Thy sister’s keeper: Breaking the silence on religion and mental health

The suicide of Matthew Warren, who fought a long battle with depression, is shining a light on the issue of religion and mental health.

His father, Rick Warren, the author of “The Purpose Driven Life” and a prominent pastor, launched a petition “to urge educators, lawmakers, healthcare professionals, and church congregations to raise the awareness and lower the stigma of mental illness … and support the families that deal with mental illness on a daily basis.”

Other Christian leaders also have seized the moment to call for an end to the shame and guilt associated with mental illness, and to encourage church members to respond with love, compassion and understanding.

“Churches need to stop hiding mental illness,” Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research, saidin a post on the CNN Belief Blog.

How well churchgoers listen to these messages can have a substantial influence on the lives of millions of Americans suffering from various degrees of mental health issues, and address a glaring gap in congregational ministries, according to a growing body of research.

Several studies have indicated that belief in a loving God, along with the social support of being part of a congregation whose members care for one another, leads to positive physical and mental health outcomes, including lower rates of depression and anxiety and greater overall happiness.

While the subject makes many within the church uncomfortable - some fear admissions of sadness could be interpreted as spiritual weakness - mental health issues do not stop at church doors.

More than four in 10 worshipers said that within the past week they had a feeling of the blues they could not shake off, even with the help of family and friends, according to a 2008-2009U.S. Congregational Life Survey of 833 respondents. A similar percentage said they felt at least some or a little depressed in the past week. Some six in 10 reported feeling sad just within the last week.

However, in part because of the stigma attached and in part because the nature of their illnesses makes it more difficult to be part of social groups, many of those who could benefit from the support provided by congregations are more likely to stay away.

The 2010 Baylor Religion Survey found depressed people were much less likely to attend religious services or read sacred texts.

What may be even more striking is the apparent lack of concern many congregation members show for the issues faced by others in the church.

Consider these US CLS findings:

  • Four in 10 worshipers said other congregation members rarely or never let them know “they love and care for you.”
  • More than half of worshipers said their fellow church members either once in a while or never “talked with you about your private problems and concerns.”
  • More than four in 10 worshipers said non-clergy in their congregation rarely or ever even expressed interest or concern in their well-being.

The congregation should be a safe place for those who struggle, Stetzer said.

“Christians believe the church is the body of Christ—the hands and feet of Jesus—and that means going into the darkest places and the toughest situations to bring light. It means walking with those who are suffering, no matter what the suffering looks like.”

Social support is a major factor that helps to prevent depression, Dr. Harold Koenig, a prominent researcher on religion and health, said in an interview.

In particular, the support found in congregations, where love of neighbor and caring for one another is integral to the faith, “is a major part of … why religious people have better well-being,” said Koenig, director of the Center for Theology, Spirituality and Health at Duke University.

What is needed moving forward is education, both of the nature of mental illness and the value of reaching out and listening to those in need, Koenig and others say.

Matthew Warren was not able to overcome his depression, even with medical care and spiritual support. But his painful journey may light a path for people of faith to relieve the suffering of others in their midst, whether they struggle with their physical or mental health.

“I would hope that with this event this would encourage more people to talk more about it,” Koenig said. “Maybe events like this are wake-up calls to the evangelical community and to others.”