Dr. Matthew Stanford: The church, in a sense, is the answer, in my mind, to mental health problems, because people are going there first. This is a divine opportunity that God’s given us. And we have to be more aware.
End of Excerpt
John Fuller: You may not know it, but an enormous number of teens and adults do suffer from mental health issues. And often, they and their families feel isolated and alone, not knowing where to turn for help. Well, today on Focus on the Family, we’re going to offer some help and encouragement as we visit with Dr. Matthew Stanford. Your host is Focus president Jim Daly. And I’m John Fuller.
Jim Daly: Hey John, 1 in 5 teens and 1 in 5 adults in the United States suffer with mental disorder in a given year. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of stigma to mental illness and the fact alone keeps many people from seeking treatment and getting medication, or the support they need. And, you know, those are stigmas that we want to attempt to overcome right now. Dr. Matthew Stanford understands this problem so well. Every day, he works with people whose lives have been shattered by mental illness. But he also sees many who are restored to health and – leading productive lives. Dr. Stanford is the CEO of the Hope and Healing Center and Institute in Houston. And he’s written a book called Grace for The Afflicted: A Clinical and Biblical Perspective on Mental Illness. Dr. Stanford, welcome to Focus.
Matthew: Thank you for having me.
Jim: It’s good to have you here, and I love the way you blend faith and science. You know, so many people in our culture today are saying, “No, those two cannot live and coexist,” but you say, “Rubbish” (laughter).
Matthew: Absolutely. They do exist and coexist. And really, science grew out of faith. Most of the early scientists, even earlier, were monks and priests, and then some of the most famous scientists we know of, Newton, Pascal, any number I could name off, were devout Christians. The reality is science and faith both deal with mystery. And as a scientist, as someone with a Ph.D. in neuroscience who’s done neuroscience research my whole life, I find that that’s what I do when I go in the lab. I’m looking to understand the mystery of our creation, understand the mystery of why this happens or that happens, or this doesn’t happen. And it’s the same thing with faith. Faith is a, is a receiving promises, accepting the mystery that exist as true. And really, they do coexist, as long as you accept that mystery exists. When you think you know it, that’s when you start to get in trouble.
Jim: Well no, and I so appreciate that. Those early scientists, their perspective was they were discovering God’s nature, God’s order, God’s purposes. And what a brilliant place to start, right? (Laughter).
Matthew: Absolutely. I think that is what science is. It’s an opportunity to study the creation.
Jim: Yeah, well, let’s get into the mental health issues. Let me ask it this way. When and how do mental health issues develop or become evident in a person’s life?
Matthew: Yeah. That’s a great question. And I think a lot of times, we think about mental disorders or mental illness as more of an adult issue. But, the reality is that 50% of chronic mental health conditions are in place by 14 years old, and 75% are in place by 24 years old. So in that 14- to 24-year-old range is where you see most of the onset of mental health problems.
Jim: When you state it that way, it’s intriguing to me. So, hormones play a role, body development, mental development. That would suggest that, as a child, these things aren’t manifesting as they will between 14 and 24, obviously.
Matthew: Right, absolutely. Puberty is, is a particularly stressful event for an individual. And mental health problems are a combination of biology and environment. And so, the biology, the vulnerabilities, that we bring to life and then the stressors of the environment are what ultimately cause these things to manifest.
Jim: You know, in the Christian community, particularly, mental health disorder does have all the stigmas that we talked about in the opening. I think the right question is, why? Why do we not see mental health issues like we would a biological issue, like diabetes, or a broken bone, or – why is this distinction inherent that somehow mental illness is different?
Matthew: Well, I think it’s a really complex answer. But to try to simplify it, though, is I think that we all have mental experiences, but not all of us have diabetic experiences. And since we all have mental experiences, we think we understand what other people are experiencing. So, if I’m sad, but you have clinical depression, I think I understand what it is to be depressed, because I’m sad. Or, if I’m a worrier, I think I understand what it is when you have generalized anxiety disorder, because anxiety and worry seem to be related. So, I think we understand that, and I think we think that we can just will ourselves to be better, because we have this kind of pick yourself up by your bootstraps kind of approach. But the reality is, is that, you know, mental illness is a disorder of an organ in your body, your brain. And the brain is the most complex, yet the most misunderstood – or least understood of all the organs.
