As the pandemic has resulted in increased anxiety and depressive disorder among Americans, Saddleback Church co-founder Kay Warren says the Church can play a unique role in caring for those with mental illness and their families no matter how “messy” situations might be.
During a message delivered Thursday at the 2021 Evangelical Press Association Christian Media Convention, Warren, who co-founded the California-based megachurch with her husband, Rick, reflected on the death of her son, Matthew. He took his own life in 2013 after a life-long battle with mental illness.
“I'll tell you — I will miss my son every day for the rest of my life, until that glorious resurrection day when I see Jesus and see Matthew again,” she said.
After Matthew’s death, Warren founded Saddleback’s Hope for Mental Health Initiative to support individuals and family members of loved ones with mental illness and suicidal ideation.
She shared statistics revealing that one in five adults in the United States and one in five children will be affected by mental illness in the coming year. Suicide has become the second leading cause of death among people 10 to 34 years of age.
“Where do people go who are living with mental health challenges? Where do they go to find compassionate care and understanding? Where can they find hope for their dark days?” Warren asked. “I really believe that the Church of Jesus Christ needs to be that safe, welcoming, and compassionate place for all who suffer.”
“There's a desperate need for the Church to engage with individuals with mental health challenges and their families,” she added. “The Church is positioned to take strong leadership and to provide the help that others can't.”
The Kaiser Family Foundation reported in February that about four in 10 adults in the U.S. have during the pandemic reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, an increase from one in 10 who reported these symptoms in 2019.
The report also found that young adults have experienced various pandemic-related consequences, such as the closure of schools and loss of income that may contribute to poor mental health.
The foundation notes that during the pandemic, 56% of 18 to 24-year-olds reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder and are more likely than all adults to report substance use and suicidal thoughts.
Stressing that the Church can “fill in the gaps” that government programs and secular organizations leave behind, Warren cited statistics revealing that 25% of people who are seeking help in a mental health crisis will go to their priest, rabbi or pastor before they'll go to a mental health professional or physician.
“I seriously beg you, don't walk by the Church of God on your way to engaging the world on critical issues like mental illness,” Warren said. “It's going to be messy ... [but] the Church is the only vehicle that God has chosen to spread his message of compassion and mercy, and at the center of it all is Christ and His body, the Church.”
“You can't say you love Jesus and hate His Church or have no use for it or ignore it,” she continued. “It is His body, and in His church, in His body, there is a place for everyone.”
It doesn’t require a large church congregation or excessive wealth “to have an attitude of mercy and compassion and tenderness,” Warren said. Instead, it requires a “decision to care, to let your heart be touched by the suffering of fellow human beings, to allow their pain in some way to touch yours.”
A 2014 survey from Lifeway Research found that nearly half of pastors (49%) “rarely or never speak to their church in sermons or large group settings about acute mental illness.”
Additionally, about one in four individuals said they had either “stopped attending church, had not found a church to attend or had changed churches based on the church’s response to mental health issues.”
Mental illness “dehumanizes” people, Warren stressed. But the Church has the opportunity to open its arms and befriend and listen to those struggling.
“What if we held each other's hearts in our hands for a few moments and validated each other's significance ... and provided each other with the comfort that God has given to us,” she said.
The “most powerful thing” the faith community can do is “remove the debilitating stigma and rejection that those living with a mental illness encounter,” Warren said, adding: “The faith community is what I call a legitimizing force in society. If the Church says you're OK, you're OK."
The primary reason many people struggling with mental illness don’t seek help, she explained, is due to the stigma attached to it. But the Bible is clear that having an illness doesn’t mean “that you’re not valuable or that there’s something spiritually wrong,” she assured.
“Nobody wants to be thought of as having a mental health challenge,” Warren pointed out. “Mental illness is part of our body; it's part of the physical part of our body. And when you can let people know that it's not a sin to be sick and your church is a … safe place to bring your brokenness, then we're beginning to remove the stigma.”
Warren encouraged churches to hold mental health seminars, compile a list of some mental health professionals for referral purposes and offer hope to those struggling with mental illness.
The LifeWay study found that 68% of pastors surveyed said their churches maintain a list of local mental health resources for church members. Still, only about 28% said that families are aware those resources exist.
“Hope is the most valuable commodity that we have in the Church to offer people in profound pain,” she said.
“The Church is to offer hope at every stage and phase of life. That's what makes us different from every other organization trying to offer help in this space. We're here to stay. And we're here to continue to hold out hope.”