Lamenting the Life We Had Hoped For…Wendy Heyn

shutterstock_250550104We were delighted to bring home our second child, Liam. He seemed to be a healthy baby boy. We thought he was perfect: 10 fingers, 10 toes, and startling blue eyes just like his big sister, Sophia.

As the months went by, I began to notice that Liam was not developing like his sister had – or like any of the other babies that I knew. My very first realization of this came when I took him for his six-week pictures – a stress-filled experience that took two tries and yielded only one or two halfway decent photos. I remember driving home and wondering why, when Sophia was that same age, we had been able to get her to concentrate on me and end up with so many great photos, whereas with Liam, not only was he fussy, but we could not even get him to look at me or a toy long enough to take a good photo. That experience left me with a sick feeling in my stomach and a nagging worry.  Time passed and Liam grew, but he didn’t meet milestones.  He didn’t roll over or sit up during his first year of life.  He didn’t learn to crawl, walk, or run.

As it became apparent that something was amiss, we began to search for answers. We visited every specialist I could think of. Our pediatrician thought that I was overreacting and that Liam would eventually catch up and be just fine.   After all, every baby develops on his or her own time schedule. Despite his assurances, I was calling every medical professional that I could find. I had to find out what was going on with my son. We spent hours in doctors’ offices (in addition to the hours we were spending in therapies) and underwent many tests requiring sedations, blood draws, you name it. We left no stone unturned.

wendy-heynFinally, one afternoon our world was tipped on its’ side with a phone call.  Liam’s pediatrician read me a diagnosis that I had never heard before, MECP2 Duplication syndrome.  He went on to say that what Liam had made him severely cognitively disabled, would give him great physical challenges, and would extremely decrease his life expectancy. I had never allowed myself to consider that Liam had something so severe and that he might have something that couldn’t be fixed.  As if Liam’s diagnosis weren’t enough, I also learned that I carried the duplicated gene.  It felt like our dreams for our beautiful Liam were shattered and on top of that, what about the family that we had planned and hoped for? What about more siblings for Sophia? Would she never have a typical brother or sister whom she could play with, fight with, and confide in? How would we take care of Liam? How would this affect Sophia? The questions in my mind were endless.  I was shocked, rattled and devastated.

That shock and devastation has numbed over the years.  It has been replaced by a lingering sadness and a fierce love for our son just as he is. As the years have gone on we have certainly faced life-altering challenges and daily struggles.  We have learned all sorts of medical things that we never knew (or wanted to know!).  Liam’s kind and gentle nature have encouraged everyone he meets. He has taught us about a deeper love for others.  His very needs and existence encourage us in a closer relationship with our God. We have enjoyed friendships with teams of professionals who have loved our boy and taught him and us so much.  We have seen that sibling relationships of every kind are beautiful, fulfilling, aggravating at times, and worthwhile.

While we have learned and grown and loved our boy, it has not been without an aching heart.  We still lament the life that we hoped for. We are sad for all of the things that Liam misses out and all of the medical challenges that he faces. The day to day caring for Liam and the difficulties of aquiring help along the way can make us bone weary.  This special needs road is not an easy one.  Yet we know that even in this unexpected life of ours, God’s grace abounds.  He heals, restores, comforts and strengthens. He is a God who saves.

“He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all–how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32)

We are so thankful when God allows us to see glimpses of his restorative and comforting hand here on earth. These are the moments that give us courage to go on.  They remind us that God is before us and behind us and on every side.

515iy2yfxnl-_sx322_bo1204203200_My book is a collection of stories about moms who have faced unexpected and difficult things in life with a child who has special needs.  Show Me Your Mighty Hand  uses challenges faced by Mary, Jesus’ mom.  She faced difficult and unexpected things and God’s faithfulness to her can be an example of God’s faithfulness to every mother.

As you read the stories in the book, I hope that you are encouraged by God’s presence and promises in the lives of each of these moms.   I want your eyes to be opened to his presence in your life, your child’s life, and your family’s life.  I pray that reading these stories encourages you to trust God’s plans even when you don’t understand them.

