Mental Illness and Our Fear of It

Rethink Mental Illness
Rethink Mental Illness (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With the latest mass shooting in this nation at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. has come the usual spate of debates about gun control and the reasons these mass shootings continue to occur. Frankly, the discussion over gun control, whether or not to have it or to make people get background checks, is annoying. It is clear that in terms of policy this nation’s lawmakers are deeply divided. Gun control and background checks are seen by far too many as just another intrusion of government into the private lives and affairs of American citizens. There exists this absolutely maddening opinion that more guns, not fewer, are the answer to mass shootings.

In the debate, however, mental illness continually comes up as a root cause for the mass shootings. After Sandy Hook, there was extended discussion about it, and today, revelations about the mental health of Aaron Alexis are steadily coming to light.  That Alexis was mentally ill is clear. What is also clear is that American society is sorely inept at dealing with it.

I heard a TED talk where the presenter said something that is a no-brainer:  if we diagnosed and treated mental illnesses early on, we would have less severe mental illness in people overall. He used as a comparison point that in all diseases where diagnosis and treatment begins early, the seriousness of those diseases diminishes and in some cases, the given illness can disappear altogether.

Not so with mental illness. It seems that we are deathly afraid of it. Children who have mental illness are too often labeled as “bad” or behavior problems, and kind of banned to the fringes of society.  These sick children grow into sick adults, who now also carry a fair amount of anger and resentment over how they have been treated due to their illness. And …they grow up believing they are deficient and bad and not worthy of a good life. That cannot be good for any psyche, much less for a psyche made tender by mental illness.

People do not want to admit that they are mentally ill because of the stigma, and in hospital waiting rooms, I am told they are often totally disrespected while they wait for treatment. A young woman shared with me that she was having a crisis and went to an emergency room. She was relegated to a chair in the waiting room, and later, to a gurney in the emergency room. She sat in that waiting room for 23 hours, without seeing a doctor all that time. While she was there, nurses, she said, hollered to her from nurses’ stations: “Are you suicidal? Are you having hallucinations? Are you hearing voices?” This young woman felt humiliated, disrespected, and angry. People began to look at her with fear in their eyes, she said.  It was like I was a nothing, a nobody, she said, just because I have a mental illness.

WIth that kind of treatment, it is no wonder people do not talk about it, and do not get treated.  I was prescribed Cymbalta to be taken because the drug does something to treat a condition I have called neurocardiogenic syncope. That’s a fancy way of saying I get dizzy, and the Cymbalta, taken with another drug, helps control it. When I listed my drugs on an application to participate in the Susan G. Komen  3-day walk to raise money for breast cancer research, walk officials, looking at my meds,  decided I had depression and would not let me participate! I had raised thousands of dollars (which still went toward the research, thankfully) but because I was taking that drug, I was no longer considered a viable walker. My doctor wrote the walk officials to let them know that that’s why I was taking the drug, but they would not budge. And now, I’ve changed my health insurance, and the company will not cover the drug at all. So, illogically, I guess they would rather risk me getting dizzy at the wheel of a car and crashing and damn near killing myself or someone else, rather than covering that drug so that I can handle my dizziness . I will never attempt to walk in the 3-Day Walk for cancer again.

Clearly, there is a problem. Chances are that everyone has some level of mental illness, but for those who have serious mental illness, there is really nobody who can say “it’ll be all right if you admit it and get treated.” Real-life experiences do not support that kind of support or encouragement.

My prayer is that the stigma against mental illness will begin to lift and that mental illness will be respected as an illness that needs to be treated, not run from. Those who are suffering from it deserve better. And those who would be victims because a mentally ill person finally unwinds deserve better as well.

A candid observation …


On the Suicide of a Preacher’s Son

Rick Warren
Rick Warren (Photo credit: kev/null)


By now we have all heard the news of the tragic suicide of the youngest son of Pastor Rick Warren, Matthew. He was just 27 years old. (


Suicide committed by anyone is tragic and sad …and unbelievably painful…but I imagine that when it’s the preacher’s kid, the pain for the family is even greater. People have expectations of preachers and their families that are too often unrealistic. The kids are under tremendous pressure, and their lives are often more scrutinized, with more criticism leveled at them with less empathy, sympathy and/or understanding that one might expect religious people to dole out.


It is a fact that preachers’ kids often feel more isolated, more alone …and many times, more angry than other kids. They are held to a higher standard, and they grow sensitive to what “the saints” say about them, to them, or say around them. They often, but by no means always, grow up with a bitter taste in their mouths about “church folk” and organized religion. Families of the preacher often tread in deep water with swift and unrelenting undercurrents …and nobody seems to care. One of the most powerful moments for me came several years ago when a member said to me that she wanted to embrace my children, that they had “lent” me out to people for years and nobody had really embraced them. That was the first and only time anyone had said anything like that to me. I appreciated it, and so did my children.


