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Mental health & the church: ‘People are looking for mercy’

NASHVILLE (BP) — Pastors must learn how to help troubled souls and remove the stigma associated with mental illness, Rick Warren and Tony Rose said in a video discussion with Russell D. Moore, president of Southern Baptists’ Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

“The phrase ‘mental health’ or ‘mental illness’ does not equal crazy,” Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., said in the video posted at the SBC entity’s erlc.com website. “A lot of people think that mental illness means people out of touch with reality. Ninety-nine percent of us — and I include all of us — struggle with mental health issues, and we’re not out of touch with reality. Depression is a mental health issue. Worry is a mental health issue. Compulsion is a mental health issue…. Fear is a mental health issue.”

Warren spoke of a brain disorder he has that causes him to get dizzy and experience partial blindness when he has an adrenaline rush. The disorder once made him faint as he stood up to preach, leading to a years-long struggle with fear and depression that included trips to Christian counselors, he said.

“When I start sharing stuff like that, then that causes my church to be able to open up about” their own mental health issues, Warren said.

Rose, chairman of the Mental Health Advisory Group formed by SBC Executive Committee President Frank S. Page, said pastors should learn to evaluate the causes of people’s troubled souls so they can provide spiritual help as needed and refer individuals for medical help when appropriate. He referenced as a good model the pastoral procedure followed by Puritans, Christians who sought to reform the Church of England’s doctrine and worship in the 1500s and 1600s.

First, Puritan pastors evaluated whether a person trusted Christ as their Lord and Savior, Rose, pastor of LaGrange (Ky.) Baptist Church, said. Then they evaluated whether the troubled individual suffered from “melancholy” — a broad label the Puritans used to describe conditions akin to what today’s mental health professionals refer to as depression.

Puritan Richard Baxter represents a “classic” example of pastoral wisdom regarding mental illness, Rose said. Baxter once said according to Rose, “Preaching a man a sermon with a broken head and telling him to be right with God is equal to telling a man with a broken leg to get up and run a race.”

Pastors also must evaluate whether a troubled person is experiencing the consequences of sin, an attack of Satan or a sense of the Holy Spirit’s desertion, Rose said in the video, released in mid-July.

Pastors aren’t the only ones who should be concerned with mental illness, Warren said. All relationships, minds and bodies are affected adversely by the Fall of man, and believers should try to alleviate that brokenness wherever they can, he said.

Warren, whose son Matthew committed suicide last year following a battle with mental illness since childhood, noted that one in five children struggle with mental illness. The average age for the onset of depression used to be in the 30s, Rose said, but now is 14.

Given the pervasiveness of mental illness, dealing with it compassionately is a challenge that churches must embrace, the pastors said.

“If the church could be a church of mercy, we would have no evangelism problem,” Warren said, “because people are looking for mercy.”

To view the 16-minute video, click here.

Rose, in a Q&A with Kentucky’s Western Recorder newsjournal, elaborated on the need for applying the Gospel to the arena of mental health. He noted that some Christians don’t understand the varied causes and remedies for mental disturbances.

“From my 26 years of pastoral ministry, I have learned that Christians are not immune to mental illness. I have seen almost the entire spectrum of mental and emotional issues among the precious people of God whom I have been privileged to serve. Depression, eating disorders, suicidal tendencies and actual suicides, cutting — and the list could go on,” Rose said.

“Sometimes Christians become mentally and emotionally disturbed because of personal sin. This kind of case is the easiest to deal with. Help the person confront the sin, confess the sin and repent. Forward movement can be made from there. But if we make all mental and emotional maladies the product of personal sin, repentance is our only remedy. Telling someone who is mentally disturbed due to a biological, genetic or physiological cause to repent will not help him or her heal; it will only cause hurt,” he said.

Rose urged believers to approach the subject of mental health with humility, acknowledging its intricacy.

“There are times when we in the church can get a bit dogmatic about what the Bible teaches concerning mental health,” Rose said. “For myself and others, the greatest ingredient we need in addressing these difficult issues is humility. There are many things we just don’t know, and there are times it is fully appropriate and helpful to work with professionals to help us with situations that are immensely complex.”
David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists’ concerns nationally and globally. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).