Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Gathering on Mental Health and the Church: Rick Warren and Bishop Vann

The Gathering on Mental Health and the Church took place on March 28th at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, CA. Sponsored by Saddleback Church, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange, and NAMI Orange County, the event was intended to help Christian leaders better serve those struggling with mental health problems. R. L. Stollar was kind enough to live-tweet the event on Twitter, and an archive of his tweets is available at Storify.

Saddleback Church founder Rick Warren and Orange Diocese Bishop Kevin Vann opened the conference with a plenary session entitled "The Role of the Church in Mental Health". Warren and Vann's conversation centered around compassion for those who struggle with mental illness, including the need to transcend labels and stigma. Both men understood the need for community responses to mental illness, specifically from the Christian community. However, some of Warren's comments about history, health care, and self-awareness left me uneasy.

"This is going to be a day of hope," Warren announced, stressing that the Christian community must take a leadership role in helping those with mental illness. Warren emphasized the importance of healing in Christian scriptures, reminding the audience that "Jesus had a ministry of healing" alongside preaching and teaching. Citing a statement by Rep. Tim Murphy on the federal government's approach to mental health -- "a chaotic patchwork of antiquated programs and ineffective policies across numerous agencies" -- Warren called the current state of mental health services a "wide open door for churches"

Much of the plenary talk focused on transcending labels and eliminating stigma associated with mental illness. Warren spoke of his own struggles with depression and anxiety in the early days of Saddleback Church, stressing to the audience that it's okay to struggle with mental health issues. He joked that he's like to write a book entitled I'm Not Okay, You're Not Okay, but God's Okay. At the 23:33 mark, Warren hoped that the conference would help lessen the stigma surrounding mental illness.
"Now another one of the purposes of this day is to remove the stigma and reduce the fear, because we all know there's a lot of stigma and there's a a lot of fear about mental illness ... Even the term "mental illness" is a stigma because in most people's mind, mental illness equals insane or crazy. Everybody struggles with different kinds of mental illness, and very few are insane."
At the 25:34 mark, Bishop Vann urged listeners to look past mental health labels and instead see the people behind those labels.
"I think in some ways western culture or American culture tends to rely on labels, and we do that. We have to sometimes, but they're limiting in a lot of ways, no matter what the label might be ... We always have to let the Lord help us look to see the person behind the label that comes to us for help or healing."
Warren and Vann talked at length about the interconnectedness of mental, physical, relational, and spiritual health. Sin, Warren explained, impacts these areas. All things on earth have been rendered imperfect because of sin, he argued, noting that bodies, minds, relationships, economies, and a host of other systems fail to function perfectly because of sin's influence.

Two segments of the plenary session left me uneasy. First, at the 28:25 mark, Warren told listeners that they need not believe everything their mind tell them, citing Jeremiah 17:9.
"You don't have to believe everything you think ... I don't have to believe everything I think, because the Bible says the heart is deceitful and desperately wicked. Who can know it? Your mind lies to you all the time. Did you know that? Your brain lies to you all the time. You see things you didn't really see, like in an accident--that's why [with] four witnesses at an accident, four people see different things ... Just because you thought it doesn't mean it's true. That's very important. And a lot of things you tell yourself about you are lies. They're just not true."
I think I understand what Warren was trying to say: mental health problems can put thoughts in our heads that don't reflect reality, and we shouldn't let those thoughts rule us. For example, someone with untreated schizophrenia might have delusions or hallucinations. Someone with severe depression might be tormented by thoughts saying you're worthless, you're alone, nothing matters, but these thoughts aren't rooted in reality.

However, I think Warren could have expressed this truth differently. Warren's words could be misconstrued to mean that the input one receives from one's mind should be ignored when mental illness strikes. What if that input is valuable? What if those negative thoughts are offering insight, or pointing out something that is genuinely wrong? What if painful emotions are responses to genuine problems? It's important to listen to what our minds tell us. Our thoughts, emotions, and memories matter, and we disregard them at our peril.

