The GROUP Magazine Q&A
Kay Warren on Grief, and Facing Mental Illness
By Rick Lawrence
Editor’s Note: Kay and Rick Warren lead the most recognizable church in the world—Saddleback Community Church in Southern California. And that made the 2013 death, by suicide, of their youngest son Matthew all the more painful. In the aftermath of the tragedy, they were targets for malicious criticism and brutal cynicism. But out of the darkness of their personal journey through grief, they emerged to help focus the church’s attention on the stigmas surrounding mental illness. This interview will appear in GROUP Magazine’s Winter issue. Click here to subscribe and get the full article.
Rick Lawrence: I’d love to hear about your journey with the issue of mental illness. It’s obviously very personal, but it’s expanded into a wider story.
Kay Warren: Well, my journey started the way others have experienced—I didn’t expect it. I’ve lived with low-level depression myself for most of my life. I don’t really remember a time when I didn’t feel the weight of the world on my shoulders, even when I was a little girl. As a teenager I struggled with depression, but I never heard anybody use that word. I just knew that there were times when I didn’t want to talk to my family. I lost interest in school and just had a sadness about me.
There were times where nothing was right in the world, and then it would pass and I would be okay. Within a year of Matthew’s birth we knew he was different than our two older kids. He was extra-sensitive, cried easily, was clingy, was always in a negative mood, and had anger, tantrums, and sadness. Yet he could also be sunny and happy and sweet. It took us a long time before we realized his increasing sadness was actually clinical depression, and from there it just snowballed.
He had panic disorder, attention deficient with hyperactivity, and early onset bipolar. His suicidal ideation began when he was 12. He was complicated and suffered so much. Looking back, I think we built up a tolerance for it, because what else can you do? He’s our child, this is the life you have, and you do what you have to do for what’s good for your child. I can see now all the years that he suffered, and the suffering we experienced as a family with a mentally ill family member.
Then the hospitalizations began in his early twenties. When he was in my home I made him take medication and took him to the doctor and to therapy. When he was on his own, of course, he had his own choices to make. He didn’t always take his medication, he didn’t always go to therapy, and he grew increasingly suicidal. He had an overwhelming desire to be out of pain. Tragically, on April 15, 2013, his impulsivity met the lethal means he had acquired (an illegal gun) and he was not able to survive that.
And so we were thrust instantly into this whole new world of mental health advocacy—we do it for all the little “Matthews,” to hopefully save other families some of the sorrow that we have experienced. The “Matthews” of the world didn’t bring this on themselves. They just had the misfortune of living in a broken world where bodies and minds don’t work perfectly.
Rick: Thank you for sharing your story. First of all, I’m sorry—I’m sorry for your great loss.
Kay: Thank you.
Rick: I know that when somebody has the emotional and psychological issues you describe, then the whole world can revolve around those problems. Is that what happened in your family?
Kay: Well, that’s a great question. Like so many parts of our lives, hindsight is such a brilliant teacher. Looking back, there are some things that I wish we had done differently. But at the time, they felt like the right decisions. In one sense, it’s “right” for a family, a church, or a group of friends to rally around the weakest member. Our family needed to adapt to Matthew’s illness because that’s the right thing to do. At the same time, you can get absorbed in the moment and get a little bit of a tunnel vision. There’s no doubt about it, it’s a challenge to figure out how to accommodate the weaker person in the middle of the family without it all being about that person.
Rick: Mental illness is rhetorically accepted as an illness in our culture, but it seems to me in practice it’s most-often treated as an issue of character or discipline or even faith. Why is it such a struggle for us to understand this as an illness, and what have you learned firsthand about how to de-stigmatize this?
Kay: Those are great questions. Unfortunately, Christianity has tended to color mental illness negatively. It’s seen as either demonization or spiritual weakness—“Well, you can pray it away.” What I’ve learned, particularly in the year since Matthew died, is that we’re whole—we are material and immaterial. What happens in one part of our self is going to affect the rest of our self. Conversely, when there’s healing and health in one part of us, it also then affects positively the rest of who we are.
The church has a very vital role in all of this—nobody is better qualified to speak to the humanity of the person, to the dignity of the person, than the church. It was one of the first institutions to build mental hospitals. So we’ve had kind of a mixed history, both caring for people who are vulnerable and at the same time pushing them away. So we can come back to that place of embracing and caring for people.
Rick: You’re reiterating a truth I think about a lot—that we’re practical Gnostics, in that we compartmentalize ourselves into spiritual and physical and emotional categories. This is a very pragmatic issue for youth pastors, who always have kids on the mental health continuum in their ministry. They don’t have the kind of life experience you might need in these situations, and they often don’t have professional training in counseling. What practical advice would you give to a youth pastor who is dealing with young people who have mental illness?
Kay: Half of all chronic mental illness will show signs before the age of 14. So yes, absolutely, the youth group is full of students who are living with depression, with anxiety, with bipolar, with schizophrenia, with borderline personality disorder, with self-harm and cutting and burning and injuring themselves. Some struggle with suicidal ideation.
We encouraged our youth staff here at Saddleback to plan a mental health weekend so teenagers and their parents could talk about this openly, and they took the ball and ran with it. In both our junior high and high school services all weekend long, they had an emphasis on mental illness. They surveyed the kids to discover how many of them were living with depression or anxiety or an eating disorder or substance abuse, and it was staggering. Some of them had told the adults in their lives; some had not.
