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  • Nick Ut / The Associated Press

    Saddleback Church founder Rick Warren, left, meets with Bishop Kevin Vann of the Diocese of Orange, which is partnering on a mental health project.

  • AP

    Matthew Warren, son of Rick and Kay Warren, took his own life last year at age 27.

  • Roger Smith

Viewpoints: Rick Warren starts church-based campaign against mental illness

Published: Friday, Mar. 28, 2014 - 12:00 am

Rick Warren and his wife, Kay, founders of the 22,000-member Saddleback Church in Orange County, lost their 27-year-old son Matthew to suicide a year ago. After several months in retreat, they emerged to preach about the power of faith and prayer in helping them deal with their devastation.

Today, they are launching a massive, church-based campaign against mental illness in America, pegged to the anniversary of their family tragedy. It will be well worth watching – for its potential impact on a seemingly intractable problem, and for how Warren addresses the millions of evangelical Christians who helped make his book “The Purpose Driven Life” one of the best-selling books of all time.

The stakes are high in Warren’s new effort, which he promises will be on the scale of Saddleback’s worldwide campaign against HIV/AIDS 10 years ago. One in four Americans will experience mental illness in their lifetime, mostly in the form of anxieties or depression. One in 17 live with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Suicide is now the third leading cause of death for 15- to 24-year-olds.

Yet many evangelicals are outright hostile to psychiatry and the mental health profession. Almost half of evangelical, fundamentalist or born-again Christians believe that prayer alone is the answer for mental illness, according to a poll by Lifeway Research, an arm of Nashville-based Lifeway Christian Resources. To some, the voices heard by a schizophrenic are demons visiting a sinner, Sigmund Freud is anti-Christian, and psychology is an invasion of God’s territory.

Warren certainly knows such beliefs can be a dangerous impediment to treatment of serious mental disorders. He is a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, which is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its School of Psychology.

He sought professional help for his son, and in his first sermon back in the pulpit last summer said, “There’s no shame in seeing a psychiatrist.” “If my back is broken, I go to a back doctor,” Warren said. “If my brain isn’t functioning right, I go to a brain doctor.”

Churches, which traditionally rally to help their members and others afflicted with physical ailments, don’t have the same record on mental illness. Amy Simpson, a Christian author whose mother suffered from schizophrenia, wrote recently: “We were steeped in church life, yet the church was mostly silent on the reality of mental illness – and we got the message that we should be silent as well. This silence was isolating and cruel.”

Warren has invited Simpson to speak at today’s Saddleback conference on Mental Health and the Church. Another speaker will be Steve Pitman, board president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Orange County. He cared for his seriously mentally ill brother for years.

Religious leaders, he said, need to get educated. Many people with mental illness will come first to a pastor, priest, rabbi or imam, but “most of those leaders are not trained to work with the mentally ill,” he wrote on the NAMI website.

At the same time, those leaders will still be called upon to lead their followers in prayer. Prayer is central to Warren’s life and his ministry. Secular liberals should pocket their skepticism and take note of what he is accomplishing.

T.M. Luhrmann, a Stanford anthropologist and author of “When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God,” says that Warren’s approach is very similar to cognitive therapy.

Warren teaches people to identify self-critical, self-demeaning thoughts, then asks them to consider themselves “from God’s point of view: as loved, as relevant and as having purpose,” Luhrmann said in an interview. It is, she said, “a powerful way to deal with anxiety and distress.”

Warren also may use his platform to endorse the adoption of Laura’s Law in Orange County, which would allow the courts to order treatment for seriously mentally ill adults.

Reflecting his own struggles to get his son treatment, Warren told CNN last year that “the pendulum has swung the other way to human rights so much that many parents and family members cannot get a conservatorship, cannot get a control over somebody.”

Some patient-rights advocates are staunchly opposed to forcing individuals into treatment. But Luhrmann agrees with Warren that rights may have to take second place when a psychiatric patient is incapable of recognizing his or her own best interest.

At the same time, society has a distinct interest in protecting individuals, families and itself. In the end, she asks, “Who owns the right to that psychosis?”

At Saddleback Church today, that question and many other imponderables will take center stage. I hope the outcome will be a reinvigorated, redirected church employing a holistic approach to the mental health crisis.

Roger Smith is managing editor of the California HealthCare Foundation Center for Health Reporting at the USC Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism.

Read more articles by Roger Smith

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