Editor's note: This is the second story in a series on mental health and the church. See the related link for more on the Peace of Mind Tyler Conference's keynote speaker, Kay Warren, co-founder of Saddleback Church and wife of renowned megachurch pastor Rick Warren.
About 800 people Saturday attended a conference that emphasized the need to merge the spiritual guidance of the religious community with resources of mental health professionals to help those suffering from mental illness.
Health care workers, religious leaders and business owners were among those who sought information at the Peace of Mind Tyler Conference at Green Acres Baptist Church.
Bishop Joseph E. Strickland opened the event with his personal story about his family’s experience with mental illness. As a teen, he witnessed his brother cope with schizophrenia.
Strickland said while there was speculation that his brother’s death was a suicide, it was eventually ruled an accident.
“It was a tragic end to a very difficult journey for my brother,” he said.
Doug McSwane, the event’s organizer, gave an emotional speech detailing his family’s grief when his 29-year-old son, Patrick, took his life two years ago. He called on clergymen and elected officials to better understand mental illness and to make efforts to provide help to those suffering.
“This conference is the very start of making things happen,” he said.
Dr. Dan Moreland, an Austin-based psychiatrist, reviewed the physical realities of mental illness. He pointed out that people who cope with mental health issues, such as depression, are more likely to suffer from physical illnesses as well. He said the risk of heart attack, stroke and developing diabetes is higher in people with depression.
“If you’ve had a heart attack, and then you have depression on top of that, the depression doubles your risk of you dying from another heart attack,” he said. “Even major depression, which we don’t always consider as biological as something like schizophrenia, has profound effects on the whole body.”
Citing a researcher, he added, “Depression is as bad for your heart as smoking.”
Dr. Matt Stanford, PhD., using biblical scriptures and anecdotes, told the audience that mental illness should not be seen only as a spiritual problem. He said the role of the church was to relieve suffering, reveal Christ and restore lives.
BRIDGING THE GAP
Stanford, who is a professor of psychology, neuroscience and biomedical studies at Baylor University, spoke about the role of the church in mental health issues and later talked about specific ways the church could help in a breakout session.
He’s studied the intersection between mental health and faith for at least eight yeas. His interest was peaked when fellow church members would pose questions about their mental health issues.
“Oftentimes they would tell me things that pastors have told them (such as) there is no such thing as mental illness or it’s a sin,” he said. “Those things really started to bother me. I’m a believer and I didn’t believe that. I wanted to be able to equip the church to better minister to people who have mental illness.”
Stanford’s research at Baylor found that stigma occurs in the church because some clergy are not prepared to deal with mental illness. He said they are more likely to approach mental illness as a spiritual problem only—that it’s rooted in sin or weakness.
“Those tend to be the more common things that people are told why they have these problems, rather than looking at it as a medical problem,” he said.
If shunned by the church, Stanford said, people with mental illness tend to withdraw or feel that God is punishing them.
“It leads to not only worsening of symptoms because the person losing their support system, but it also, our research shows, causes a diminishing of their faith,” he said. “They feel less connected to the church. They feel like God doesn’t care. Many of them actually stop going to church.”
Stanford said while clergy may not be equipped to handle a mental health issue, psychologists and psychiatrists also need help in dealing with religious questions patients may ask.
“I also wanted to come up with ways that psychologists might do a better job of taking advantage of a person’s spirituality and faith to help them in therapy,” he said.
“People are asking for spiritual guidance and that’s what the church does well. People also need some type of psychotherapeutic intervention. There’s no reason somebody at the church needs to learn how to do that. There’s plenty of well-qualified clinicians out there who can do that but I think they need to work as a team because together they offer the client something that either one alone can’t give them.”
CONTINUING THE CONVERSATION
Nationally, mental illness has been highlighted in the religious community following the suicides of family members of high-profile Christian leaders, namely Matthew Warren, son of Saddleback Church’s Rick and Kay Warren, and Melissa Strange, daughter of Southern Baptist Convention executive committee president, Frank Page.
“This year, there has been more public conversation in the church than I’ve seen in the past,” Stanford said. “Unfortunately when surveys are done, you still find that a large number of people still believe that you can have almost a salvation kind of experience with your depression and it just goes away—a just get right with Jesus kind of thing. They don’t say that about other things, but they say that about mental health.”
Amy Simpson, author of Troubled Minds: Mental Health and the Church’s Mission, also detailed the devastation her family felt following her mother’s journey with schizophrenia. She offered solutions for people in the community, urging the audience to see the person behind the illness. She said not making eye contact, ignoring them, isolating them or acting afraid of those who suffer from mental illness only worsens their situation.
“We need to treat hurting people like people, not statistics,” she said.
Her family was active members of a church, with the father being a pastor. They received some support but generally, the family did not discuss the illness.
Today, Mrs. Simpson’s family openly talks about her mother’s disease and help care for her, unlike in the beginning, when there was no real discussion about what was happening. It took some time for her to work through questions about faith.
“This had a tremendous impact on my faith,” she said. “It presented a tremendous challenge for me for my faith, but at the same time, I can point to the experience and say that over the long haul in my life, it has grown my faith. That has come through a lot of hardships and challenge.”
Her mission as a mental health advocate has been to encourage more people to discuss mental illness in a redemptive and hopeful way.
“I know there’s movement happening,” she said. “There’s so many conversations happening that weren’t happening before and I don’t know where they’re all going to lead but I do believe that God is calling the church to wake up and to become more informed about mental illness and out of that understanding, be actively compassionate.”
MENTAL HEALTH QUICK FACTS
Suicide is the No. 2 cause of death for persons aged 15-24 and is the No. 4 cause of death for people between 18 and 65.
Police are often frontline mental health workers, as many with mental illness find themselves in the criminal justice system by default. Citing the U.S. Department of Justice figures, Author Amy Simpson said more than half of inmates at all levels have some form of mental illness. “Breaking the law is the only way for some people to get the help they need,” she said.
An estimated 20-25 percent of homeless people have a mental illness.
Sources: Dr. Dan Morehead, Austin-based psychiatrist, and Amy Simpson, author of Troubled Minds: Mental Health and the Church's Mission.