Warren family tragedy: A teachable moment

A Seattle congregation's response to mental illness is a model for us all.
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Pastor Rick Warren, whose son Matthew committed suicide.

A Seattle congregation's response to mental illness is a model for us all.

Rick Warren, founding Pastor of Saddleback Community Church and author of the best-selling book The Purpose Driven Life, has shared the devastating news about the suicide of his 27-year-old son. Matthew Warren took his own life on Friday, April 5.

Matthew had apparently suffered from a mental illness, probably chronic depression, for many years. He had received multiple forms of treatment, but had not been able to find lasting relief or healing.

Sadly, some have used this tragedy as an opportunity to say vicious things about Rick Warren, his church and his faith. Given the current climate, perhaps this isn’t surprising, but it is still appalling.

Many others have spoken out with compassion and support for Warren, his wife, Kay, and their family. Warren has acknowledged how “overwhelmed” they are by the outpouring of love and support.

As a pastor who has experienced mental illness in my own family, and who has suffered clinical depression several times in my life, my heart goes out to the Warrens. They have already lived through a lot — as the family of any person who suffers a mental illness knows. Now they face the devastation of their son’s suicide.

Such a high-profile story as this one provides an opportunity for both churches and other community and religious groups to talk about and perhaps come to grips with mental illness. Nothing exempts any person or family from this experience, neither deep faith nor social prominence.

Too often in churches people hide mental illness. They do not acknowledge it as something they or their families have experienced. Tremendous shame and stigma can attach to the experience of mental illness.

But some churches don’t participate in either the silence or stigma. Some point to a better way.

One of those is Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle where I was serving as Senior Pastor when a member of my family experienced a psychosis. Like the Warrens, we too received an outpouring of compassion and support from the congregation.

But the response didn’t end there. The Plymouth congregation went beyond simply acknowledging and sharing our suffering to do some amazing things. In the years following our experience, the congregation began a serious and comprehensive focus on mental illness as part of its adult education ministry. Individuals in the congregation came forth to share their own stories, whether as people struggling with mental illness themselves or through a family member. Often the families of those who suffer a mental illness also live in a shadowland of isolation and despair.

But the response of this congregation did not end there either. In time, led by a group of people deeply committed to action, the church purchased a run-down property on Beacon Hill, remodeled it and created a “House of Healing” for persons grappling with mental illness.

The congregation provided companion staff, and the residential program included a spiritual component that residents might (or might not) choose to participate in. Harborview Hospital provided referrals and case management. The House of Healing has emerged as a model for supported living for the mentally ill. Since its inception in 2000, the House of Healing — known now as Plymouth Healing Ministries — has expanded to five residential facilities that each offers different types and levels of service. It stands as the bold and creative response of one congregation to a powerful human need, a need the congregation faced and shared.

There are other ways that churches can help, as pastor Ed Stetzer suggests in his own response to the Warren family tragedy.

Stetzer sites four things churches need to do:

1. Stop hiding mental illness. “So often in a congregation we like to pretend this is not a real issue because we have such a difficult time understanding it. We stick our heads in the sand, add the person to the prayer list and continue on ministering to the 'normal' people.”

2. Make the congregation a safe place for those who struggle. “We are often afraid of mental illness and the symptoms that come with it. As a result, we don’t know what to do with our own level of discomfort and our fears for safety, or we just don’t want to be inconvenienced.”

3. Don't be afraid of medicine. “I realize this can be a heated debate. I also recognize that medication must be handled with care — as it should with any condition. But many mental health issues are physiological. Counseling will naturally be a part of treatment. But if we are not afraid to put a cast on a broken bone, then why are we ashamed of a balanced plan to treat mental illness that might include medication to stabilize possible chemical imbalances?”

4. End the shame. “I saw it in my own family. Suicide has struck our family more than once, Yet, it was hard to talk of these things. They had to be 'handled in the dark' because 'no one could know.' I love my family. But shame was something that was difficult to avoid in every case.”

I agree with Stetzer on all four points.

Churches and other groups can not only face their tendency to hide from mental illness, they can follow the example of Seattle’s Plymouth Church and take very courageous and positive steps to face it. Churches can be a healing force for those who suffer in the grip of mental illness.

But for now, let’s hold the Warren family, and the many other families that have borne a similar devastating loss, in our thoughts and prayers. While suffering often isolates us, it can also do something very different. It can draw us together.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.