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Can Faith Alone Treat Mental Illness?


I'm Celeste Headlee, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, we take a closer look at reports from Detroit that local police officers are taking homeless people off the streets only to abandon them outside the city's border.

But first, it's time for Faith Matters, our weekly conversation about religion and spirituality. Today, we focus on the complex relationship between faith and mental health.

Prominent evangelical pastor Rick Warren lost his son Matthew to suicide earlier this month, and that sparked a discussion among evangelical Christians about the stigma surrounding mental illness and suicide in that community.

Joining us now is evangelical Christian and freelance journalist Christine Scheller. She lost her son Gabriel to suicide five years ago. First of all, Christine, welcome to the program, and I'm so sorry for your loss.


HEADLEE: So, having had this experience yourself, what was your reaction to the death of Rick Warren's son?

SCHELLER: I was at the Garden State Film Festival about to watch a show, "Girls Rising," when I was trying to figure out how to tweet about that and saw the news on Twitter. It was the fourth young man who I had heard about in a month who had died by suicide. So I actually had to walk out of that screening. And the fifth anniversary of my son's death was in March, so there's all kinds of triggers. But it was more that it was the fourth young man that I had heard about, and it was upsetting.

HEADLEE: For those who don't have a lot of familiarity with the evangelical church, can you explain to us this relationship between the faith and this stigma of mental health issues and mental health professionals?

SCHELLER: In the church that I grew up in, a Baptist church, there really wasn't stigma. People went to psychiatrists and therapists, psychologists, etc. My husband and I moved out to California to be part of a nondenominational mega-church where he was studying to be a pastor, and was really introduced to this kind of stigma about mental illness and more kind of an anti-psychiatry teaching that I had not been familiar with before.

Unfortunately, that move was difficult for a lot of reasons for my teenage sons, and so it coincided with them beginning to have some mental health challenges of their own, and I think it delayed them getting help.

HEADLEE: Why did it delay their getting help? Because of the church? Because of advice from leaders there?

SCHELLER: You know, it was the first time I was exposed to that kind of rhetoric, and so this idea that we can solve our problems just by reading our Bible and praying and that sort of thing - and if you're evangelical, as I am, you're trying to solve your problems yourself, I suppose, and through your faith. And sometimes, mental health problems are a lot more serious than that and require medical intervention.

HEADLEE: Your son was never diagnosed with a mental illness, but you said you started to notice signs of depression when he began college, and he was going to an evangelical college. How did his school or his teachers react?

SCHELLER: Well, my son had a neurological disease called neurofibromatosis. He was also on an asthma medicine that the FDA definitively linked to suicidal ideation. He started taking that medication as soon as he got to college. So he didn't really receive any kind of care at school. About the second or third year he was there, I was encouraging him to go for counseling. He went once or twice, but his younger brother was exhibiting much more prominent signs of depression, much more obvious ones. And so it was kind of hard to see how much he was struggling.

It wasn't until he graduated from college and came home that I really recognized something was not right, that he was not himself. He was increasingly agitated. He was sleeping a lot. He was not eating. In the last couple of months of his life, the life just sort of went out of his eyes. And I didn't recognize, I didn't know the warning signs for suicide - suicidal depression. So I just thought he was kind of lovelorn. He was in a - you know, in and out of a relationship.

HEADLEE: But you've said that perhaps the evangelical church, or those teachings about mental health may have delayed him getting help. Why do you say that?

SCHELLER: I wasn't speaking about him. When I've said that, I was really referring to my younger son, who was home with us. My son who died by suicide was away at college. He was away at college for four years and just home in the summertimes and at, you know, holiday breaks.

My younger son - because I was influenced initially by that teaching, I think my own ignorance - I struggled with some depression and anxiety in my 20s that didn't require medical intervention, and so I just dealt with some stressors in my life. And that resolved, and I assumed the same might be true for my son. It was difficult to find a competent mental health professional. When you're in a community that stigmatizes psychiatry, there's a certain level of fear that you can have that they will be hostile to your faith. And, in fact, his initial psychiatrist was somewhat hostile to his faith and insensitive to this kind of spiritual element of his struggle that had to do with moving across country and becoming a part of a church that had some toxicity to it.

HEADLEE: What advice would you give to someone who may be in the situation that you were, dealing with your sons, who may be trying to balance, say, issues that she sees in herself or her family, along with a message coming out of the church that discourages you from seeking professional help?

SCHELLER: I would probably encourage someone to leave that kind of a community, and then I would encourage them to do exactly what I did in the midst of it - in the middle of - my husband was on staff. He was a pastor at this church and I, you know, went and sought help and found doctors and just ignored the advice that was being given.

I think that the Warren family - I, you know, applaud their transparency in speaking openly and honestly about the mental health struggles, about the cause of their son's death. You know, I think some good can come out of it. It doesn't do anything to alleviate the pain of losing a child by suicide, but it eases it a little bit, I guess, or brings some meaning to it when you can help to inspire change in your own community.

And, you know, stigma about mental illness is not unique to the evangelical community. We have our own particular ways in which it's stigmatized, but it's a pervasive problem.

HEADLEE: Christine Scheller lost her son Gabriel to suicide five years ago. She's a contributing editor to Christianity Today. She joined us from our bureau in New York. Thank you so much, Christine.

SCHELLER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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