High-profile suicides elevate mental health questions about faith, science

Missouri minister Adam Lambdin, author of Schizophrenia, Mental Illness and Pastoral Care, poses with his wife Jenece. Courtesy of Adam Lambdin.
Missouri minister Adam Lambdin, author of Schizophrenia, Mental Illness and Pastoral Care, poses with his wife Jenece. Courtesy of Adam Lambdin.
Published June 22, 2018

The recent suicides of designer Kate Spade and journalist Anthony Bourdain stirred an internet conversation about the indiscriminate nature of depression.

What did he have to feel depressed about anyway?

How could she do that to her family?

But they looked fine.

The comments reminded me how people continue to misunderstand mental illness. Yes, it can happen to anyone, even the rich and well-traveled. Yes, it can happen to people who seem okay.

It also can happen to Christians.

A reported one in five Americans live with a mental health diagnosis — anxiety and depression being the most commonly diagnosed.

Among the 'one' are pastors and Christian leaders, such as Wheaton College President Phil Ryken and comedian Chonda Pierce, who speak openly about their conditions.

About 23 percent of Christian ministers live with a mental illness, according to a Lifeway Research study.

Still many religious leaders and believers label it a spiritual problem. Churches offer counseling but discourage doctor involvement. Too many use "Let's pray about it," as a one-step treatment plan.

I manage generalized anxiety disorder. I say "manage" because "suffer from" doesn't describe my experience. Daily medication (an SSRI selective serotonin uptake inhibitor) keeps my anxiety level low. Prayer helps a lot too. But prayer alone can no more treat my chemical imbalance than it can cancer.

About half of pastors rarely or never address mental illness at the pulpit, Lifeway reported. Less talk about psychotherapy and medication. This needs to change. Avoidance creates a stigma. If Christians fear questions or judgment, they are less likely to get needed help. Counseling programs are great but people need to feel comfortable making a appointment.

Also, Christians living with severe mental disorders should find hope at church not condemnation.

"When a person who is suffering from a mental illness dares to talk about their disorder to fellow Christians, it's very common to be told that the disorder is a spiritual issue rather than a valid affliction," Mitzi VanCleve, author of Strivings Within - The OCD Christian: Overcoming Doubt in the Storm of Anxiety.

"The effect this has on the person who is suffering is for them to feel guilt and shame. This can be very detrimental and prolong their suffering. It can cause them to feel that it's wrong to seek medical or professional help.'

Adam Lambdin, a Missouri minister, wrote the book Schizophrenia, Mental Illness and Pastoral Care, based on his experiences. Lambdin, now married and finishing his masters in Biblical studies, was diagnosed with schizophrenia upon leaving the army in 2010. He received mixed reactions.

"My faith has been helpful and destructive at the same time," Lambdin said about his illness. "I had one of three responses from Christians. Some said I needed to deal with my spiritual issues and the disease would take care of itself. Others said it was a medical issue only and medication was key. A minority literally said it was demons whispering in my ears."

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Lambdin, who takes daily medication and is considered in remission, says faith in-conjunction with science helped him heal.

It doesn't have to be one or the other, he said. Pastors can support the advice of psychologists without comprising their role as Biblical counselors.

"The uniqueness of pastoral care is found in finding trust and security in God in the midst of suffering," Lambdin said. "The Bible has a lot of inspiring and encouraging stories and teachings regarding this very thing."

Whatever your faith, know there is no shame in mental illness. Whether you are working through a tough life event, diagnosed with bipolar disorder or fighting clinical depression, you can find hope. Sometimes the answer is just to talk to someone. Other times, medication is helpful.

"I wouldn't go to my Pastor and expect him to be able to manage my hypertension, so why would I expect him to be able to manage my mental illness?" VanCleve asks. "He's not equipped or trained to do that and to expect him to have that kind of knowledge and expertise isn't at all realistic."

VanCleve added that medication and therapy must be tailored to fit the person's disorder, and it can take time to sort that out.

Whatever you need, seek it out.

"The role of faith in mental illness shouldn't be any different than it is for any other painful affliction," Van Cleve said. "We should pray for healing, but we should also pray for guidance and direction in obtaining effective help for our illness as well as for strength, discipline, perseverance and spiritual growth."

Contact Sarah Whitman at