Too often, people with mental illness are invalidated by others who say, it's all in your head or you shouldn't feel that way or [insert trauma] didn't happen. Instead of telling people with mental illness that their minds are telling them "lies", we should listen to them and validate their experiences.

The second passage that I disagreed with was Warren's attitude toward Christian and secular health care. At the 17:05 mark, he claimed that Christians invented hospitals and that the government doesn't have the same historical experience in treating sickness as the Christian community does.
"Most people don't realize the church invented the hospital. Did you know that? Christians invented [it]. The government didn't invent the hospital. Christians invented it. That's why you go to any hospital -- St. Joseph's, St. Mary's, St. Patrick's, and on and on. Why? Because you go into any country, usually the first school and the first hospital were started by missionaries because we have a preaching-teaching-healing faith. So, not only is there a biblical reason for caring for people of physical illness, mental illness, and other kinds of illnesses -- Jesus was out model -- but we have a 2,000 year history. The church has a longer history in dealing with this than any government."

Warren's words floored me. His statement not only ignored the vast contributions of secular medical institutions, but was historically inaccurate. In reality, healing institutions were features of many ancient societies. For example, the Charakasamhita, an ancient Indian healing text, provides directions for the construction of hospitals. In ancient Greece, temples devoted to Asclepius served as public hospitals. The ancient Roman valetudinarias are believed to have served as military hospitals for sick and injured troops. Public institutions devoted to medicine were present in pre-Christian cultures, and were certainly not a Christian invention. While Christianity has a long history of serving the sick, it is not the only tradition to do so.

By downplaying the role of the government in healing, Warren also ignored the vast contributions of governmental policies and organizations in promoting public health. For example, public hospitals receive much of their funding from federal, state, and local governments. Federal government agencies fund and coordinate countless health-related services. By insisting that "the government didn't invent the hospital" and "[t]he church has a longer history in dealing with this than any government", Warren disregarded the hard work of countless people employed, funded, or trained by the government. If we as a society are going to address mental illness, we need all hands on deck, including governmental hands. Collaboration among stakeholders, not competition, best serves people with mental health struggles.

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I'm pleased that the Gathering on Mental Health and the Church is drawing the faith community's attention to mental health issues, and that Warren and Vann are urging believers to show compassion to brethren struggling with mental illness. Communities of faith must be aware of how pervasive mental illness is in society, as well as how they can support those with mental health problems. However, this undertaking is ambitious, and I do wonder if some corners of the Christian community are up to the task. In order to support people with mental illness, religious communities must do some soul searching.

  • Are religious leaders equipped to help those with mental health issues? Are they prepared to seek out training so as to respond to help-seekers in a sensitive, appropriate manner? Are they willing to keep up with the latest developments in the counseling field? Are they willing to collectively reject dubious "treatments" such as so-called conversion therapy?

  • Are faith communities willing to network with secular service providers? Ties to outside mental health service providers and medical professionals are essential, and the more insular churches and faith organizations need to establish these networks.

  • Are Christian communities willing to look at how unhealthy church structures and teachings fuel mental health problems? If believers are to confront mental illness, they also need to confront clergy abuse, interpersonal violence, dysfunctional family structures, homophobia, misogyny, toxic religious teachings, and a host of other problems afflicting many churches. When a religious leader abuses a child, when a Christian "ex-gay" ministry tries to "cure" an LGBTQ person, when a pastor tells an abused woman to endure the abuse, or when a congregation embraces beliefs that instill fear and self-loathing, they inflict trauma that can cause or exacerbate mental illnesses. Is the Christian community ready to confront its collective demons for the sake of those with mental health issues?

  • Are Christian communities ready to listen? Among the Religious Right, at least, mental illness have been attributed to everything from demons to impiety as part of its ongoing insensitivity toward those with mental health struggles. Are Christian communities across the political spectrum willing to set aside assumptions and stereotypes and listen to those who are struggling?