Wendy Heyn taught early elementary students in Christian schools for ten years before staying home with her three children. Her experience as mom to Liam, who has MECP2 duplication syndrome qualified her to write Show Me Your Mighty Hand, available through Northwestern Publishing House.

shutterstock_138372947Know a family impacted by disability in need of help finding a local church? Encourage them to register for Key for Families. We can help connect families with local churches prepared to offer faith, friendship and support, while providing them with encouragement though our Facebook communities. Refer a friend today!

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Church, we can’t not know about adoption and special needs!


I think that was the only word either of us uttered until we were back in the car. Then I turned to Melinda and put into words what I’d been hiding in the corners of my soul:

“Sometimes I wish I didn’t know. I know ignorance isn’t best, but knowing so much about injustice? Sometimes it hurts too much.”

The documentary we had just watched was about global educational inequities for girls, but my words echoed what I was learning about orphans and widows and poverty and disability in the wake of our recent adoption of a little girl with cerebral palsy from Taiwan. I was realizing I hadn’t yet left behind my elementary school petulance: “This. Is. Not. Fair.”

 I didn’t know then why God needed to be opening my eyes.

I didn’t know He was working to bring three more children into our family, darlings who had already experienced more than their fair share of unfairness in such few years of life.

I didn’t know I’d be speaking at national conferences and writing to wide audiences to open their eyes too, so that churches might understand how to love families like mine well.

I didn’t know one of our children whisper, “you no beat me?” with big eyes trained on me each time she made a mistake in her first six months with us.

I didn’t know that listening well to those whose lived experiences were different than mine would be the only possible preparation for the first time my child would be told “go back to Africa” on the playground.

I didn’t know we would lose friends who were more comfortable with their fear than with learning about our child’s HIV and the ways it doesn’t pose any risks to other kids.

I didn’t know how much it would sting to hear well-meaning adults talk about how lucky our kids were, when I know that they’ve lost far too much – their family, their country, their native language, their culture – to be considered lucky if we stopped to think before we spoke.


I didn’t know that I needed to know the stories of injustice because I would be welcoming the stories in, tucking the story-bearers into bed, and weeping over them once they fell asleep because they had forgotten how to weep for themselves.


Our church community didn’t know what we would need, but they said yes with us: yes to loving through the brokenness, yes to being faithful to the ones (me included) who need to learn to trust once again, yes to a bit more chaos in our row during worship, yes to choosing to do good for young ones for whom others hadn’t always chosen good in their recent past.

Yes, adoption has beauty but it is a beauty born of brokenness. It is an arrest, trial, bloody walk, crucifixion, earthquake, deep mourning, dark Saturday, and fear of “what next?” before a Sunday resurrection.

As we (rightly) encourage family reunification efforts first and then foster care and/or adoption in our churches, let us be careful not to rush to Easter Sunday stories while forgetting the darkness preceding them.

As we examine the greatest needs for adoption around the world, children with special needs are the most likely to be overlooked, the most likely to age out of the system – here or abroad – without a family, and the most likely to be preyed upon by those who known that no one is keeping watch over these children, adolescents, and teens in the ways I keep watch over my six little ones. Some of their disabilities are like those we already know well, like Down syndrome or cerebral palsy. But others? Trauma that sometimes looks like ADD or acting out. Neurological deficits from neglect. Sensory sensitivity from not receiving a loving touch for days, months, or even years. Institutional autism from never learning how to have typical social interactions. PTSD more severe than most combat soldiers. Feeding challenges like hoarding, stealing, gorging, or gagging from living with food insecurity and malnutrition. Sexual precociousness from sins committed against these innocents, as no one else knew, cared, or offered protection. Persistent lying as a defense or a habit or a disconnect from truth for so long that honesty feels unsafe.


Church, when you encourage families to say yes to foster care and adoption, how are you willing to change so that you can continue to say yes to these families after the children have entered their homes?

If you’re stumped by the last question, please know that we at Key Ministry would love to help! We offer free consultations to churches considering these sorts of questions. Go here to get started!


