Kay Warren Interview: '24 Hours of Hope' Broadcast on World Mental Health Day, Impact of Son's Suicide on the Church Community, and Stigma of Mental Illness
Today, Pastor Rick and Kay Warren of Saddleback Church are hosting "24 Hours of Hope," a free global online event designed to encourage individuals living with a mental illness, educate and support their families, and equip church leaders for compassionate and effective mental health ministry.
On Thursday, Kay Warren talked to The Christian Post about what she has observed transpiring in the church community on the topic of mental health. Because of the family's high profile, CP asked Warren to talk about how the suicide of their son, Matthew, who struggled with mental illness, has impacted the church in the U.S. Matthew Warren died at the age of 27 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound on April 5, 2013.
Rick and Kay Warren hosted the historic gathering on "Mental Health and the Church" last March, which was also co-hosted by Bishop Kevin Vann of the Diocese of Orange, and the National Alliance on Mental Illness – Orange County (NAMI-OC).
Studies show that one in four adults in America will be affected by a mental illness at some point in their lives. Organizers said the "24 Hours of Hope" broadcast will feature messages designed to offer hope as well as practical tools to those living with depression, Bipolar Disorder, eating disorders, addictions, anxiety, and Borderline Personality Disorder. Topics include removing stigma, suicide-risk reduction, church counseling, support groups, crisis management and holistic care.
Along with new content, many of the messages featured during "24 Hours of Hope" come from the conference held in March. The online broadcast coincides with World Mental Health Day on Friday.
CP: What kind of progress have you seen in regards to the church and mental health since you held that first conference last March?
Kay Warren: Actually, I think I've seen changes probably in the last 15 months since Matthew passed away. His death began to spark some conversation. Some very well-known Christians and others in the community began to talk about suicide and about mental illness. I think what happened in our country, with some levels of violence that have been absolutely devastating, the death of Robin Williams has been a catalyst for conversation, so to me, there's a confluence of what's happening in our country and what's happening to some well-known people. Also, with our decision to talk about our son and to talk about mental illness it feels like a combination of things that have lifted the conversation to a more visible level and a broader audience is talking about mental illness.
Specifically within the church, we loved partnering with the Catholic diocese here in Orange County and with NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) back in March to show that it takes all sectors of society to address a problem the magnitude of mental illness. I mean the church can't do it alone, government can't do it alone, private organizations can't do it alone, but together we can bring what each of those domains of society bring to the discussion and we are hoping to get some leverage from that.
CP: Seems like the news of someone's suicide is in the headlines every day. What are your thoughts as you hear about these tragedies?
Warren: Whether it's a completely unknown person who stepped in front of a train or someone of the magnitude of Robin Williams who takes their lives, every time I hear it, it puts a knife in my heart and I cry because I can identify with the person who was so desperately suffering and I identify with the pain of the loved ones who are left behind in the aftermath. There are twice as many suicides in the United States as there are murders. Most people don't know that. Every 14 minutes in the U.S. someone takes their life. Each suicide is a tragedy. Suicide is a heart breaking moment for me. I think I was surprised at the amount of public grieving as there was for Robin Williams. …He was a genius, I am not the first to say he was a genius in every way and his talent was brilliant. I think that what probably caught so many people off guard was a stereotype that if you are brilliant and you have these amazing gifts, and you have wealth, and you have fame, and you have notoriety, and you have celebrity-hood, that certainly you couldn't feel despair badly enough to take your life. The contrast between all that he had on an external level with the poverty on the internal level caught people off guard. It shook a lot of people up, it shook me up, it broke my heart, but I wasn't surprised. I was just brokenhearted because I understand that the "externals" really mean nothing. It's what's happening inside.
CP: What needs to be done to continue removing the stigma attached to mental illness?
Warren: I think that in the world of the church in particular, where we have a clear picture of how God feels about people who are living with the mental illness. When we can take a clear look at scripture I feel like it will change things. There's misapprehensions in the Christian community [about] people who have a mental illness, that it's all a spiritual issue. You know, if they would pray more, that it's a discipleship issue, that if they confessed sin, that if they changed this attitude, or if they memorized more scripture, or if they just forgave whoever it was that hurt them – that somehow it's just a spiritual issue. That misunderstanding of mental illness perpetuates stigma. I think also that when we hear the words "mental illness" many people conjure up a mass murderer, someone has got a weapon and they're killing people, or they're catatonic, completely detached from reality, or for the homeless person, stumbling down the street talking to himself. So, that puts a picture in our mind of mental illness and most of us [think] that's scary or that's frightening or that's not me, I'm not like that. Even if someone gets a diagnosis of depression or bipolar, nobody wants to be thought of as a mass murderer on a rampage or someone who is catatonic, or someone who is hallucinating, stumbling down the street talking to the fire hydrant. We don't understand that there is a continuum, that you can perhaps have depression, but that it's not at the place where it's so abnormal, so severe that you can't live your life. There are misperceptions on the spiritual side, there are misperceptions about who the mentally ill are, and also not understanding about mental illness, that the brain is an organ in the body like your liver or your kidney and it can malfunction. It can be diseased, it can be injured, things can go awry in the brain and when they do it can lead to physical or emotional or mental manifestation. I would just say there is a lot of misunderstanding about mental illness – what it is, who it affects, and what it actually looks like in the average person's life.
CP: Anything you would like to add about the "24 Hours of Hope" event taking place on Friday?
Warren: We are just thrilled to be able to offer it on a global basis. We chose to do 24 Hours of Hope. Hope because that's what every single person who is breathing needs more than anything else. They need hope to know that things can be different, that things can be better, that there are answers, that the church is a welcoming and embracing place to bring your whole self. We chose to do it 24 hours, not just an 8-hour webcast because it's a world mental health day. We wanted people in the U.S. in their prime time zones to be able to listen to these messages, and then for Africa and Europe, and then Asia, so that no matter where you are in the world on October 10th you will be able to access this information in a time zone that doesn't require you to stay up until 3 a.m. It's aimed at the global community.