The heartbreaking news of the suicide of Rick and Kay Warren’s son Matthew has been followed by, among other things, a public discussion of mental illness. Apparently, Matthew’s death was the end of a long battle with bipolar disorder. But before I talk about mental illness, I want to say that we (our family and our church family) are grieving with the Warrens, praying that the Father of mercies and God of all comfort will comfort them in this time of deep, emotional grief. Please join us in continuing to pray for them.
As I scrolled through Twitter on Monday, there were a number of tweets commenting on the subject of mental illness. In response to those tweets, I posted this:
“I have had the privilege of pastoring and being friends with many who struggle with mental illness over the years. They need lots of love, compassion, patience, understanding, and a continual reminder that God loves them; and medicine is His gift to help them. They need lots of prayer too.”
Why did I say pastoring and being friends with the mentally ill has been a privilege? Because the mentally ill are the weak, fragile, and vulnerable among God’s people, and we know that God has a special place in His heart for the weak, fragile, and vulnerable. It was prophesied of Jesus: “A bruised reed He will not break, and smoking flax He will not quench” (Isaiah 42:3). Jesus cares for the weak, and we are privileged to care for those whom He cares for.
I’ve experienced wonderful friendships with those who struggle with mental illness. So often, beneath the mental confusion, the fears, and the depression are intelligent, loving, caring, kind, and sensitive people. Even as I write this, I can think of many times of joy and deep Christian fellowship with those who have struggled with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, panic and anxiety disorder, OCD, etc. Yes, God’s people do suffer with these types of afflictions at times, and we need to walk alongside them through those dark valleys.
Ministering to the mentally ill has its challenges, certainly. Sometimes there’s nothing you can say or do to bring them back into reality, out of despondency, or beyond their irrational fears. This is why much love, patience, and understanding is needed. I have spent countless hours over the last three decades listening to and counseling with people who, after the countless hours invested, were no better off than when we started. Such is the nature of mental illness. Yet love endures all things, so you just keep loving them, listening to them, encouraging them, and praying for them. I know from experience that even though many times you can’t totally help those with mental illness, God’s love through you brings enough comfort and peace to take the edge off some of the suffering.
Another factor is medication. As I mentioned, I often remind those afflicted with mental illness that medicine is God’s gift to help them. I am aware that there are many controversies surrounding the use of psychiatric medications. No doubt there is much abuse, and there’s never a guarantee that medication is going to help. But in many cases, medication has and does help, and those who are helped by it should be encouraged to stay on their medication.
Over the years, some misinformed Christians have suggested that taking medicine for mental illness is a sign of a lack of faith or in some way displeasing to God. Therefore, many who could be helped are reluctant to go on medication or they have refused to stay on it. I’ve spoken to numerous people who suffer from mental illness who have either gone off their meds and relapsed, or have tried to get off their meds because they thought they were dishonoring God.
In reality, it is no more wrong to take medication for a true mental disorder than it is to take insulin for diabetes or a thyroid supplement for thyroid deficiency. The brain is a physical organ, like the pancreas and the thyroid gland, and can become diseased and need medication.
I have actually heard people say there is no such thing as mental illness, and those who appear to be mentally ill are just in sin and need to repent. No doubt, some people have been misdiagnosed as mentally ill who are not, and they do need to repent. But to say that there is no such thing as mental illness is both naïve and downright cruel, and can be extremely painful to a person who is already suffering intensely. Those who would say to the depressed, “just snap out of it,” or to those with anxiety, “just stop worrying,” or even worse, “just trust God,” know nothing at all about what the person is actually going through. I know that because I’ve been on both sides of the issue.
For the past thirty years, I have battled off and on with what is called Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). Those who suffer from CFS quite often experience depression and anxiety disorder because of this disease’s effect on the central nervous system and the brain. It has been through my own experiences that I have come to understand in a very small way the plight of those who battle with mental illness, and the need for God’s love and wisdom in our attempts to help those with these struggles. Sometimes wisdom is the recognition that medication can alleviate unnecessary suffering. I am not in any way suggesting that medication is always the way to go or the only way to go. Even if medication is helpful, which as I’ve pointed out is not always the case, there is still the need for prayer and for the suffering person to be reminded continually of the great promises of God in His Word.
The great English poet and hymnist William Cowper suffered much of his life from mental illness, and on more than one occasion, he sought to take his own life. His pastor and dear friend, John Newton, who wrote the well-known hymn “Amazing Grace,” loved him, patiently encouraged him, and along with his congregation, prayed faithfully for him. After a failed suicide attempt and a long season of prayer by the church, Cowper, without the assistance of medication (there was none back then) was healed to the extent that he never again tried to take his life, and although he still struggled with bouts of depression, they were mild in comparison to what they had previously been.
Maybe someone you know or someone you love suffers from some form of mental illness. What can you do? Love them. Be patient with them. Encourage them to get all the help they can. Most of all, pray for them, entrusting them to the Lord who made them, died for them, and loves them. He will one day heal them; maybe here or maybe in heaven, like Matthew.