Dingles SpringCheck out Shannon Dingle’s blog series on adoption, disability and the church. In the series, Shannon looked at the four different kinds of special needs in adoptive and foster families and shared five ways churches can love their adoptive and foster families. Shannon’s series is a must-read for any church considering adoption or foster care initiatives. Shannon’s series is available here.

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On losing my pastor

garnettMy pastor announced his resignation yesterday. I’ll miss him greatly.

Garnett Slatton is quite unlike anyone I’ve ever come across in ministry. He’s achieved great success at the highest levels of his profession – in finance, as the president of an NBA team and as a professor in the School of Business at Vanderbilt University. I have a different quality of respect for him as a result of his accomplishments outside of the church, but even more so for the faith he and his wife demonstrated in walking away from the comforts he had achieved in the middle of his career to pursue God’s call to attend seminary.

He is an exemplary leader in the way he models humility. Other pastors and leaders would view our church as very successful. Under Garnett’s leadership, the church accomplished all of the nine priorities he was charged with upon his arrival eight years ago. He had lots to be proud of…but I never once saw him take any credit for the impact of our church’s ministry. I was struck by the way he introduced himself at the beginning of his sermons… “Hi, I’m Garnett and I’m one of the pastors here.”

13709948_1092005944208162_8002062096886167558_nHe is visionary in identifying opportunities for ministry collaboration that meet the heartfelt, practical needs of the people of our city and region while making God famous. Only someone with Garnett’s entrepreneurial gifts and leadership ability would have recognized the opportunity in purchasing an entire church campus in the heart of the city of Cleveland for the purpose of launching a hub for church planting, alternative education, international missions, urban renewal, community development, the arts, and transitional care for homeless veterans, operated in partnership with 20 other churches and non-profit organizations.

Garnett is a very gifted teacher. He communication style speaks to visitors new to the faith while challenging those who are very familiar with the Bible. He reminds me of Tim Keller in his ability to present the truths of the Gospel to very bright people skeptical about Christ or Christianity.

My experiences as a psychiatrist, as someone who has served in leadership positions in a number of non-profits and as a ministry leader has led me to observe that relational challenges frequently occur when an organization is filled with highly gifted and passionate leaders. Especially in a church or ministry. For persons who serve on staff or in key volunteer position in a local church, their work represents an ongoing act of worship, and their coworkers often represent their personal and spiritual support networks. Some conflict is probably inevitable when strong leaders have the courage to share their organizations with other strong leaders. And even though the conflict is often difficult and painful, God sometimes uses conflict to advance the Gospel. See Acts 15:36-41 and the story of Paul, Barnabas and John Mark for an example.

It’s probably time for my pastor to move on to his next assignment. Far too often, losing a pastor means losing much more. We see churches with vibrant special needs or disability ministries let go of those ministries when staff or volunteers move on or when new pastors arrive who prioritize other areas of ministry. Churches in transition often have fewer resources (finances and volunteers) to invest in service or outreach. The presence of a stable and familiar church community is of great comfort for those enduring the storms of life-a state that pretty much characterizes the state of families our ministry resources churches to serve.

I don’t like it when God makes me uncomfortable. My church has been extraordinarily supportive of the work of this ministry. More importantly for me, Garnett and his predecessor (Hu Auburn) established a culture in which the people of the church are resourced and empowered for ministry and the role of staff is to offer their experience and resources to members and attendees with vision for ministry and a passion to serve. I’ve come to appreciate how rare it is to encounter church leaders secure enough in their roles to share the opportunity to “do” ministry with others, and it’s a little unsettling to think of how difficult it might be for my church to find a leader on the outside comfortable with such a ministry culture.

From a leadership perspective, what I most appreciate about Garnett is the way in which he made the other people around him better. He left our church with two pastors who do a fabulous job of teaching in the context of their unique gifts and talents, and an extremely capable team of ministry leaders. He laid the foundation for an organization that will continue to do great work for the Kingdom after he moves on.

