Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren is starting a new mental health ministry following the suicide of his son Matthew, who at age 27 shot himself in April after years of struggling with severe depression.
Warren will team up with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange and the National Alliance on Mental Illness to raise awareness and remove the misunderstandings against mental illnesses within the faith community. On March 28, the three groups will host The Gathering on Mental Health and the Church, a daylong event at Saddleback that will cover a wide range of mental health issues, from bipolar disorder to eating disorders. Warren hopes the conference will educate family members of people living with mental illness, encourage those who are struggling, and motivate other churches to create similar mental health ministries.
“I’m certainly not going to waste this pain,” Warren said. “One of the things I believe is that God never wastes a hurt and that oftentimes your greatest ministry comes out of your deepest pain. I remember writing in my journal that in God’s garden of grace, even broken trees bear fruit.”
As Warren and his wife Kay mourned their son’s death, they received more than 10,000 emails and letters from people who poured out their own struggles with mental illnesses. Their own grief and others’ stories shook the Warrens with the realization that many, even those within churches, lack support and understanding amidst their mental battles.
“It’s amazing to me that any other organ in your body can break down and there’s no shame and stigma to it,” Warren said in his first sermon after Matthew’s suicide. “But if your brain breaks down, you’re supposed to keep it a secret. … If your brain doesn’t work right, why should you be ashamed of that?”
Saddleback Church is known for its initiative on HIV and AIDS, an awareness campaign and outreach ministry for people living with the disease. When the Warrens first began the ministry, they thought AIDS was the greatest taboo. But now, “I think mental illness is,” Warren said. About 35 million people have HIV and AIDS worldwide, but more than 400 million struggle with mental illness, he noted. “And we want to remove the stigma.”
Saddleback has always sponsored support groups for family and friends of people with mental illness, but this new ministry will equal the scale and comprehensiveness of Saddleback’s HIV and AIDS program.
“Our goal is, as we say, we crack the door open and then churches go, ‘OK. If the diocese is doing this, if Saddleback’s doing this, we can do this,’” Warren said. “And we’d love to see a movement started where people actually begin to say, ‘We need to see this element added to our local ministry.’”