Our college pastor gave a message to the high school students—it was his own testimony of living with bipolar. It took such courage for him to step out there. He knew some of the students were going to be freaked out by it, but the vast majority were drawn to him. It gave them permission to talk about what was going on in their lives. The way to start breaking down the stigma is for those in leadership to talk about it, and to pray openly about it.
From there, we’ve got a resource that they can get if they would like—it’s called the Anchored Weekend. It includes everything from the messages to the testimonies to the transcripts to the graphics to the handouts to the games. They can use this resource to plan their own mental health weekend.
We followed up the student weekend with a night for the parents. So we had the Saturday and Sunday services for our students, and then on Monday night we did an event for parents. We Web-casted, and had 500 people watching it. Our youth staff were thrilled at the amount of interest. We told them: “We know that some of you are living with kids who have mental illness, and you don’t know where to go. You didn’t know that your church could be a place you could go for help.”
We just opened up the conversation and people basically came running. Another great resource is the National Alliance on Mental Illness (nami.org). It’s got all sorts of free downloads. You can learn how to organize support groups, and they have videos and downloads that will help. There is not enough education about this in Bible college or seminary for youth pastors, so we want to plug that hole.
Rick: It’s interesting, isn’t it, that we are living in the most affluent society in the history of the world, and we also have the largest suicide and depression problem in all of the world. We always say money doesn’t buy happiness, but that’s not how we act. Yet we are a nation that is in the grip of depression.
Kay: I just read a statistic this morning that said by the year 2020 major depressive disorder will be the number-one health concern of women around the world. If 60 million Americans are going to be living with mental illness in the next coming year, that means that every single one of us is going to know and love somebody who is living with a mental illness.
Rick: You talked about your own struggles throughout your life, and that you’ve always felt the weight of the world on your shoulders. That’s probably true for lots of ministry people. And yet ministry is the last thing you should go into if you struggle with the weight of the world on your shoulders, because you’re then taking on the weight of other people. It’s such a relational occupation. How have you personally coped with this intersection of your own makeup and what ministry is all about?
Kay: There is a definite disadvantage to being wired the way I am, there’s no doubt about that. But depression for me is not debilitating—it’s been more of a nagging headache than a migraine. And that nagging headache of depression has made me extremely compassionate. It’s enabled me to enter into the pain and the sorrow and the suffering that other people feel in ways that I probably wouldn’t be able to access if I didn’t also live with depression. I think I’m a better minister because I live with depression. And I’m not really interested in getting rid of it, because I would lose some of the deep compassion that I operate out of.
But how do you manage self-care when you’re already feeling the aches and pains of the world? Rick and I have faithfully taken a day off, for starters. He works hard but he rests hard, too. My dad was a pastor, so Mondays have always been a normal day off my whole life. When Matthew’s mental illness intensified before he died, I had to strengthen the way I was taking care of myself. I have worked really hard at being in shape physically, because nobody’s in charge of that but me. I do my best to rest well, to eat well, and to be as active as I can. And I’ve made a decision to be close to God—nobody can build relationships for me but me.
Rick: The bedrock truth is that none of this really works unless we’re dependent on Jesus, and we’re typically not dependent on him unless we’re in pain, on some level. It’s the strength out of weakness that he promises we’ll have. Last question for you. What has helped you to face your own great sorrow? What has changed in your relationship with Jesus, through this season of grief?
Kay: Rick and I both became Christians at a very young age—he was five and I was eight. So we’ve spent the better part of 50 years putting our roots down deep into God. I am so grateful for the decades of intentional, deliberate rooting in our lives. So when Matthew died, when our worst nightmare came true, we could survive. Truly, I give all of the credit to God, because our trust in him goes deep—we believe that he is good even when it looks different than that. We were able to claw our way back to a place of trust and hope because of the years we spent making sure that we were solid in our walk with God.
You know, my hope was crushed. And I had been one of those audacious, out-on-a-limb believers that God was going to heal Matthew. I would not let doubt enter my mind. And when that didn’t happen, I had to rebuild my hope. I also give a huge credit to Rick—some marriages fall apart after the death of a child, and that used to scare the daylights out of me because we had so much conflict when Matthew was alive. That’s the other thing that mental illness does—it can rob you of your relationships. We had differing opinions on how to respond to Matthew’s issues, and the conflict just got really intense between us.
I used to be afraid that if he did die that it would tear us apart. I wasn’t worried that we would divorce because that was not going to happen. I’m not leaving my husband—I’m committed to him and he’s committed to me. But I was worried that the intimacy and the closeness in our relationship would be seriously ruptured. And I can tell you that we are closer than we’ve ever been. And a big reason for that is because Rick decided to grieve with me, and not hold his grief separate.
Rick let himself feel it, to truly mourn. He gave himself time and space to feel his feelings—to express his anger, his shock, his disappointment, and his devastation—with God and with me and with others. We made a decision to walk through our grief together, whatever that looked like. We were not going to judge each other’s grief, but we were truly just going to be there for each other.
Rick: Well I’ve done hundreds of interviews over the 28 years I’ve been editor of GROUP, Kay, and not many of them have ended with me in tears. But this one has. I appreciate your open heart and your honesty—it’s been an honor to interview you.
Kay: Thank you. Thank you so much. ◊