In observance of World Mental Health Day, Saddleback Church Pastor Rick Warren and his wife, Kay, shared practical advice for parents raising a child with mental illness.
In a Facebook live video, the Warrens, who in 2013 lost their 27-year-old son, Matthew, to suicide, addressed the question: “How do you as parents balance supporting a child with mental illness and at the same support your other children?”
While admitting they often handled the situation “poorly,” the Warrens explained the importance of employing “situational leadership” when it comes to parenting.
“Certain people, you draw the best out of them one way, and certain others you draw the best out of them in another way, and every one of your children of course are totally different,” Rick Warren said.
“It is a myth that you will give equal amounts of time to each of your children and to your spouse,” he continued. “You don’t want to treat your kids equally; you want to treat each kid uniquely because what works with one child doesn’t work with another. If you treat them all the same way, you’re really not a good parent.”
Oftentimes, children who suffer from a mental illness are the “squeaky wheel” and require more time and attention, The Purpose Driven Life author said. Because of this, it’s important to do “life in seasons.”
“That means, in this particular time, [one child] is in a crisis, [they’re] getting all of my attention,” he explained. “Another time, another child’s going to be in a crisis, and they’re going to get all of my attention.”
“It’s a matter of, sometimes they get more, sometimes they get less. But you do have to try to help understand, we all need each other, and we’re all important. It’s OK for someone to get more attention than me in different times of life.”
It’s important to treat mental illness like we treat physical illness, Warren contended, using the example of blindness.
“You’d obviously compensate in your house to not put stuff in the way of someone who is blind,” he said. “Same thing is true with a mental illness — that we have to compensate for each other. The Bible says to make allowances for each other; that’s a good phrase. It means cutting each other some slack.”
Kay Warren agreed, “It’s harder to believe that when someone has a mental illness, because they can’t see it, that they deserve that same kind of accommodation.”
“It’s hard,” she said. “You’ve got to just be aware that you may be giving attention right here at this moment, but look for those other times when you can pour into the other kids. And then, helping the kids that don’t have the illness to understand that what their sibling is experiencing is real, it’s genuine, it’s an illness, and it’s worthy of some time and attention.”
Living with a sibling with a mental illness can be difficult for children, the Warrens said, and it’s important to apologize to those children when they feel slighted or neglected.
“If we can show grace to each other and we can be willing to be humble and ask for forgiveness, that goes a long way keeping hurt from moving into resentment.”
The Warrens also emphasized the importance of self-care when raising a child with a mental illness.
“You need to have some outlets for your own emotion,” Rick Warren said. He encouraged parents to divert daily: do something every day that relieves stress; withdraw weekly: take a day off every six days; and abandon annually: take a vacation every year, “and don’t take your laptop with you,” Warren said.
According to the World Health Organization, World Mental Health Day is observed on Oct. 10 every year, with the overall objective of raising awareness of mental health issues around the world and mobilizing efforts in support of mental health.
Over the years, the Warrens have become major mental health advocates in the Church, organizing conferences on the issue and urging more Christian engagement. The pair concluded their Facebook live video with a call to action.
“There’s a role for everybody in Mental Health Day and caring for people living with mental health illness,” Kay Warren said. “Simply being aware that so many people around you are living with a mental illness. If you walk through life with that awareness, then you’re going to be kinder, you’re going to be more gracious to people, you’re going to be more forgiving, less judgmental.”
She also encouraged believers to advocate for those living with mental health: “There are mental health laws in this country that are not fair, mental health care isn’t covered at the same rate as physical health care,” she said. “Health is health … use your voice to speak up for those who are vulnerable.”