Kay Warren's acquaintance with mental illness is all too personal.
She has revealed that as a child she was sexually abused. In 2013, her young-adult son Matthew – “my incredibly funny, sweet, creative son” – took his own life.
Warren, who is married to Rick Warren, a nationally known pastor of a California megachurch, knows churchgoers aren't immune to struggles with emotional wounds.
But every church can do something to address them, said Warren during a keynote speech Monday in Fort Wayne.
Warren addressed more than 800 people at the 2019 Look Up Faith Conference hosted by Fort Wayne's Lutheran Foundation at Grand Wayne Convention Center.
The event aimed to advance mental health ministry through a daylong series of workshops and talks by leaders in the field.
The conference's slogan called mental illness the “no-casserole illness,” referring to how congregations often assist families facing an illness like cancer by taking them a covered dish.
But churches too often remain silent or conflicted about what to do in the case of mental illness or suicide. An instant cellphone poll found about 30% of attendees' congregations in the last year addressed the issue “not at all.”
Churches have taught that suicide is a sin, and some denominations even have refused to bury those who die by suicide with Christian ceremonies or in Christian cemeteries.
“I think that is in the process of changing,” Warren told The Journal Gazette in an interview. “Even if you think it's a sin, no sin is unforgivable, since God is so gracious.
“Our salvation does not depend on our last act on Earth. ... It depends on the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.”
Warren said that church should be “the safest place” for people – a place where they can be their “whole selves,” even if they're feeling broken.
And every church can “make a commitment to being a safe place” and “take one practical step” in that direction, she said.
Warren added she was encouraged that about 4 of 5 people in one survey said that they'd go to a clergy member for help – even before seeking out medical help for symptoms of mental illness.
With about 350,000 churches in America, she said, that means the potential for help is close at hand.
Just noticing when a person doesn't seem right, asking how the person is doing and listening – and becoming familiar with resources in the community that can provide assistance – can change a person's path, Warren said.
“We're often afraid that asking (if someone has thought about suicide) is putting that thought in their head,” she said.
But with 45,000 Americans taking their lives in 2018 alone, it's likely that the thought is already there, Warren said.
Just asking, she said, “will save lives.”