But that kind of sensitivity to preachers, their families and their children is only too rare. We can only imagine the pain of Rick and Kay Warren. Unfortunately, however, there are sure to be people who are whispering about the Warren family and their troubled son. Some will say that while Pastor Rick was ministering to people all over the world, he “couldn’t even” deal with his own son. That is the reality, too often, of church culture.


What people do not realize, or care to realize, is that the preacher is a human being, as are his/her children. The expectations on both are unrealistic, and people who are “with you” on one day are “against you” on yet another. There are only a very few who embrace the preacher and his/her family sincerely, with no agenda.


The attitude of people toward mental illness is poor in general; nobody wants to identify or share that he or she is mentally ill – and yet, so many of us are!  Ironically, the church, where it should be “safe” to talk about and share one’s struggles, including debilitating depression, multiple personalities, bi-polar disease, schizophrenia – has no monopoly for doling out kindness and/or legitimate help and compassion.


And if the one with the mental illness is the preacher’s son or daughter, chances are the compassion is even less.


Of course, I am not saying that that is or was the case with Matthew. Perhaps Saddleback Church was very compassionate and helpful and supportive, but churches in general are not known to be that way. Unfortunately, too many churches are known to be unkind, exclusive and judgmental, and the children of the preachers know that very well.


Add to the already painful situation that many individuals consider suicide to be cowardly. I had only one person in my congregation commit suicide while I was pastor, and I tried my best to draw the attention of people to her gifts, and to an acknowledgement of her pain. I suggested that she, who was one to express her love for God in praise and movement, was dancing in heaven, comforted by God. While some in attendance at her funeral received what I said, others were so angry that when I reached out to them to hug them, they turned away. People in general are not so forgiving and understanding when it comes to suicide.


I am praying that at Saddleback, the love will outweigh any criticism or judgment that may be there. I am praying that the suicide of the preacher’s son will be an opportunity for people to show the love of God for that family and for the young man who was so unhappy that he chose to be with God on his time, not God’s. I am sure God understands, but I’m not sure about the people.


A candid observation …






Suicide, Walking

Is suicide not as common in urban areas, most specifically amongst black and brown people, or do we just not hear about it?

I watched Blackboard Wars on OWN, and happened to hear Don Lemon of CNN have discussions about mental illness and suicide on the same evening. In Blackboard Wars, the prevalence of mental illness among urban high school kids in New Orleans McDonough High School, was brought to light. I wasn’t surprised, as I have long believed that many children in urban areas suffer not only from mental and physical ailments that are not diagnosed, or, if diagnosed, not treated because of economic constraints. If one adds to the presence of mental illness the many pressures from home these kids have, the often deplorable conditions of their schools, and their fear of street violence, and the fact that many of these kids are labeled “behavior problems”  by both their parents or guardians and their teachers, one has to come to the conclusion that many of these kids are depressed…yet we don’t hear of it. We know that many urban kids do not believe they will make it out of their 20s. We also know that urban kids, especially brown and black urban kids, are more often arrested by police even when they have done nothing wrong. They stand in courthouses and listen to police lie about what they have done, and they have nobody to advocate for them. (

We hear of urban kids being shot and killed (and nobody seems to care), but we rarely hear of them shooting themselves or hanging themselves. Is that because it doesn’t happen or is it because our society doesn’t think it’s newsworthy to report it?

Studies show that the rate of suicide among black males rose about eight points from 1980 to 1993, and the rate of suicide amongst black females did not change much at all during that same time period. ( But why not? Surely the conditions under which urban kids live could inspire anyone to take his or her own life.

Could it be that the suffering for urban youth is so deep and so emotionally brutal that they have cut themselves off from their feelings? Viktor Frankl, in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, writes that the suffering of the Jews during the Holocaust was so extreme that they able to withstand the brutality of their surroundings only by become immune to their own capacity to feel. What they endured is mind-boggling, yet they called upon inner resources to keep them going. Could it be that urban kids have done the same? Could it be that the rash of gun violence in urban areas is indicative of suicide by another name? the shootings happen with regularity because, I believe, the kids no longer see other kids – or adults, for that matter – as human beings. The only way they can kill so indiscriminately is for them to think of their victims as targets for their bullets, not as people with feelings. Yet, at the end of the day, they must still think that what they have done is wrong …or can they feel that way? Maybe their not acknowledging their feelings keep them afloat. Maybe their form of suicide is in what they do – killing other people, and in so doing, they kill a little more of themselves. They have no hope, many of them, no dreams. They don’t care if they live or die. So they become dead kids walking. They don’t care anymore, what happens to them or to anyone else.

