Out front: the stigma of mental illness

In 2011, I traveled to rural Oregon to report on a minister who helped bring healing to his small town after a string of suicides.

As part of that Christian Chronicle story, I noted that 35,000 Americans died by suicide in the most recent year for which statistics were available:

Victims range from teenagers harassed at school to military veterans suffering war trauma to elderly people facing a debilitating illness or loss of a spouse.

However, the Suicide Prevention Resource Center cautions against oversimplifying the causes of suicide.

More than 90 percent of victims have a diagnosable mental illness and/or substance use disorder, according to the center.

“I teach counselors and ministers to recognize warning signs of suicide risk, yet you cannot always predict or prevent every suicide,” said Ed Gray, professor of counseling at Harding School of Theology in Memphis, Tenn. “Our compassion and caring involvement are our best responses to individuals who are at risk for suicide.”

Yet suicide remains a taboo subject for many in society — and in the church, where some view it as an unforgivable sin.

“Undoubtedly, some who take their own life do so from a mental state that makes them no longer responsible for their choices,” said Cecil May Jr., dean of the Bible college at Faulkner University in Montgomery, Ala. “The reason God is the final judge of such things, and we are not, is that the heart is involved, not just actions that can be seen. Only God can consider that essential aspect of things.”

When the terrible news broke about the death of pastor Rick Warren's son, I wondered if the high-profile tragedy might prompt the media to explore how Christians deal with mental illness.

I was pleased to see the Washington Post feature Godbeat pro Michelle Boorstein's story on the subject on Friday's front page. The top of her 1,300-word report:

In the days after the suicide of California megachurch pastor Rick Warren’s son, evangelical Christian leaders have begun a national conversation about how their beliefs might sometimes stigmatize those who struggle with mental illness.

Well-known evangelical figures called for an end to the shame and secrecy that still surrounds mental illness throughout U.S. society and a greater embrace of medical treatment, particularly among evangelicals.

“Part of our belief system is that God ­changes everything, and that because Christ lives in us, everything in our hearts and minds should be fixed,” said Ed Stetzer, a prominent pastor and writer who advises evangelical ­churches. “But that doesn’t mean we don’t sometimes need medical help and community help to do those things.”

Besides focusing on the mental-health debate among evangelicals, Boorstein provided important background on how other people of faith see suicide:

Stigma, discomfort and disagreement about mental health issues are hardly confined to religious communities or evangelical Christians.

Traditional Catholicism and Judaism teach that suicide is immoral and may impact one’s existence after death. For centuries people of those faiths who ended their own lives were commonly refused burial in official cemeteries, although that is no longer the case.

Protestantism doesn’t teach that committing suicide affects someone’s standing with God after death. But while evangelical Christians vary in their approaches to the topic, many conflate mental illness and spiritual struggle and look first to God for healing.

It's always tricky, of course, when a reporter with limited space attempts to boil down what a religious group teaches or believes. Still, I found myself wondering about the statement that Protestants don't teach that suicide affects whether one goes to heaven or hell. Is that really true across the board? I wish there was a source given and a little more insight provided.

But overall, I found Boorstein's report equally timely and meaty.

Kudos to her and the Post.

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