Jim: And that, to me, is fascinating. You know, you used the very words that I often use to my detriment, which is “pick yourself up by your bootstraps.” And, you know, for me that was just my life. This is how I had to function. This is how I had to survive. And it, you know, for Jean and I, that becomes an issue in our marriage, because you know, one day she looked at me, I remember, and we were, you know – she was struggling with something going on in her family. And she just looked at me after my wonderful repertoire of “Pick yourself up by your bootstraps,” and she said, “You know, Jim, not everybody is capable of doing that.” It was an eye opener for me.
Matthew: And that’s absolutely true. I think that’s another aspect of it, is that we don’t want to ask for help. We want to believe that we can take care of it ourselves, because there’s a shame when we humble ourselves and ask for help. But again, the reality – in fact, part of the definition of being – having a mental disorder is that without an intervention or treatment, the individual is not going to be able to function normally.
Jim: In that context, I’ve read statistics that less than half of people with mental disorders actually get treatment. And besides the stigma, what are other barriers that prevent people from saying, “OK, I’m gonna get some help”?
Matthew: Other things are we have a tremendous lack of mental health care providers and facilities. I was just looking at…
Jim: That is so true.
Matthew: I was just looking at new data for Harris County, which is where I live in Houston, and we have 1 psychiatrist for every 8,500 individuals.
Matthew: …In the fourth-largest city in our country. So imagine, if you get more rural, how you get to tens of thousands of individuals. So, we don’t have enough providers. Also, it’s extremely expensive. And a vast number of insurance policies do not even cover mental health, and families don’t find that out, until they have a mental health issue.
Matthew: Your insurance plan does not have to cover mental health, and often does not. And if it does, it covers it very minimally, so it’s very expensive. People can’t afford it. And then, of course, the stigma – so if you survey individuals about why they did not get care, you will tend to find that finances and stigma are the top two, but things like transportation, lack of providers, cultural beliefs, education – some people don’t even realize that they can get help. They just think that they’re supposed to fix themselves.
Jim: Right, pick themselves up and keep moving. You had a conversation with a church elder, I believe, that kind of illustrates the point of mental health issues. Tell us what happened.
Matthew: Yeah, that happened, well, you know, for me a long, long time ago. That was really what kind of moved me – God used to move me from just kind of the life of a classic neuroscientist doing research into full-time ministry, what I do today. And that was, I was on a pastoral search committee. And after we had breakfast together, one of the elders asked me to stay behind. I was the deacon at the time. And he wanted to ask me questions about one of the elder’s wives. One of our elder’s wives had bipolar disorder. And she was a good friend of my wife and mine. And he wanted to know why that elder should be allowed to be an elder, given the chaos in his family, because she was being hospitalized; she would act oddly. There was a lot of struggle within the family and the marriage. And he saw that more as a faith or sin issue than he did as a mental health problem.
John: He thought that was a disqualification for serving as an elder…
Matthew: …A disqualification because the person, I guess, wasn’t taking care of their family, so how could they take care of the church? And this was a very bright man, a lawyer, very successful. But he really did want to understand the issue. He wasn’t – this was his perspective, but he wanted to understand, and he knew that I had some information on that. And so, I tried to explain it to him in the context like you did earlier of other chronic conditions, like heart disease, or diabetes. We don’t hold people culpable for those, and why should we hold her culpable? He was even concerned that she took medicine, because he had this pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps idea, which – which was if she’s, quote, unquote, “dependent on medicine,” isn’t that a bad thing? – as if somehow it’s equated with an addiction.