As I watch more videos of the Gathering on Mental Health and the Church, I'm eager to see if these issues will be addressed.

To read additional commentary, visit the following links.

Overturning Tables: Jesus Is Not Our Zoloft: Reflections on Mental Health and the Church

Political Research Associates: Saddleback’s Approach to Mental Health Issues Misses the Mark For LGBTQ People 


  1. Thanks for pointing out that hospitals date back to Classical times -- these guys are getting far too good at giving their religion credit for human achievements that actually predate it. Some of them even claim Christianity was necessary for science itself to develop, which would have been news to Eratosthenes and Aristarkhos.

    The claim is especially bad given Christianity's long history of involvement with abuse of the mentally ill because of the belief that they were possessed by demons, and as you say, many of them are still justifying abuses like "curing" of gays. The mote in the secular eye is worth pointing out, but the religionists still need to deal with the beam in their own.

    1. Infidel -- It wouldn't be the first time Christians took credit for something that already existed in pre-Christian times. A little humility and historical literacy is in order.

      While I'm delighted that the conference wants to raise awareness and end stigma, I wonder if conservative Christians are ready to confront ways that churches have historically harmed people with mental health struggles. Maybe the conference's other presentations will shed light on this?

  2. You hit the proverbial nail on the head: Are Christian (and other) churches willing to confront and then abandon some of their own abusive doctrines that exacerbate mental illnesses by causing people real harm?

    I suppose the answer depends upon their true motivations.

    1. Agi Tater -- If their motives are pure -- if they truly want to help people with mental illness -- they'll take a good, hard look at harmful teachings. Many churches aren't going to do that, I fear, because they're reluctant to admit that their teachings were wrong or harmful.

  3. I hope to have time to watch the video series soon. I hope Bishop Vann gave good advice that strongly recommended helping congregants find 'secular' trained counselors to deal with mental health issues because I've seen good - and bad - examples in the Catholic Church.

    Bad Example: In college (small, fairly liberal, Catholic College), I had an acquaintance (Q) who we thought was depressed. A few of us went to talk to Q about seeing a counselor. Turns out, several groups of friends were concerned and a whole bunch of us were waiting to talk to him when he got home from class. In talking with him, it became clear to us that he was having delusional thoughts, was cutting himself deeply and was suicidal. I called the RA who was a good friend of mine. After 5 minutes with Q, the RA called the RD. After 30 minutes with Q, the RD called the on-call counselor from Career and Counseling. (At this point, I realized I had started my period and needed menstrual supplies so I needed to go back to my dorm room. Before I left, I begged the RD to be sure Q was somewhere safe before he left. He said he would.) I found out the next morning that the counselor never talked to Q - at all. The counselor just told everyone to calm down and go to sleep. When the RD called campus safety to contact the police so that Q could be seen by someone else, the counselor told campus safety that she was sure that Q was safe for the night ( by magic? I have no idea how she determined that without talking with Q.) Q started seeing at local priest for counseling - the priest is a right wing whack-a-doodle with no training in counseling mentally ill patients. The only positive outcome was that the students present, RA and RD were so horrified at the counselor's horrible management of the situation that many letters were written to the head of Career and Counseling and the President of the college. The counselor was removed from their position.

    Good example: I was severely depressed when I was 19 and hospitalized when I was suicidal. My parish priest visited me regularly and helped my parents find a very talented secular counselor who I've seen for years. To quote him, "We do the Anointing of the Sick when you are hurting physically or mentally to give you comfort. You still need to see a doctor or psychologist to get better because we're not miracle workers."

    1. NatureLover -- That was a powerful story. I'm sorry to hear that Q was briefly counseled by a priest who was ill-equipped, and I hope the harm to Q was minimal. Mental illness is a serious matter, and those who serve people with mental health issues MUST be properly trained.

      I'm glad that your parish priest was helpful and sensitive during young struggles, and that he connected you with a qualified counselor.


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