But they know that his death forced them to reconsider their beliefs.
The Mitchellville couple wrestled with the belief held by many evangelicals — and people of other faith traditions — that those who end their own lives are going to hell. Only God can give or take life, some believe. Several people told them that after their son’s death.
“We had that question, too,” William Powell said. But after some research and conversations with others, they found solace in the note their son left behind. “At the end, he said: ‘Lord have mercy on my soul.’ I know just by that request, that appeal, that my son was ushered into heaven.”
Stigma, discomfort and disagreement about mental health issues are hardly confined to religious communities or evangelical Christians.
Traditional Catholicism and Judaism teach that suicide is immoral and may impact one’s existence after death. For centuries people of those faiths who ended their own lives were commonly refused burial in official cemeteries, although that is no longer the case.
Protestantism doesn’t teach that committing suicide affects someone’s standing with God after death. But while evangelical Christians vary in their approaches to the topic, many conflate mental illness and spiritual struggle and look first to God for healing.
When Michelle Freeman’s husband came to her a decade ago, struggling with depression, her advice was clear: There’s no such thing as depression. He was battling internally because he was resisting God, Freeman remembers telling her now ex-husband.
“He didn’t want to bend the knee. God was drawing on his heart, and he was refusing it,” she said this week, paraphrasing a talk that now makes her cringe.
Raised in a traditional Methodist home, she had joined a small fundamentalist church in Loudoun County for a time in which the pastor taught that all healing rested with God. She has since left that church and today considers herself a devout, if churchless, Christian. Her own struggle with depression a few years later led her to believe that psychological struggles don’t signal a lack of faith in God.
The desire to unify beliefs in psychology and those in God have produced a recent boom in faith-based counseling. This includes counselors who meld prayer, medication and secular concepts as well as those who focus primarily on prayer. Some evangelicals, including Stetzer, said it can be dangerous for people to confuse “spiritual struggles” with mental illness. “It’s exceedingly important that we get the difference.”
The topic of mental illness and church silence has gained steam lately because of the school shootings in Newtown, Conn. Rick Warren and his wife, Kay, were among the major leaders previously scheduled to attend a meeting in a few weeks to help form a clearer Christian approach to mental health. Another participant is Southern Baptist Convention President Frank Page, whose daughter Melissa killed herself in 2009 at the age of 32.
This week, Page said that the problem of stigma is a societal one but that “most churches aren’t stepping up to the plate to talk about the elephant in the room.” He said the “niceties in Christian society” are a roadblock, but theology can appear to be one too.
Mike Fewster, a pastor at Chantilly’s New Life Christian Church, can relate to Matthew Warren’s struggles. Fewster, 44, fought various addictions and considered killing himself before he was hospitalized and diagnosed with bipolar disease. His problems led him to found a weekly support group to encourage others to open up, but about half of the group’s members come from churches where they don’t feel comfortable sharing their struggles.
“For a lot of people, church is just a place they go, a building, they put on their suit and tie, stand up when they’re told to and check a box, but that’s not supposed to be church,” he said. “There is this false idea that church people are perfect. I try to say: ‘Until you break that, you’ll never get healing.’ ”