Jim: Well, let me – let me ask you a question there, because I know many Christians who struggle with the idea that, particularly in the mental health area, that it’s appropriate to take medication. And I have someone very close to me that struggled with that, because they thought, “If I’m a believer, and if the Lord loves me, then God will take care of this.” But it is true, the same application again, but what about other physical issues or diseases? I mean, they don’t always get healed by God. Rarely, in this modern era, do we see that. But how can you better help that person in a consulting situation, if you’re with them, how do you help that Christian who feels like it’s a admission of failure, I guess, that either my faith is not strong enough, or there’s some break between my relationship with God and me?
Matthew: Right, and that’s a very common question that I get. And in fact, the data of research and studies that we’ve done has found that as many as 25% of Christians that approach their faith community are told they should not take psychiatric medication, just for that exact reason. So, really…
Jim: Some listening right now may agree with that.
Matthew: Right. You have to step back to the basics, and you have to understand that there are plenty of chronic conditions which we take medication for. And again, I’m not talking to people on the extremes of Christendom who don’t believe you should ever go to a doctor. You know, if you believe you should never go to a doctor, and should just pray, I have more respect for your theology than the person who says, “It’s OK for me to take my heart medication or my daughter to take her diabetic medication, but you better not take psychiatric medication.” That’s an inconsistent theology.
Jim: OK, fair enough.
Matthew: The reality is that your brain – I’ve taught neuroanatomy for 20 years to graduate students. Your brain – it may sound a little bit kind of vulgar to say, but it’s really three pounds of meat. And I’ve held it in my hand multiple times. And it can be damaged to the point that it causes an alteration in your behavior, your thoughts and your feelings. And it can be treated, just like diabetes. We do not know what causes diabetes. We know what organ is damaged. We know what the outcome of that damage is, and then we treat the symptom. It’s the same thing with mental health problems. We do not know exactly what causes schizophrenia, but we do know the outcome, neurochemically, and we do know – we have medications that can minimize those symptoms. How is that any different than diabetes?
The reality is throughout the Scriptures, God uses physical remedies – Hezekiah and the poultice of figs; Jesus spits on people. There’s all types of physical remedies that are used in the Bible that God is involved in the healing. We have to step back and say, “If God is sovereign and healing occurs, then God caused the healing,” whether that’s with medication, or supernaturally. And I would say they’re all supernatural, because God is superintending our lives. So, I think what we’re doing when we say that is we’re – we’re taking it into a different sphere, and we’re saying, “There’s this natural sphere and there’s this other sphere,” and we’re really kind of pulling apart the sovereignty of God.
Jim: And I love that perspective. You know, here at Focus, we created a resource called Alive to Thrive. And it’s to help pastors and youth pastors and parents and people engaged with young people, particularly, to identify the mental health issues of somebody who may self-harm. And you have a story of, I believe, a woman who was diagnosed with bipolar. She came to a church or encountered a pastor. And, you know, he kind of fumbled with knowing the signs. Explain what happened.
Matthew: Yeah. That’s a story I tell a lot of times when I do presentations, because it’s just a perfect example of the fact that individuals in psychological distress are more likely to go to a clergy, before they go to a mental health care provider physician.
Jim: Which is exactly why equipping them to know the signs is so important.
Matthew: Absolutely, because we – people are going to faith communities first. And that’s anyone in the population, not just someone who’s a believer and not someone who’s associated with faith community. Anyone is more likely. The NIH, National Institutes of Health, have found that. So, a couple came to their pastor, and what had happened over the few weeks prior, the wife had began spending excessively. And when I say excessively, I don’t mean that she went out and bought a really expensive Michael Kors purse. I mean, he came home and she had bought a car. And then he came home the next day and she had bought a boat, and then she had bought a couple of PING golf club sets, and they didn’t really play golf.
And she, in the span of just a few weeks, had spent tens of thousands of dollars, charged up multiple credit cards and spent every penny that they had in the bank. They – he was on the verge of, literally, “We’re bankrupt. We have no money.” Every night was a fight. He was begging her to stop. She said, “It was no big deal. People have some debt. It’s not going to be a problem.” And they had some children. And so, he went to the pastor. They were believers. They’re involved in the church. He went with her to the pastor and said, “I don’t know what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna have to leave her to protect our children from financial disaster.” And the pastor, after just a few moments of kind of hearing this story said, “Well, it’s obvious what’s going on here. You’re just not a good steward of the moneys that God has given you.” And he put them in what a lot of churches have, which is a Dave Ramsey Financial Peace University class. And that sounds…
John: Which is good.
