May is Mental Health Awareness Month, an opportunity for all of us to learn more about mental illness, mental health, and how we can offer support to one another. Within the Christian community, this is also a time of unprecedented attention on the topic of mental illness, after the tragic news that Matthew Warren, son of high-profile pastor Rick Warren and wife Kay, died by suicide after a lifelong struggle with mental illness.
In honor of this month's focus on mental health, we spoke with Amy Simpson, author of the brand-new book Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church's Mission.
Tell us why you decided to write about mental illness and the church.
It started with my own family's experience. My mother has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and has spent time in hospitals, homeless shelters, and prison. Her illness affected my family profoundly, especially after her symptoms became much more pronounced when I was a young teenager. For the following 20-plus years, we didn't talk much about what was happening with her at home. We didn't feel it was okay to discuss mental illness with others, so we mostly kept quiet about it when we were away from home too. The church, like other places, was mostly silent on this issue and didn't offer much of the kind of help we needed. We felt very isolated, as if we were the only ones going through the experience.
As I got older and pursued healing for my own wounds, I sought to understand my mom's illness and how it affected me. I started learning about how common mental illness is—my family was far from alone in our experience. I read other people's stories and realized how similar they were to ours. I began to understand that the church's lack of engagement was affecting many more people than just my family. God began to nudge me toward writing on this topic as a ministry to others and a challenge and encouragement to the church.
What have you learned through writing this book, and what's been your favorite part of the publication process?
The process of writing this book was healing for me and my family. I interviewed my parents and all my siblings for the book, and they've all been very supportive of telling a bit of our story. The project gave us a reason to have conversations we hadn't had before. For me, the writing process helped me make better sense of my family's story, work my way through some questions I hadn't fully faced, and discover answers in God's Word. In the process, God helped me grow in my understanding of redemption and the tremendous hope we have because of Christ.
It was also educational. I love to learn, and I enjoyed growing in my understanding of mental illness and how the church responds to it.
But it's also been an incredible privilege to hear other people's stories. For the book, I interviewed several people about their own experiences. And every week I hear from people who have seen the book or an article I've written and who contact me to tell me their stories. I know from personal experience that for many people with mental illness and their families, they've been quiet for so long, and feeling unsafe, it's a tremendous relief to talk about our experiences to other people who can understand, who have been through some of the same. So I'm blessed by hearing from people, and I hope they're blessed as well.
What is the most important thing you want everyone to understand about mental illness?
There are so many misconceptions about mental illness, it's hard to pick just one. But I think it's critical to understand that a person with mental illness is not a wasted life or a throwaway person. God is not surprised by illness or helpless in its face. He is not disappointed by our diagnoses, and he does not walk away to focus his attention on people who aren't broken.
We're all broken, and that's the backdrop to the amazing message of Jesus. He knows our flaws and weaknesses and corruption better than we do, and he loves us anyway. He redeems us and makes us his representatives, despite our shabby lives. He knows how to use the very weakest and most powerless to bring shame to those who are strong and powerful (1 Corinthians 1:27).
People with mental illness have not lost God's purpose for them. They haven't lost their calling to follow Jesus and minister in his name.
With this kind of attitude, we will automatically be more loving toward people with mental illness. After all, when we recognize that God has reached out to us at our worst, it's easier to remember our obligation to do the same for others.
For more resources on mental illness, read Amy's TCW articles "Mental Illness is No Laughing Matter" and "Ways to Help People with Mental Illness and Their Families;" also access TCW article "Parenting Children with Mental Illness."
Amy Simpson is editor of Gifted for Leadership, Marriage Partnership, and ParentConnect, and is a regular contributor to the TCW blog.