My hope lies in Jesus, and not in any person or organization. At the same time, it’s hard to see a pastor move on whose teaching resonated with my extremely intelligent but somewhat introverted teenage daughter who isn’t into the stuff that appeals to her same-age peers attending high school ministry. It’s hard to see a pastor move on with great sensitivity to the struggles of individuals and families impacted by mental illness. It’s hard to see a pastor move on who still had much to give to our city and our region. It’s especially hard to see a pastor move on who served as an exemplary role model for translating professional accomplishment to ministry excellence because there are so few to choose from.

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.

Romans 8:28 (ESV)

There is consolation in the knowledge that all things do work together for good in the Kingdom. Some church and its’ surrounding community have an incredible blessing on the way.

garnett-thank-youGarnett and Michelle…thanks for having the faith to leave a comfortable life behind to pursue a call to ministry. Thanks for your faithfulness in leaving behind the sun and warmth of the South for the cold and snowy shores of Lake Erie. And thanks for the sacrifices you made over the past eight years for the benefit of my family and the families of our church. We’ve been richly blessed.

For an example of Garnett’s teaching, here’s his message from this past Easter Sunday… 


shutterstock_138372947Know a family impacted by disability in need of help finding a local church? Encourage them to register for Key for Families. We can help connect families with local churches prepared to offer faith, friendship and support, while providing them with encouragement though our Facebook communities. Refer a friend today!

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Five reasons limiting electronics is harder for kids with mental health conditions

shutterstock_158688710I was reading a very helpful little book this past week written by children’s ministry leader, tech guru and entrepreneur Matt McKeeParent Chat – The Technology Talk for Every Family. Matt’s book is especially useful for parents of school age entering a time when kids begin to demand access to smartphones and tablets that are becoming ever more central to the social world of “tweens” and young teens with each passing year. He shares great ideas for setting up a plan proactively to protect kids from the adverse effects of technology. I encourage parents, as well as pastors and children’s/family ministry leaders to check out the book “before the horse leaves the barn,” as is too often the case by the time the kids turn up in my office.

51Rai9Gzj5L._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_Outside of questions related to diagnosis,prognosis and medication, I probably get more questions as a child psychiatrist from parents seeking guidance as to how to limit their child’s exposure to technology. In particular, I get lots of questions around managing the behavioral responses from kids when their use of electronic devices starts intruding upon academic performance, family life and sleep.

Well-meaning parents often experience blowback from kids served by a practice like ours entirely out of proportion to any restrictions they seek to impose on technology. I’d like to share five possible explanations for the extreme emotional reactions kids with common mental health conditions often manifest when parents limit access to smartphones, computers, tablets and gaming systems.

  • Electronics often serve as a social lifeline for kids with anxiety. A number of years ago, our practice participated in a treatment study involving kids with anxiety or depression. I began to consider how technology might be useful in ministry with kids with anxiety when I came across a profile of a kid enrolled in our study with Social Anxiety Disorder who had 609 Facebook “friends.” We had another kid with social anxiety in the study who was sending 13,000 texts/month while managing to use zero minutes of talk time. Children or teens with social anxiety often struggle greatly to answer the phone, arrange “play dates” or to request services over the phone…ordering a pizza, or asking a classmate about a homework assignment.
  • Texting and messaging technology frequently helps level the playing field for kids who struggle with social communication. Kids with autism, Asperger’s Disorder and other social communication disorders frequently struggle with language pragmatics…interpreting cues from body language, facial expression, tone and inflection of voice. Texting and messaging tends to minimize their social disadvantages relative to peers because many non-verbal components of communication are off the table. Texting and messaging also offer the advantage of giving kids who are awkward in social situations more time to consider their responses than they experience when face to face with peers.
  • Electronics often represent the principal coping mechanism for kids who struggle with obsessive thinkingChildren and teens with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (characterized by the presence of unpleasant, intrusive, repetitive thoughts) often seek out nearly continuous mental stimulation in order to distract themselves from their mental distress. They’ll often cope reasonably well during the school day because of the nearly non-stop cognitive stimulation from listening to teachers, taking notes, completing work and interacting with peers. They often experience the most distress during down time at home, during vacations or at bedtime when they have less activity to distract them from their intrusive thoughts. Their tablets and smartphones are often used to fill every available moment of inactivity.

