The recent suicide of Matthew Warren, son of well-known American pastor Rick Warren (author of A Purpose Driven Life), has led many in the USA to question the role church plays in supporting those who suffer with a mental illness.
In a letter to his congregation, Pastor Warren wrote of his son’s long struggle with mental illness, despite having received the best medical and spiritual care. This prompted an online backlash from some sections of the community, with comments such as “Matthew denies God’s love with suicide”.
An article in The Washington Post by journalist Michelle Boorstein suggested Warren’s suicide has raised many issues within the church community in the USA, particularly the often opposing views held by religion and psychology. A common theme to emerge was that mental illness was a sign of spiritual weakness, or punishment for sin. Many of those who contributed to the article said they found their faith challenged when living with the reality of mental illness, either their own or that of someone they love.
Statements such as “There is no such thing as depression … you are battling God” are not uncommon according to those Boorstein spoke with. While such sentiments might seem out of date in contemporary society, it was not that long ago that people who committed suicide were refused burial in official cemeteries.
Mental illness has been recognised as a growing social concern for some years. Based on the 2007 – 2008 Australian National Health Survey, 11 per cent of respondents had a long-term mental or behavioural problem which could be identified by a medical professional (Australian Bureau of Statistics 4364.0 – National Health Survey: Summary of Results, 2007-2008).
However, according to Rev John Bottomley of the Creative Ministries Network, the church has been slow to respond to the prevalence of mental illness amongst its clergy.
“We did research for a presbytery a couple of years ago with three ministers who were working in mental health ministry,” Mr Bottomley said.
“On the one hand the ministers all said the traditions of the church were resourceful for dealing with mental illness with their clients. But at the same time they all had stories of either their own or their clients’ who had found the church to be less welcoming. So it’s not black and white but there are barriers there.”
The stigma felt by those in religious communities may simply be a reflection of the wider social stigma surrounding the issue of mental illness. While in recent years mental illness has been discussed more freely, it is predominantly still seen as a condition to be kept hidden.
“The experience of people with mental illness who I’ve spoken to is that they’re not free to disclose their condition in the church. Many do feel that and certainly ministers I’ve spoken to perhaps even more so,” Mr Bottomley said.
“It may affect their ability to get a call to another placement; they feel there is judgement against them.”
Given the secrecy surrounding the issue, Mr Bottomley is unsure of just how many ministers are living with a mental illness. He hopes the establishment of a peer support group will provide a safe place to establish a more healthy approach within the church.
“I know enough ministers who have talked to me about having a mental illness to make me think there’s a larger number than publically known,” Mr Bottomley said.
“The secrecy is not healthy for them, it’s not healthy for the church and it’s not healthy for our calling to really be a light in society. If we are hiding these things in ourselves how does that help? We can’t be true to our mission.”
Rather than hinder a minister in his or her work, Mr Bottomley hopes those who have lived with trauma and social stigma might use that personal experience to help others. He talks of the work of Catholic priest Henri Nouwen’s notion of the wounded healer, where a person who has suffered understands the suffering of others.
“The wounded healer takes the image of the resurrected Christ, where he appears and shows his wounds and charges the disciples to carry his spirit into the world. So Christ comes as a wounded healer,” Mr Bottomley said.
“That image is really central to anybody who has a call to ministry who has had a mental illness. They understand both their vulnerability but they also see within their wounds a deep insight into the struggles of others who have had similar experiences. That is really a gift to the church of people with a mental illness in ministry, their gift could bloom more fully than it does today.”
Mr Bottomley is keen to stress that the support group will be completely confidential. Those interested in joining such a group can contact him directly, and he will put them in touch with support network coordinators to discuss how best to share experiences and support each other.
“The important thing about this group is that it provides the ministers with an opportunity to pray for each other so that their circumstance is brought before the healing love of God in prayer and faith sharing, so that it no longer has to be hidden away.
“When ministers can get together and support each other and pray for each other’s struggles it’s enormously encouraging.”
To find out more about the support network contact John Bottomley on 9827 8322 or firstname.lastname@example.org