Michael IrelandMichael Ireland, ASSIST Senior Reporter, shares…

Pastor Rick and Kay Warren launched Saddleback Church‘s second Gathering on Mental Health and the Church October 8/9 with a call for faith communities to take the lead in caring for those with mental illnesses.

According to the Christian Examiner in the opening session of the conference, Rick Warren, Saddleback’s founding pastor, argued the church has a biblical, historical and practical responsibility to make a priority of caring for those with mental illnesses.

Theological foundations
‘Churches are typically the first organisation families in pain reach out to,’ he said. ‘When a family is having a mental-health crisis, they don’t go first to their lawyer or to their accountant. They don’t even go to the police, or the doctor or even the principal. Usually, the first person they call is from the church.’

Michael I. 1
After teaching why the church must take the lead on mental illness, Rick Warren shared theological foundations that must define the church’s mental health ministries.

Those foundations are:
• Every person has dignity because they are made by God.
• They are made in God’s image.
• They are made for God’s purposes and for God’s glory.
• In our fallen, imperfect world, all of us are broken.
• Even though we’re broken, we’re still deeply loved and deeply valuable.
• We get well in community.
• What isn’t healed on earth is healed in heaven.

In 2013, the Warrens had the unenviable task of announcing that their 27-year-old son, Matthew, had taken his own life (

Stigma and misunderstanding
ASSIST archives on ‘mental illness’ reveal this news agency has over the years covered the topic of the famous, and not-so-well-known, who suffer from this affliction or another disabling psychological condition.

Mental Health

Unfortunately, there is still stigma – and much misunderstanding – surrounding Christians and mental illness, often deterring or discouraging Christians from seeking the professional help they need.

While great strides forward have been made in the religious world as far as personal and theological understanding of mental illness, many believers – those who suffer and those who don’t – still walk around with faulty thinking on the ‘causes’ and ‘cures’ for this malady, which statistics say strikes one in five people. This means that Christians are not immune.

About 11.4 million adult Americans suffered from severe mental illness in the past year and 8.7 million adults contemplated serious thoughts of suicide. Women were more likely to be diagnosed with mental illness than men, 23 percent of women versus 16.9 percent of men, and the rate of mental illness was more than twice as likely in young adults 18 to 25 than people older than 50.

‘Chemical electric switch’
Last year, I had the opportunity to hear firsthand the story of broadcast journalist Jane Pauley and her struggle with bi-polar disorder (

The former NBC journalist explained that her sister in-law is a medical reporter and a good ‘explainer’: ‘She says the brain is made up of ‘many working parts.’ One part of the brain is a key in bi-polar – a bundle of nerve cells called the singulate. The singulate is a “kind of chemical electrical switch” for people with bi-polar – it’s overly sensitive. It has a hair-trigger.’

Jane Pauley explained the technology we use every day has rewired our brains: ‘We think differently about the brain today. Messaging matters. Now hope is far more potent to change minds than fear.’

She added that ‘When I think of hope, I think of Michael J Fox (below) whom I’ve interviewed on several occasions. Now Parkinson’s will be conquered or cured by hope but it will never be defeated without it. Michael told me a story…about waiting for an elevator in the mirrored vestibule of his apartment building just as his meds were starting to wear off and catching a glimpse of a bent and shaking old man, and realised he was looking at his own reflection. What did he do? He winked!

Refusing to live by limitations and so inspirational
Michael J FoxShe added, ‘Michael is such an inspiration because of his commitment to find a cure for Parkinson’s, which is a neighbour to bi-polar in the same deep region of the brain. And for refusing to be defined by his limitations. Living his life as fully as it can be lived. Remember what he called his memoir? Lucky Man.’

Michael J Fox is the first to point out that he doesn’t happen to suffer from depression, which many people with Parkinson’s do suffer from, and depression produces isolation, and isolation is the curse of mental illness.

