Hope for Mental Illness

When my cancer-stricken, elderly father passed away at home with family by his side, I grieved and wept, but my grief was gentle because my dad had lived a very full and rich life. I can tell you the experience of losing my 27-year-old son on April 5, 2013 to suicide was not at all the same.

Matthew - an incredibly kind, funny and compassionate young man whose sweet spirit was encouragement and comfort to many - suffered from severe mental illness.

For more than two decades he struggled. He took his life to end his pain, and he did it in a violent way.

Our family is scarred.

We were left with - not gentle grief - but traumatic grief. Guilt. Regret. Unanswered questions. Horror.

We are not alone. The statistics are startling:

• Half of all adults will suffer from mental illness in their lifetime.
• Half of all chronic mental illness begins by the age of 14.
• One in five children will have a mental illness by age 18.
• Ninety percent of people who die by suicide also had mental illness.

Sixty million Americans - that's one in five adults - will experience a mental illness in the coming year. That means every one of us knows someone who is living with a mental illness - depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, an eating disorder, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder and some additionally have a substance abuse.

The sad fact is the mental health system is broken in the United States. I can't say that strongly enough. It is not that people aren't trying and not that there aren't some really wonderful, compassionate people in the field of mental health, but the problem is complicated, and most of the attempts to help don't always help.

But there is hope for mental illness, and I believe the Church can lead the way.

When you realize that a large portion of people suffering with mental illness go to either their priest, pastor or rabbi before they even go to a healthcare professional, it makes equipping faith leaders more urgent than ever. Most are not well equipped, yet clergy are dealing with people with mental health issues every day.

We have witnessed this firsthand in our own church. At Saddleback Church there is a higher-than-average awareness of mental illness and the devastation it can cause. Our Pastoral Care Team reports that 23 percent of their ministry is to people living with mental illness or their families.

Most people understand that mental illness is just that - an illness - and as such, often requires medication and treatment by mental health professionals for management and improved health. But the flip side of that realization can lead us to believe that there is nothing significant the faith community can offer to a person with a illness. This is a misperception. In reality, the Church is tasked with caring for the whole person - body, mind and soul - and that means we must recognize and care for the person who is affected by an illness. The Church can speak into the soul and personhood of the individual in ways that medical professionals cannot.

The Church's central commitment is to be the hands and feet of Jesus. This should include intentionally coming alongside people living with mental illness and supporting their families. If the Church lives out its calling in this area, its compassionate voice will rise within the community, the nation and the world - extending an unwavering message of hope and acceptance for those affected by mental illness.

I believe every church can be a solution by developing a mental health ministry. That is why we are hosting Saddleback Church's Gathering on Mental Health and The Church October 7-9, 2015. The event will be three days packed with practical help and hope for individuals affected by mental illness, their loved ones, church leaders, and mental health professionals.

It's time to join together and create a pathway to hope.

It's time for the Church to offer a place of refuge, love, and compassion for those who need it most. It's a time to acknowledge the facts and embrace the millions of people suffering everyday from mental illness.

For more information on The Gathering on Mental Health and the Church, visit http://hope4mentalhealth.com/.