More than 3,300 attended the March 28th Gathering on Mental Health and the Church at Saddleback Church | Photo by Saddleback PiCS

First-ever Gathering on Mental Health and the Church

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Ground-breaking event takes place at Saddleback Church in Southern California

L to R: Teresa "Tita" Smith, LCSW, MSW; Chuck Hannaford, Ph.D.; Louise S. Dunn, M.Div.; Tom Okamoto, M.D.; and Rick Warren, D.Min. | Photo by Saddleback PiCS
L to R: Teresa “Tita” Smith, LCSW, MSW; Chuck Hannaford, Ph.D.; Louise S. Dunn, M.Div.; Tom Okamoto, M.D.; and Rick Warren, D.Min.

Dr. Rick and Kay Warren of Saddleback Church led the event, with the Most Reverend Kevin Vann, Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange; and Steve Pitman, president of the Board of Directors for the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Orange County (NAMI-OC).

More than 9,000 individuals attended the sold-out event: 3,300 in person and 6,000-plus online for a live webcast. Additionally, the conference hashtag #Hope4MH trended on Twitter.

The one-day event aimed to encourage individuals living with mental illness, educate family members, and equip church leaders to provide effective and compassionate care to any who face the challenges of mental illness. The day was organized around five plenary sessions and two blocks of workshop opportunities.

The gathering represents the first initiative in the Warrens’ mission to remove the stigma of mental illness following the death of their son, Matthew, who took his life on April 5, 2013, after a lifelong struggle with mental illness.

“To be able to call together the larger faith community is bittersweet, as we had hoped to share this moment with our son, talking about concern for people with mental illness,” Kay Warren said. “We do this in honor and memory of our son and others lost to mental illness, realizing there is hope for others dealing with this condition.”

Dr. Warren noted that over 34 years as a pastor, he has struggled along with people dealing with compulsions and fears. “I’m not an authority on mental illness, but I am an authority on living with mental illness,” Warren said. “We wanted to pull back the curtain and say, ‘It’s okay. I’m not okay, you’re not okay, but that’s okay because God’s okay.’”

A major goal of the event was bringing the subject of mental illness out of the shadows and acknowledging the necessity of removing the stigma from both mental illness itself and also from the discussion of it.

Most people aren’t embarrassed to reveal they have asthma or diabetes, for example, but those affected—directly or indirectly—by mental illness tend to act like everything is fine. Society reinforces this behavior, which stems from the fear that arises from not understanding the illness.

Plenary and workshop presenters included 25 religious, health and psychology professionals who addressed theoretical issues and practical solutions on the topic of mental illness, which they agreed affects 25 percent of all adults in the U.S. and one in 10 children during their formative years.

Tom Okamoto, M.D., and Rick Warren, D.Min. | Photo by Saddleback PiCS
Tom Okamoto, M.D., and Rick Warren, D.Min.

Topics encompassed the role of the Church in mental health; integrating physical, spiritual and mental health; crisis management for church staff; resourcing the Church; and supporting those suffering. In addition, 20 interactive workshops covered depression, stigma, suicide-risk reduction, church counseling, support groups and recovery ministries, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, addictions, and other topics.

“Western culture—or American culture—tends to rely on labels. They’re limiting in a lot of ways, no matter what the label might be,” said Bishop Vann. “We always have to let the Lord help us look and see the person behind the label who comes to us for help and healing.”

Several speakers noted that the first place to which many turn for help is their faith leader, because the heart of Jesus and the Church has always been for those who suffer. The consensus was that the Church has much to offer and needs to take the lead in the battle for mental health.

“There isn’t a church or parish anywhere in the U.S. or the world that is not affected by mental illness,” Pitman said. “The only difference is that some churches want to lead, discuss it and shed light on it, and others don’t.”

Throughout the event, individuals living with mental health shared their personal stories of being diagnosed and overcoming challenges in everyday life. After David Mandani gave his testimony of living with schizophrenia, Dr. Warren told him, “Your chemistry in your brain is not your character, and your illness is not your identity. You are a follower of Christ who struggles with mental illness, and your struggle does not define you. Jesus defines you.

“A thousand years before you were born, God knew you would be here today,” Warren added, encouraging the more than 600 in attendance struggling with a mental illness. “He wanted to bring you here to say to you, ‘You matter to me. I love you, I created you, I formed you, I have a plan for your life greater than the pain you’re going through. You are valuable, you are acceptable, you are lovable, you are forgivable and you are usable.’”


To watch archived footage of the event or for more information, visit

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