Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The intractable stigma of mental illness

Rick Warren was featured yesterday as he tearfully preached for the first time since his mentally ill son committed suicide back in April. Exerpts from ABC News:
Pastor Rick Warren, returning to his Saddleback Church pulpit for the first time since his son's suicide, said today he hoped to be able to remove the stigma that is attached to a person suffering from mental illness.
At the end of the sermon Warren said he wanted to help remove the stigma of suffering from a mental illness. 

"In any other organ of your body breaks down there's no stigma," said Warren. "But if your brain doesn't work, why are you ashamed of that?"

Warren said for the next six weeks he would give sermons about different stages of grief and would talk more about how his faith helped him after his son's death.

He also said the church would offer support groups for people suffering from mental illness. 
I wish him well in his effort to remove the stigma of mental illness and while he may have some success with his own congregation and beyond, I am not optimistic about success in the culture of religious conservatives. My observations over the decades is that it is extremely difficult for conservative clergy to accept that behavior can be driven by phisiological and biochemical factors.

A member of a godly family in one of my churches committed suicide. When I expressed my sympathy to the matriarch of that family, as godly a woman as I have ever known, over the death of her grandson, she said, "We have been expecting this."

When laypeople have related to me stories of how brother pastor so-and-so committed suicide (this has occurred in every community where I have pastored) they don't precisely state it but clearly imply that the ultimate cause was moral failure. Mental illness need not apply. The verdict is in.

Is it any wonder that stigma looms large over depression and that clergy, whom I read experience depression at greater rates than the general population,  are extremely reluctant to seek treatment and unalterably opposed to allowing anyone in their congregations to know about it lest they become damaged goods, lose their church and career.

A sad state indeed.

A few prominent SBC pastors have notably admitted to experiencing depression (though none to being mentally il) and, illustrating the deep divide between the one percent megapastors in the SBC and the rest of us (one notes that Rick Warren had the ability to leave his pulpit for almost four months after his son's suicide, something impossible for most of us unless we resign), these receive sabbaticals, standing ovations, and support.

In an ideal world pastors would be educated about mental illness, preach compassionately, counsel wisely, and encourage appropriate steps to be taken when it is found.

In our real world, pastors and laypeople alike look askance at mental illness.

Perhaps Rick Warren can change this.


Tim Dahl said...

I won't hold out much hope for Br. Rick changing the world, but it has to start somewhere. I've often mentioned to my congregation that ministers tend to go thru ministry in a low grade depression. I often talk about my own sense of "being down," and what may be causing it.

We've had many days of rain and overcast weather. It is amazing how the lack of sun puts us in a semi-depressed state. So, we've been talking about it (being down, minor depression, not just sad) as a normal part of life. But, you're right about the stigma. You're right about the lack of trust.

I've come to always expect one thing from church folks. They will do what they "think" is best for the church. Not necessarily what the Spirit wants, just what they think is best. This seems to turn into them attacking the presenting problem instead of the underlying issue.

Ministers have good reasons to be afraid of their congregations. They've been taught that over years of ministerial experience.


Anonymous said...

“. . . said today he hoped to be able to remove the stigma . . . .”

I don’t know what he said; I would need to read the actual comment, but if this is a proper interpretation, notwithstanding, his grief, but willing to accept its influence, over the tragic loss of his son, then as is, it is hubris. The countless others tirelessly at work over decades educating people about mental illness and the superstition surrounding it and the superstition still continues, but now that he has been personally touched he hopes that “he” . . . . Let us hope that the comment is not as stark as it appears and that his comments were more nuanced and humble.

It’s the lack of humility that contributes to said superstition, the certainty of one’s faith absent the use of reason and the value of knowledge, however incomplete (reason and knowledge often touted among conservatives as things which impede the development of genuine faith). I recall one blogging baptist pastor, now also trustee of a seminary, proudly state that he wished to be a fanatic for Jesus. Oh, please, spare us … and God the misery which such behavior and thinking often enacts. Even Paul had a problem with these super Christians. We are frail, earthen vessels (and still treasured) that would do well to accept help where it may be found, and do even better to accept that we are not above another in our need for the other.

Perhaps SBTS will reinstate a pastoral care program which allows for the insights of the medical field related to mental illness?