Matthew: …You know, which is a good thing. I mean, the churches I go to often run that. It’s a great thing.
Jim: Because 99% of the time, that’s the right answer.
Matthew: It was, you know, probably so. You know, what he didn’t do is, he didn’t ask any questions around, when did this start? What was she like before?
Jim: Right, is this different?
Matthew: He just assumed she had always been like this, even though, two – prior to two weeks, she’d actually been quite a frugal woman, and they never had any financial problems. If he’d asked just that question, he would have realized that this was something different. Well, they went into Financial Peace University, because people want to believe and want to get the help from the church. And then two weeks later, she became suicidal and was hospitalized in a delusional state. He missed the fact that she had undiagnosed bipolar disorder. If he had just asked, “When did this start?,” he would have thought, “This is something different.” If he had just asked, “Have you ever had any mental health problems in the past?,” he would have learned that in college and early on, she had struggled with some depressive states.
And then he would’ve start to think, “Well, maybe this is something related to that,” because excessive spending is a very common sign, particularly in women, of bipolar disorder. And he just missed it. He focused solely with a spiritual paradigm, a spiritual focus, which is OK in most instances. But we can do more than that. God has made us physical. God has made us spiritual. God has made us, you know, relational. The church can work in all of those areas. We have to stop just acting like all we do is spiritual issues. We need to get back to the point where we understand that the church is involved in all issues of our life – physical issues, spiritual issues, mental issues. And we can do more than just offer somebody Financial Peace University when they’re struggling with bipolar disorder.
John: You’re listening to Dr. Matthew Stanford. He’s our guest today on Focus on the Family, with Jim Daly. And I love the balance here. The title of his book is called Grace for the Afflicted: A Clinical and Biblical Perspective on Mental Illness. So, this isn’t a science track. It’s not a faith track. This is a combination of the two. And we’re hearing some great stuff. Get the book and further details about Alive to Thrive, our program on suicide prevention, at focusonthefamily.com/broadcast.
Jim: And Matt, we’ve heard some of the awkward situations where either there’s that misdiagnosis or misinformation. Let’s illustrate some positive approaches by the church community that help someone suffering from mental illness. Is there a story that fits that mode?
Matthew: It was a gentleman that came in. My friend was leading a Wednesday evening service. And suddenly, a gentleman that he didn’t recognize kind of came down the middle aisle as he was beginning to ask for prayer for the congregation. And the gentleman came right to the front of the church, and he said – he turned around and looked at the congregation. He said, “I just wanted to let you all know I’m back.” And he sat down in the front row. And my friend was kind of taken aback. And he kind of went over. And then the gentleman got up; he said, “I understand you’re a Bible-believing church, and I’m Jesus Christ, and I’ve returned, and I wanted to be here with you.”
And so my friend – you know, obviously, this is way outside the bounds of normality. And so, you know, he handled it in a very good way. He didn’t know really what was going on, but he did tell the gentleman, “If you’ll just sit here, I’ll be happy to talk to you when we’re done.” He finished up the service. He then sat and talked with the gentleman for quite some time afterwards. And ultimately – and I don’t really necessarily recommend this to pastors because there’s some liability issues – he drove the young man to an ER, where it was found that he was schizophrenic. He wasn’t taking his medication. He was hospitalized, and he received the care that he need. Now, a lot of times – and many of the people within that congregation thought this was some demonic issue, because the man’s saying he’s Christ. You know, that’s a heresy, right? And so…
John: That’s what the Pharisees said.
Matthew: Right, and so my – in fact, the Pharisees said Jesus was – had a demon and that He was mentally ill.
John: He claimed to be God’s Son.
