Mental illness is one of the thorniest issues of our time. It devastates individuals and families, with the extreme of suicide ending over 38,000 lives in the most recent year they were counted in the U.S. The National Institute of Mental Illness reports that over 26% (more than 57 million adults over age 18) suffer from a diagnosable mental illness in any given year, in the U.S. alone. These are numbers - statistics - an unforgiving graphic of the deep psychic woundedness at the heart of our society.
Rick Warren lost a son to suicide one year ago, and this last weekend nobly convened a conference to start a mental health ministry at his Saddleback Church, and in the larger church community. His grief has been both private and public for the last year. And like most people affected by this, he still has more to process. In that sense this conference might be a great idea.
Reporting from an interview about this, Warren said the family kept Matthew's illness a secret from the public not because of shame, but 'because it was his own story to tell.'
That reflects the common misunderstanding that the ones afflicted with mental disorders have the competency to advocate and speak clearly for themselves, even when they've not received the help they need to fully heal their depression or anxiety. Yes, the one suffering has a story to tell, but they may or may not want to tell it. And to tell it, he or she might need some safe and reliable people to help them speak it clearly, to detail the range and depth of their suffering, and to sort through all the inevitable confusion. A daily pill or two promoted by the pharmaceutical industry might help balance some chemistry in the brain, but it doesn't do much to tell their story. And again, who says every story has to be told?
From such a celebrity minister, to suggest he never had any shame about his son's affliction, that his son Mathew would in due time find his voice and articulate some healing message from the wreckage of his despair, without professional and trustworthy support - well, the assertion stretches credulity. (He may well have had professional support - I don't know. But trustworthy? As experienced from his own perspective? That's a challenge with many diagnosed individuals. They don't know who or how much they can trust.)
Coming from a family myself where suicide has visited, the high expectations mixed with frustration are forgivable... in the private sphere... In public, Warren's voice speaks to many thousands, possibly millions, and on this issue, among the public, there is indeed shame. From the church, too often: silence, neglect and abuse - like so many other institutions. And within families, where some might deny any shame while the one suffering remains bereft of reliable, authentic connection. It's possible Mr. Warren never felt any shame about either the church's or the family's role in mental illness, but to promote that as an ideal before a fair and open discussion of what shame is and how it accompanies mental health problems, that strikes me as irresponsible.
To me, and many others who have lived with it or near it, mental illness rarely escapes the stigma and shame associated with others' misunderstandings and judgements. To deny the shame is to continuously be subject to the slings and arrows of those misunderstandings and misjudgements, and the hurt that attends those moments. That hurt IS shame and needs to be addressed directly and honestly.
I can understand if Mr. Warren was saying that an individual or family ought not to have any shame in seeking treatment, but the reality is that 99% of those in this situation live with shame most every day. The problem in seeking treatment is how to get people to step up in spite of the shame, how to help them feel safe enough with the intake and orientation process that the difficulty is being handled with appropriate discretion and care. That's one of the first steps in mitigating shame.
This is such a huge subject - the church, mental illness and shame - that the sorting through, even in the lives of single individuals, can take years, or even decades. The mentally ill routinely feel shamed by the rejection and misunderstandings of their own families, their communities, their churches... This is a waste of human talent and energy, and seriously derails entire lives and even families.
The Huffington Post article continues: "the Southern Baptist-affiliated nonprofit Lifeway Research, released (a report) in September, (and) found that close to half of evangelical, fundamentalist and born-again Christians believe prayer and Bible study alone can solve mental illness. Among Americans as a whole, about one in three shared that view. Nevertheless, 68 percent of Americans said they believed they would be welcome in church if they were mentally ill." (emphasis mine)
68% believed they would be welcome if they were mentally ill... hmmm... My bet is that this survey did not make any distinctions regarding the participants. And the question itself tends to beg an answer viewing the church in its most favorable light. It does not say that 68% of mentally ill people feel welcome in church, or that mentally ill people were explicitly asked. Mentally ill people (and it would be great if we could find another useful descriptor, as this one carries so much baggage) - those diagnosed - too often feel as though they have no support in any social situation, let alone the church. And those who do show up probably hide whatever evidence they can of any serious difficulty.
Women in our culture often find the church so patriarchal that it's not a safe place even if you're perfectly sane. And many men feel they must first conform to some religious standard of male privilege and agreement just to show up on sundays. Sexual abuse survivors, LGBT individuals, anyone not of the dominant group or community has to adjust their social manner to attend most any church. 'The church' has trouble ministering to relatively sane people, so I imagine they've got a distance to travel before they can become a reliable resource for those wrestling with depression or bipolar or PTSD and so on.
Again, those diagnosed generally feel as if they have to keep the fact a secret whenever entering any new social situation. And even when things are going well, they learn to become careful with who they share these secrets with, if at all.
How can they be expected to tell their own story, when it is too often riddled with an experience approaching that of a hidden apartheid, where the afflicted are expected to heal rapidly like the latest wounded olympic champion held up in the media's glare, even when no-one in their immediate experience seems to understand the ongoing struggle and shame of their daily predicament?
More beyond the fold...