. Urban kids hurt like everyone else. Hurting kids in the suburbs often kill themselves by hanging, or shooting themselves…Yet black and brown kids carry around the burden of racism and poverty, which makes racism that much more rancid.  . They see and feel all of the problems suburban kids do, only they see it through this dual prism of racism and poverty. They are bullied; they deal with issues of sexual orientation; they deal with parents who do not have time for them, but we don’t hear about them hanging or shooting themselves all the things that suburban kids do…

I don’t know what they do…but I know they do something. All living creatures do something when they are in pain because they want the pain to stop.  What if this nation looked upon the problem of urban kids killing each other as the opportunity to see into the psyches of tormented souls, souls that stopped hoping, dreaming, and believing that things will ever get better? Would that kind of insight and intuition help us deal with the issue of suicide in general?  What if we could look at suicide from the perspective of what we see in urban America? Would the suicide, or could the ongoing suicide, by way of senseless homicides, of urban kids be reduced? The kids are not hanging themselves. They are killing each other.

Now that I think about it, what do kids in Appalachia do? Native American kids? Kids who live with a steady stream of hopelessness? We hear sometimes about Native American kids being alcoholic. Is that their form of suicide- killing themselves bit by bit?

Feeling hopeless hurts.

And yes, I am saying that the homicide we seeing in urban America is a form of suicide.

A candid observation …

Who Is Mentally Ill?

In the ongoing debate on gun control – or more accurately, control on the sale and use of military assault weapons and magazines that have large numbers of bullets – we are hearing that there needs to be more attention paid to mental illness.  Mandatory background checks are being touted as a way to weed out people who should not be allowed to purchase guns, and those background checks supposedly would be able to identify the mentally ill.

But WHO is mentally ill, and who is not? How does a background check really identify people who are really mentally ill, even if evidence does not say so?

What prompts this is the interview that Piers Morgan of CNN had with radio host and filmmaker Alex Jones last week. I was stunned by what I was watching. Alex Jones was completely out of control; his face was contorted and he would rise off his seat as he “warned” Piers that “1776 would will commence again” if anyone tried to “take away our guns.” (

It was horrible to watch. I kept thinking that Jones himself …was mentally ill. I kept thinking that he was such a hot head that he probably didn’t need to be walking around with a loaded gun.

Some people have been diagnosed with classic mental illnesses – including schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder, but  many people are probably walking around with those ailments who have never been diagnosed, and who lead relatively harmless lives. Would their illness be caught?

Maybe and maybe not, but what is more troubling is that many people who are not technically mentally ill have some mental “issues” that might make them dangerous with a gun. There are people who carry deep rage against spouses or former spouses, against the government, against a former employer. All we have to do is review the sad cases of an estranged spouse showing up at a workplace and taking out the one whom he apparently “loved.” There are people who do not know how to handle conflict, sadness, rejection, betrayal…and they become desperate. How would those people be screened and identify? And isn’t it a fact that any of us are capable of doing something horrendous, given the right set of circumstances?

There are police officers who probably should not carry guns. They are legalized thugs, some of them, and others are apt to shoot first an ask questions later, depending on a given situation. What does one do with them? They can carry guns legally. All they have to do is show a badge, I suppose, in any gun shop or at any gun show, and they are free to purchase what they want.  What about men who rape? Are they mentally ill?

Yes, the nation, the world, needs to pay more attention to mental illness. We need to stop making it a shameful thing to have a mental illness and accept the fact that it is just that – an illness. Perhaps the gun massacres, especially this last one in Newtown, Connecticut, will get serious discussions going and plans in place to handle mental illness differently than we have. Maybe there will be ad campaigns that let the people know that having a mental illness is not something to be ashamed of, but is, rather, something that should be treated, like diabetes or hypertension. It is long past the time that we, the supposed greatest and strongest country in the world, change course in the way we deal with mental illness and in so doing, encourage the rest of the world to do the same.

Actually, the conversation swirling around controlling the sale and use of assault weapons are interesting. Nobody is talking about taking away the right of Americans to “bear arms;” the conversation is about controlling and perhaps banning a certain kind of gun. Is it a sign of mental illness when one cannot “hear” what the conversation is about?  There is no conversation at all about taking away the right of people to purchase and own guns as a general right. Are those who are ranting, like Alex Jones, mentally ill?

It will be interesting to see how the conversation about mental illness goes, and what decisions are made in determining who is and who is not mentally ill. I would suppose that more people than we know are really mentally ill, and it is high time that we look at that fact and deal with it.