Matthew: And so, my friend handled it. He recognized that this was not a spiritual issue; this was a physical issue. And he also, I think really, rightly, was the church to this man. He sat down, he listened to him, and he took him to the care that he needed. The church, in a sense, is the answer, in my mind, to mental health problems, because people are going there first. Where is there another mental health issue, or another medical issue, I should say, in which an individual is more likely to go to a church or clergy before they go to a provider? This is a divine opportunity that God’s given us. And we have to be more aware of what’s going on, and that’s really what I’m calling people to do. Simply be aware of what’s before you. Don’t just assume that it’s a spiritual issue.
Jim: Dr. Stanford, people need to know that hope and healing are possible. I mean, I can only imagine what that would feel like, that caving in on you all the time, if you’re dealing with anxiety or depression, or some other issue. You’ve seen it in your treatment center. What are some of those components that are involved in providing hope to those who suffer with mental illness?
Matthew: Right. I think that, you know – and, first of all, let me just say, hope and healing are possible. And if you are struggling with a mental health problem, or you have a loved one with a mental health problem, they can be better than they are today. But these are chronic conditions, and the person may require treatment for a lifetime. But so is diabetes, so is heart disease, and in some sense, cancer can be looked at that way. So, what I would say is this. For mental health problems, we need a more holistic approach. It isn’t just about taking pills and everything’s better. Medication is simply one tool in a larger tool belt that minimizes symptoms. A person needs a holistic approach that looks at them as a multifaceted individual, someone who is mental, spiritual, relational and has different aspects to their life. So they need pastoral care. They need spiritual guidance. They may need medication. They need appropriate diet and exercise. They need support from their family. They need a support group. They need a mental health team around them. They need relationship work.
I mean there’s a lot of things can be done. Unfortunately, the way our system – quote, unquote, “system” – is set up, a lot of times, when people do receive care, they just receive medication. And as you said earlier, a majority of people in United States today with mental health problems – and I really want you to listen to this, because this sounds like I’m talking about a Third World country. A majority of people with these very serious medical conditions receive no treatment in the United States today. And so, we need to step up as a body and say, “We can help.” We can help people with these issues. We can help to get them to the care they need. And we can support them as they recover.
Jim: Yeah. Matt, I would think the first line of observation, if I can call it that, is gonna be a family member, because you do life together. You’re seeing each other up close and personal. What role does a family member have to recognize these things and then to help the person who’s suffering? What progression should you be looking for?
Matthew: You’re exactly right. Mostly, it is a family member or a friend that recognizes it. Mental health conditions are the only condition which the disordered organ makes the decisions for care. So, your – your cognitive function, your thought process is damaged, and you have to figure out that it is. So, on the extreme, you may not even know where you’re ill. On the other end, you may minimize your illness. And so, a family member recognizes that. What a family member needs to look for is changes. How is a person normally, versus how are they now, if there’s been drastic changes? Are they eating more, eating less, sleeping more, sleeping less, losing jobs, losing friends, hanging out with the wrong peer groups? I mean, what is changing? And then, really a sense what you’re doing is you’re assessing level of distress. Don’t worry about what illness they have. Worry about how distressed they are. Are they anxious? Are they sad? Is this more than what you would deal with on an average day?
Is this something more than what your friends have dealt with? If it is, then you might want to bring a mental health care provider in to assist you. So, that’s how you want to watch for it. If they’re just having a bad day, and yesterday was fine, and then tomorrow, they seem better, that’s not a mental health condition. Mental health conditions are progressive and chronic and intense. And that’s what you want to watch for. Again, you also want to understand that most children don’t have mental health conditions. It’s usually when they get into teens that you start seeing problems. But you do want to be cognizant of that.
Jim: It can happen.
Matthew: It can happen. But 8-year-old children do not have schizophrenia. I mean, that just doesn’t happen. And so, you need to be aware. But don’t over-exaggerate. But also understand there’s nothing wrong with getting a mental health care provider and having them just to reassure you. I mean, if you thought your child had an infection, you’d go to a physician. You have the physician check them, and they go, “No, I think they’re OK.” It’s the same thing with mental health conditions. It’s not a weakness to go to a mental health care provider.
