What Can We Learn from Rick Warren’s Family Tragedy?
Like most people, I don’t personally know Rick Warren. But like so many, I feel as if I do. The best-selling author of The Purpose-Driven Life and pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, Warren has spent the last decade largely in the public eye, causing some to dub him “America’s pastor.” He has written and spoken to millions, and his down-to-earth style and straightforward messages have befuddled some and endeared him to others.
Like so many others, I grieved Saturday morning when I saw the news that the Warrens’ youngest son, Matthew, had died by suicide. The loss of a child–at any age–is among the most painful and life-crushing experiences I can imagine. Losing anyone in such a horrific and senseless way adds another layer of tragedy. This is one of those moments that remind us that even pastors need pastors. It’s also a moment when we can stop to learn a little more about mental illness, which affected the Warrens’ son Matthew, apparently for all of his 27 years.
Again, I don’t know the Warrens, and I can’t say what their son Matthew went through. But I can say their family is not alone. With more than 25 percent of the adult population suffering from a diagnosable mental illness each year, we are all affected by mental illness. Whether through our own experience, a relationship with an afflicted loved one, or our interaction with a friend or acquaintance, we are all touched by its effects. And many families, like my own, read the news about the Warren family with the knowledge that their story could easily be our own.
Sadly, because so much fear and stigma surround mental illness, most suffering people have no idea how common it is. They don’t know they’re likely surrounded by others who suffer in the same ways they do. Shame keeps them quiet and deepens despair. In an email to church staff, Rick Warren said, “Only those closest knew that he (Matthew) struggled from birth with mental illness, dark holes of depression, and even suicidal thoughts.” In a church the size of Saddleback, with more than 20,000 people in attendance each Sunday, Matthew likely was surrounded by thousands of other people who also suffered from mental illness and their own suicidal thoughts.
As the Warrens grieve privately and we pray for them in their sorrow, I hope we’ll also take a moment to learn a little more about the pervasive and serious nature of mental illness–and perhaps begin to speak more freely and surround suffering people with loving community.
I see eight lessons for all of us:
- Mental illness happens to the best of us. The Warrens are good people and servants of Christ and his church. They have donated large sums to charity and done good work to help people worldwide. Many of us have the mistaken belief that such people should not suffer–at least not with tragedies like mental illness and suicide. But the truth is, mental illness strikes all kinds of people. Being a good person, being a good parent, being a Christian . . . while all bring joys of their own, none of these choices will ensure that mental illness doesn’t strike you or your family.
- Jesus does not promise to prevent or cure our ailments in this life. In the wake of this news, a misunderstanding of Christian belief will likely cause some to ask the question “What good is Jesus if this is what happens to his followers?” The truth is, Jesus promised us trouble in this life (John 16:33). Christian theology teaches we are not immune to suffering of any kind–we are as affected as anyone else by the curse on this world. But Christ does redeem our suffering, and one day he will make us new, with new bodies that don’t decay, minds that don’t get sick, and spirits that don’t lose heart. We have great hope in this life and for the next.
- Mental illness doesn’t mean God doesn’t love you or you haven’t done enough for him. Mental illness is not the Warrens’ fault, or anyone else’s. It’s a fact of life in this world, which is deeply and pervasively twisted by our rebellion against God, and as the apostle Paul assures us, having trouble–even the worst kind of trouble–does not mean God has abandoned us (Romans 8:35-38). While my mother’s schizophrenia has dragged me and my family through spiritual crisis, God has never let go of any of us.
- Mental illness is real and must be taken seriously. I continue to be baffled by a teaching common within the Christian community, suggesting mental illness is not a real medical condition–or simply reflects a spiritual problem. We would not tolerate the widespread teaching of such a perspective on cancer, diabetes, or broken limbs. The Warrens, like other families of people who have suffered with serious and chronic mental illness, know otherwise. Brain injuries and chemical problems are real, documented, and treatable. And while spiritual practices can provide comfort and facilitate health, they do not provide the treatment people with acute suffering need. Mental illnesses are like other afflictions–they require expert attention and treatment. Sometimes that means therapy, sometimes medication, sometimes hospitalization–sometimes all three. Ignoring an illness or discouraging people from seeking treatment does not make it go away. And sometimes getting treatment is a matter of life and death.
- We can’t expect people to “just shake it off.” Again, we have many misconceptions about what it means to suffer from mental illness. People who have never suffered from clinical depression often find it hard to understand why depressed people might struggle to get out of bed, eat, sleep, go to work, or desperately want to end their lives. People who don’t have these symptoms might mistake them for simple lack of initiative, self-pity, or a case of the blues. But just as a person can’t will away a case of diabetes, a person with serious mental illness can’t just get over it.
- Treatment doesn’t necessarily equal cure. With remarkable advances in brain science, psychology, and medications, mental illnesses have become highly treatable conditions. Treatments for some mental illnesses are up to 90 percent effective. But that doesn’t mean 90 percent of people are cured. For many, successful treatment means daily medication, ongoing therapy, and learning to take special care to manage a chronic condition. For a lot of people, symptoms are cyclical–so a person who is healthy most of the time can suddenly have serious symptoms return, requiring a hospital stay, an adjustment to medication, or other intervention. If you know someone who has received treatment for a mental illness, as Matthew Warren did, don’t assume that person’s troubles are over. And please try to be patient if (when) that person needs ongoing support.
- Sometimes treatment isn’t enough. Despite the best efforts of loved ones and mental-health professionals, sometimes fighting mental illness is a losing battle. This doesn’t mean the treatments and support are illegitimate–it simply means our best efforts don’t always save the people we want to save.
- Families need support. We are all surrounded by families who are struggling to care for loved ones affected by mental illness. From experience, I know mental illness creates crisis within families and often leaves them completely overwhelmed. Our mental-health care system can be extremely difficult to navigate. Medications, therapy, and hospitalizations can be impossibly expensive. Dealing with a repeating cycle of symptoms can mean putting life on hold again and again. And adjusting to the chronic nature of some illnesses can mean letting go of cherished dreams and visions for a loved one’s future. Families need the help of loving communities who are not too scared to talk about mental illness, too impatient to stick with them, or too weary to help again and again.
As we allow the Warrens time and space to grieve, let’s think about who among us needs our help. Christians are well-positioned to care for our suffering neighbors and spread hope and acceptance among people who feel terribly alone. We can start by building loving communities, then we can start talking about mental illness without the fear and shame that have kept so many in the dark.