Jane Pauley concluded: ‘I like a story that I heard told by a Nobel Laureate. A young woman, the daughter of Sigmund Freud’s best friend, was studying to be a psychoanalyst but required to undergo psychoanalysis herself, and she wanted the great man Freud to do it. He was reluctant because of their personal relationship, but finally he relented. And later, when the analysis was completed he is said to have told her “I always liked you, but now that I know you have problems, I like you more.’”

Personal sharing
On a personal note, this reporter has also been afflicted by this horrible disorder. Over the years I have sought the help of medical professionals, such as doctors, psychiatrists and psychotherapists, including Christian pastors and ministers, as well as the understanding of family and friends.

This disorder can be described as a ‘living hell’ because of the twists and turns during its course, and its dramatic effects on one’s behavior and lifestyle, not to mention how it affects one’s family, friends, and other loved ones.

I was first diagnosed with a mental disorder following a nervous breakdown in the United Kingdom in the late 1970s. My diagnosis at that time was schizophreniform, which is a term that covers a form of illness which displays itself as schizophrenia, but which has not yet been determined to be full-blown schizophrenia. Mental illness is often hereditary, and my mother suffered from schizophrenia.

At the time of my first breakdown, there were not enough beds in the psychiatric ward of the local mental hospital, so I was treated at my parents’ home, with weekly domiciliary visits from my local physician. It took me four weeks to recover with the help of rest, medication, and the love and care of my parents and friends. All I did was eat, sleep, and take medication.

I experienced a second nervous breakdown, in fact another psychotic episode – psychosis is a condition where the patient loses contact with reality – in the summer of 1982, after returning from a whirlwind visit to the United States.

On that occasion, I was hospitalised for four weeks and under the care of a psychiatrist. Once again the diagnosis was similar, this time identified as schizo-affective bi-polar disorder. I was treated with rest and medication, and it was then I learned I would need to take anti-psychotic medicines for the rest of my life to prevent a relapse.

I have found that without the presence of God, through faith and trust in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, together with the help of the word of God and medications, the love, care and understanding of friends and family, and the help and counsel of a psychiatrist and psychologist, I would not be able to function and live a stable and productive life.

In my research and attempts to better understand my illness, and from years of personal experience with the illness, I have discovered that mental illness – and bi-polar disorder in particular – is cyclical in nature. I have found that living in the Upper Midwest, where the change in seasons is more dramatic, my disorder does indeed afflict me in a cyclical pattern.

Those who know me well realise that I am going to suffer episodes of ‘poorer’ mental health moods with the change between longer, darker days and the onset of more dreary weather of the fall and winter months and then again when spring and summer roll around and when the longer, brighter days arrive and I experience happier days and more energy.

Personal toolkit
Having noticed this pattern, I take measures to minimise the effects the seasons have on my body and my psyche. I have learned what works for me to manage and cope with the disorder. I have also learned some coping skills to deal with stress, which is a known trigger for bi-polar disorder. My therapist calls this my ‘Toolkit.’ It is full of tips and tricks to manage the illness. Among these are …
• Staying in the now
• Taking one thing at a time
• Keeping the main thing the main thing
• Floating
• Letting time pass
• Seeking help from others when overwhelmed.

Michael I. 2I would urge those who believe they or a loved one may have a mental or psychological illness not to be ashamed, but to seek out all the available help they can find to achieve a stable thought and mood condition, and to pursue a happy and productive life. Mental illness is treatable.

If you or your loved one are experiencing a mental health crisis, call for help immediately. Most police departments have at least one or two officers who are trained to do a Social Welfare (Mental Health) Evaluation and can also put you or your loved one in touch with mental health professionals.

My word to the wise: Don’t mess with mental illness. Get help. It is possible to learn coping and management skills for this affliction.

Michael Ireland has been reporting for ANS from Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Israel, Jordan, China and Russia. Links: / (a daily digest of ANS stories)

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