, one searches for solace, often from a pastor or rabbi. It’s an understatement to say that the family and community feel raw and vulnerable and that words of comfort from a pastor are precious. So after Colin’s mother’s impassioned eulogy, the chapel remained silent but for sounds of muffled weeping when the pastor stood to deliver his final words of comfort. Sadly, this pastor’s concluding statements were seriously misguided:
If you have worries and anxieties in this fast-paced world, filled with texting, the internet and meetings, give your worries to God so you can prevent this sort of thing. So many people fight demons, but we don’t stop to pray to God to help us fight these demons. And we are not judging Colin for what he did. He suffered greatly and we will not judge him for what he has done.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and wished he hadn’t spoken. I had to ask the person sitting beside me if I’d heard him correctly. Being told we could simply pray away demons left me feeling as though I’d been transported to the Salem Witch Trials. Did he believe mental illness was about demonic possession? Did he really mean to say we will not judge Colin? Was he implying that ordinarily, it would be a sin to allow oneself to become ill? Did he think that people actually cause their own mental illness by not praying enough? Right there, in that packed church, a clergyman was perpetuating stigma and casting judgment and misinformation amongst a vulnerable mass.
Misinformation about mental illness leads to tragedies. It is potentially catastrophic when spread by clergy who are specifically charged with guiding grieving and vulnerable souls from darkness. More concerning is that, according to Health Services Research, those who themselves struggle with a brain disorder, first seek clergy in greater numbers—23.7 percent versus the 16.7 percent of those who seek a medical doctor or a mental health professional. Health Services Research article further states that,
Nearly one-quarter of those seeking help from clergy in a given year have the most seriously impairing mental disorders. The majority of these people are seen exclusively by the clergy, and not by a physician or mental health professional.
In other words, many of those seeking help for their mental illness may be told to pray to fight their demons and are not always directed to seek professional help from a medical professional. It’s frightening to think a person may seek counsel and not be directed to a resource that could save their life. As a comparison, would a person managing their diabetes be told that prayer could reboot their endocrine system?
* * *
Interestingly, at the very same time Elin witnessed one pastor spread misinformation and stigma about mental illness, I was speaking at a Fresh Hope® Ministries conference just outside Omaha Nebraska where Pastor Brad Hoefs, along with his colleagues and congregation, are leaders in mental health awareness and education for faith-based organizations.
According to Fresh Hope® Ministries, 30 percent seek their pastor first or instead of a medical or mental health professional, yet only 3 percent are qualified to address these issues adequately. While I was unable to verify this low percentage, an article posted April 15, 2015, by Ministry International Journal for Pastors shockingly cited that 37.3 percent of pastors believed people with mental health challenges could be possessed by demons—a number disturbingly high. On a positive note, the article also states that a “large majority (91.3 percent) of pastors expressed willingness to consult and even collaborate with mental health professionals (95.4 percent would make a referral to a mental health professional if necessary), both within and outside of their churches.”
Most faith leaders know, and statistics bear out overwhelmingly, that individuals prefer to seek counsel from their clergy and many feel more comfortable negotiating personal challenges in the context of their faith community. And as those leading the charge to better educate faith leaders about mental illness say, there is reason to believe this natural support system can appropriately address spirituality and mental health issues. A person who is well supported within an inclusive community has a better chance for mental health recovery than one who is not. This also applies to advocate/caregivers in need of support.
Mental health advocate, speaker and author of Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission (IVP Books), Amy Simpson, makes the case for educating our faith leaders in more strident terms. Says Simpson, not doing so is sinful:
It’s easy for most to see that if you told people with cancer, diabetes, or kidney failure that prayer was the best way to treat their life-threatening illness, and because of your counsel they refused medical treatment, you would be contributing to their death. Do you realize serious mental illness is also a life-threatening condition?
Many faith-based organizations are working hard to address the 25 percent of their congregation that live with mental illness. Within miles from the church where Elin heard one minister suggest that worries and anxieties could be prayed away, Rev. Gove Elder and his wife Barbara launched “Faith Connections on Mental Illness,” a program based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, designed to unite area faith communities in the understanding of mental illness. Faith Connections’ mission is “To work with all faith communities to welcome, include, support, educate, and advocate for individuals and families who are living with mental illness.”
During the panel discussion sponsored by Fresh Hope® on that same Saturday, psychologist Sarah Voss discussed plans to locate counseling services within the church to increase accessibility and approachability for members. Because when people know they are among those from their own community who share values, they feel more at ease accepting help and can more easily learn to cope and find hope.
Following the death of their youngest son, Matthew, who died by suicide, Kay and Rick Warren of Saddleback Ministries have, along with their followers, “united together to journey alongside people living with mental illness and their families in a holistic way.” And indeed, Saddleback provides resources for loved ones and pastors from churches around the country to assist them in ministering to their congregation. Their Mental Health Resource Guide for Individuals and Families (Saddleback Resources 2015) delivers straightforward information about mental health conditions and signs. Partnering with Saddleback Church, Lifeway Research created a Study of Acute Mental Illness and Christian Faith (2014, part of their Thriving Ministry Series) that offers guidelines for how to best guide members who are addressing mental health challenges while staying close to scripture with headings such as “BREAKING THE STIGMA” and “How to Make an Effective Referral to a Christian Counselor.” In my cursory review of this publication, there is no mention of praying away demons or suggestions that deeper prayer can eliminate the need for therapeutic drugs. There is, however, a section dedicated to finding medical professionals who are also Christians.
Recently, I had the distinct pleasure of meeting with Mental Health Initiative Coordinator JoAnne Forman of Rodef Shalom, which is located in my hometown. Forman is organizing a speaker’s series and workshops for her congregation to address mental health issues and support for their congregation.
For many, faith and prayer play an integral role in their sobriety and mental health. Families and those who live with mental illness and addictions need to hear messages with accurate information and of inclusiveness, and acceptance. We all need to be held at some point, and for those who live with mental illness or have a family member who does, sometimes just asking for support is challenging enough. With faith-based organizations positioned in the heart of our communities and so integral to finding hope and healing, it’s simply baffling that any person with such influence would be so ill-informed about an illness that is so remarkably common.
Many have found their faith community integral to their emotional survival and stamina. As one of our Behind the Wall contributors say, “This faith keeps me going.” We need to work within our own communities to educate our leaders who have the potential to help many.
There is hope.
*Fictitious name is used to protect the family’s privacy.
Faith Connections on Mental Illness (www.faithconnectionsonmentalillness.org)
Fresh Hope® (http://freshhope.us/about-fresh-hope/)
Saddleback Mental Health Ministries (http://saddleback.com/connect/ministry/mental-health-ministry/lake-forest)
If you have thoughts about suicide or have lost a loved one to suicide, you may find this website useful: www.allianceofhope.org
Your thoughts are always welcome:
 http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/hesr.2003.38.issue-2/issuetoc pages 647–673, April 2003.
 While Fresh Hope® cites these statistics, it is unclear from where they were derived. However, in other studies about faith based organizations and mental health support and services, these statistics do seem viable.
 (For more about Amy Simpson, please visit: http://amysimpsononline.com/2013/09/evangelicals-youre-wrong-about-mental-illness/#sthash.4Ygq7OQL.dpuf)