Rick and Kay Warren try to improve Christian churches' handling of mental illness

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One year after the suicide of their son, one of America's evangelical power couples is trying to get Christian churches to acknowledge and deal with their members' mental health issues.

Rick and Kay Warren's son Matthew struggled with mental illness and suicidal thoughts for most of his 27 years before taking his life, said Kay Warren. She and her husband decided to translate their grief into positive change within the Christian church. 

Towards that end, the Warrens hosted a first-of-its-kind conference at their Saddleback Church in Lake Forest on March 28th, called simply, "The Gathering on Mental Health and the Church." The Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange and the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Orange County co-sponsored the event.

With 3,000 in attendance and thousands more watching online, Rick Warren proclaimed, "your chemistry in your brain is not your character. And your illness is not your identity."

It was a simple message, but not something most people hear in church. Conference goer Lisa Amos said her church in nearby Visalia didn't help her with her problems. 

 "I don't think our church has ever discussed mental health, period. It's like it doesn't exist," she said.
 
Jason Little of Irvine said he was similarly frustrated when he visited several local churches looking for help dealing with mental health issues a few years ago. 
 
"The churches did not help me," said Little. "It was all just kind of like, 'oh, just pray harder,' you know?"
 
A number of pastors at the event agreed they are not equipped to deal with mental health needs in their congregations. 
 
"It is one of those things that gets pushed aside, 'cause it's so confusing," said pastor Luke Hendrix, who traveled from Oregon to attend the Warrens' conference. "As a pastor, you get confronted with trying to bring spiritual help to the situation when indeed it's going to take a whole bunch more."
 
One expert at the gathering said the church's problem with mental illness is widespread.
Matthew Stanford is a professor at Baylor who has conducted research on how churches treat the mentally ill. In one of his studies, about one out of every three people in mental distress who sought help from their churches had a bad experience, he said. 
 
"Usually that entails some type of denial of their mental illness, being told that they don't have a mental illness or there's no such thing as mental illness, or that they are kind of shamed and shunned from the church," said Stanford. 
 
Stanford said an even bigger problem than religious hostility is that the vast majority of churches have nothing to offer the mentally ill. 
 
"We simply don't talk about it," he said. "I really would say that the great failing of the church in the context of mental illness is just simply silence." 
 
The Warrens are powerful players in the evangelical world. Rick Warren authored the bestseller, "The Purpose Driven Life," and he and his wife have launched initiatives that have moved evangelicals to address issues such as AIDS and drug addiction.

Steve Pitman, president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Orange County, said he's glad the Warrens have turned their attention to mental health. 
 
"I don't know that there's any other agency in Orange County that could attract the kind of attention that the Warrens have attracted," said Pitman.
 
Many religious participants were equally enthusiastic. 
 
"It's like people are raising a banner and saying this is important and a lot of people are saying, 'yes, you're right, it is, it's about time,'" said Dr. Eric Johnson, a professor of pastoral care at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kentucky. "So, it has this feeling like it's a movement of the spirit."
 

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