A candid observation …


Sick or Bad?

If we as human beings were not so frightened of mental illness, if we were willing to talk about it and seek treatment for loved ones who seem afflicted with some sort of mental illness – and if the system supported such treatment, maybe we would have fewer tragedies, fewer massacres of innocent people.

I have long been concerned that there are many children, no matter their race or socio-economic status, who have been mentally ill all their lives, but never got treated.  I am especially concerned that many children may be the victims of an undiagnosed and untreated mental illness, but who are treated merely as children with behavior problems rather than as children who are sick and who need medical care.

We are so frightened of mental illness. We don’t want to talk about it. We don’t want to admit that more people than not might benefit from visits to a psychologist or therapist or psychiatrist . We don’t want to admit that perhaps we ourselves may need help. What I worry about is that mentally ill parents are trying to raise children, who may themselves be mentally ill or may develop an emotional problem because of the way they are raised …but nobody wants to talk about it.

Who goes into schools and shoots innocent children, or to a shopping mall or dark movie theater and rattles off bullets from a semi-automatic weapon?  Who drowns her own children? It is easy to say “a bad person” does that, but it feels more accurate to say that a sick person does that. “Bad” and “sick” are not the same.

I have said many times from the pulpit that if one is depressed, one ought not be afraid to admit it. Just as we seek (if we can afford it or have health insurance!) medical care if we are physically ill, we ought to run , not walk, to a doctor when we are emotionally distraught or feel like we are at the end of our ropes.

The experiences of life are not for the fainthearted. Even if one has reasonably good coping skills, the trials of life can strain the strongest of us. The biological creative process is miraculous, but not perfect. How else does one account for the babies born with cleft lips and palates, malformed or imperfectly formed organs, no brains, holes in their hearts, with autism?  We are well aware of the fact that there are congenital defects, which need immediate care and attention. Without medical attention, birth defects negatively impact a baby’s possibility for a quality life. Our denial of mental problems, and our refusal and/or reluctance to pursue vigorous treatment of these illnesses is no less harmful and dangerous than is putting a football player with a concussion back in the game, or breaking a bone and not getting it reset and immobilized so that it will heal correctly.

The signs of mental illness may not be there at birth, but certainly as a child grows, parents can see that something is wrong. And yet, many parents slip into denial. Parents who could afford to get their uncomfortable observations looked into often will not and do not…and parents who cannot afford a doctor’s visit, just in general, deny what they see and fall into disciplining, often harshly, a child who is actually mentally ill.

It would seem that the tendency toward denial does not end once a sick child grows up. The young man who shot the children in Newtown at Sandy Hook Elementary School apparently had problems which people noticed, as did the young man who committed the deadly shootings at Virginia Tech University some years ago. Poet Nikki Giovanni, who had that young man in one of her classes, was reportedly so bothered by what she observed that she asked him not to return to her class.

Our tendency to deny the fact that mental illness lives amongst us – and indeed, within many of us – is going to cost more lives. Putting people in jail who act out of illness is not going to stop the shootings; putting people in jail is just as ineffective – and just as dangerous in the long run – as is denying that mental illness is a reality.

The health care system needs to find a way to improve not only its care but its outreach to people who need help. Employers ought to have something in writing that says “we will not label you ‘crazy’ if you apply for a job with us but are taking an anti-depressive drug.”  Pastors in churches ought to talk about it publicly. You can’t even taste the goodness of God if you are in mental anguish.

I was moved to write this because I looked at the image on television of the young man who shot the people in the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado last year. From the first  time I saw that image, I thought he was mentally ill, but even when I heard what he had done, I thought he was mentally ill. The discussion was whether he should be put to death if he is convicted…and I shook my head. America is not getting it. This guy may very well not only be sick but has probably been sick for a long time.

Someone is going to ask what the difference is between sick and bad. I don’t know yet how to clearly argue that question, but it’s coming. All I know is that denying that mental illness is a major problem is a major mistake on the parts of our country, parents, and our health care system.

I have not used the names of the shooters in the tragedies that left 26 people dead in Newtown, Connecticut, or at Virginia Tech or in the mall in Colorado that left Congresswoman Gabby Giffords severely injured or in the shooting that happened in the movie theater in Aurora, or the shootings in Columbine. I have not even begun to address the tragedy that happens in urban areas, where kids are killing other kids by the hundreds.  Some of those kids may be “bad,” but I would bet a whole lot more of them are ill. I I have left the names of the shooters out on purpose…because they all represent mental illness, denied and ignored.

The consequences of us living with our heads in the sand are obvious.

A candid observation …