Jim: You know, Matt, oftentimes, Sunday is a difficult time for families who have mental health issues. You know, churches aren’t the most welcoming places when you have a child, for example, or a teenager who might blurt out or, you know, just act differently, because of what they’re dealing with. What ideas do you have for the church, specifically, to be better at accommodating families with mental illness, or reaching out to those families? How can we be better at servicing these folks?
Matthew: I think, No. 1, we have to realize that mental health conditions do not just affect the person that has the condition. It does affect the entire family. And so, at a minimum, there’s an opportunity for the church to be very active, involved and supportive and really just do what they normally do without having to worry about the mental condition itself. But I would also add in to children with mental health problems, children that have developmental problems, like Down syndrome or autism – churches are not equipped to deal with them either, just for what you said, because they disrupt this false hierarchy that we have put together or this false – and I say false in the sense that it’s fine. My own church has a structure, a schedule, things like that. But we act as if somehow the Apostles laid it down, and if it’s disruptive, everything is just going to go down the toilet here. So, the reality is that when a person or a child in distress shows up in a church, that individual is the most important individual in God’s economy at that moment. And we need to accommodate them, whether that be through a buddy system, or specialized classes, or training the congregation that it’s perfectly fine for individuals to yell out or make disruptions in our ceremonies.
One of the best things the church that I go to does – in fact, I think it’s probably the best ministry they have, and it’s the simplest ministry – is that a set of homes that are near our church for people with intellectual disabilities – these are all adults. They come to church, and they’re in our services. And they’re loud, and they yell out. Sometimes a guy yells out, and he does it all the time. He’ll say, “What’s he saying!?” You know, and so – but the church is used to them. It’s normal. They’re accepted. They’re welcomed. That’s the church. Not, “You need to be quiet, because we have a ceremony going on.” It’s, “You need to be here, because we’re all together in the presence of God.
Jim: It’s a very different attitude.
Matthew: Absolutely. It’s a completely different attitude. It’s not telling someone, “You need to be quiet, ‘cause you’re disrupting the Sunday school class.” It’s being more concerned about what is causing them not to be quiet. What is the distress that they’re having? Your focus needs to be on the person, not on the structure or tradition. That person came to your church. If they’re making noise, or the family is distressed, you need to focus on them. Don’t be worried about the service.
Jim: Yeah. It’s so true.
Jim: Dr. Matthew Stanford, man, thank you for helping us kind of look at this a little differently and to destigmatize mental illness. And, you know, one of the things, John, that Focus is here to do is to help everybody that we can help. And if you’re in that spot where you’re suffering in this way, or a family member, or someone you know, contact us. Let us provide resources to help you. We have a great group of caring Christian counselors who can start that process. We’re here for you, I guess, is what I want to say.
And then, of course, Dr. Stanford’s great book, Grace for The Afflicted, we want to get that into your hands, because I think it’s a tool, a resource to help equip you to better understand what’s happening. If you can make a gift of any amount, we’ll get it into your hands. If you can’t afford it, we’ll get it into your hands. We’ll trust that others will take care of that cost. We believe in the content, and we want you to have this so that you can be better equipped to deal with mental illness.
John: And we do recognize so many families are dealing with that. We are a phone call away. And our number is 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY, 800-232-6459. And online, you’ll find all of these resources, and we’ll also have a document from Dr. Standard on practical things the church can do to help suffering people. You’re going to find these helps at focusonthefamily.com/broadcast.
Jim: Dr. Stanford, it’s been wonderful having you here. I’m going to have you back. We can talk about this again and some other topics, too.
Matthew: Well, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
John: And coming up next time, helping women adjust to becoming a full-time mom.
Sarah Parshall Perry: OK, I get a paycheck and a pension and a 401(k), and I get accolades. And then suddenly, you have little people, and you’re not always thanked for the grilled cheese. So that has a tendency to reorient your thinking.
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