I had an opportunity to experience this firsthand during a home visit this past week with a kid I’ve seen for years with severe OCD. The child needed to use the bathroom partway through the visit, and after a period of fifteen or so minutes elapsed, the father thought he needed to intervene when he noticed that the iPad also went to the bathroom. The child’s profanity-laced tirade that ensued when the father tried to take the iPad away was qualitatively different than anything I’d ever seen in our office before, and persisted for at least thirty minutes afterward. Kids who haven’t identified and mastered other strategies to distract themselves from or block out their obsessive thoughts often become extremely dependent upon technology as a coping mechanism.

  • Electronics are a primary escape for kids with academic difficulties. Imagine yourself going to a job every day where you struggle to meet the expectations in your assigned role and find yourselves surrounded by peers who are frequently commended in public for meeting or exceeding expectations. Imagine that your family participates in and receives a written copy of your quarterly performance reviews. Imagine that after spending your day at this job for which you feel incompetent or inadequate, you’re expected to do two or three hours of work each night that reminds you of all the negative thoughts and feelings you harbored about yourself all day long. Wouldn’t you try to find an escape? Video games, YouTube, texting and social media represent that escape every night for kids with academic or social difficulties in school.


  • Gaming represents an opportunity to achieve mastery for kids who aren’t especially gifted athletically, academically or artistically. Kids with common mental health conditions are more likely to experience academic difficulties. They are less likely to have the motor coordination to be successful athletically compared to their peers. They may lack the fine motor coordination to excel as an artist or as a musician. Where do they hang their hat and experience success when compared to their peers? A disproportionate number of patients I’ve had who struggled to control the time they spent in gaming are kids for whom gaming represents the only area of their lives where they regularly outperform their peers. I also have far more patients who are gamers with unrealistic expectations of making their avocation into a profession than I have athletes who are convinced their future lies in the NBA or the NFL. Kids will react with unforeseen anger and hostility when parents try to limit access to the one activity from which they obtain a sense of competence and self-confidence.

I’m not saying that parents should back down in the face of extreme emotional reactions from their kids when they seek to place limits on access to smartphones, tablets, gaming systems and other forms of electronics. I am suggesting that parents consider why their child’s reactions to being parented in their use of technology are so extreme and to consider how they might address the why that fuels their apparent addiction to their electronic toys.


shutterstock_138372947Know a family impacted by disability in need of help finding a local church? Encourage them to register for Key for Families. We can help connect families with local churches prepared to offer faith, friendship and support, while providing them with encouragement though our Facebook communities. Refer a friend today!

Posted in Anxiety Disorders, Book Reviews, Controversies, Families, Key Ministry, Mental Health | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Mental Health Ministry…So What?

shutterstock_234301618Editor’s note: Catherine Boyle from OutsideIn Ministries continues her series describing her church’s process in establishing a mental health inclusion ministry. Today, she looks at the impact intentional mental health ministry on all of the people in a local church. Click here and here for earlier installments in Catherine’s series.

Readers are encouraged to save the date for Saturday, November 19th when Dr. Steve Grcevich from Key Ministry will be joining Catherine and her team at Ironbridge Baptist Church in suburban Richmond, VA for a conference to celebrate the launch of their ministry. Registration info will be coming soon.

In the mental health ministry that’s underway at, there are lots of things we’re doing: looking at documented needs within our geographic community and within our church body, making decisions about training and securing the right resources to provide the needed training.  More details on that in the final paragraph below.

But the harder question, the one we wrestle with fairly often, is ‘So What?’ If we determine training needs and find the trainers and programs, if we set up a coping skills class for parents of kids with mental illness, if we establish support groups, will the newfound support break down the stigma? Will the methods and skills delivered in coping skills class become habit, or just head knowledge? Even with offering training and talking openly about mental health issues, will mental illness continue to be viewed as an ‘us vs. them’ problem?

These are fair questions. Truth is, mental health ministry will only have lasting impact if it is delivered and provided with love. Not mandated by the church leaders, but loving as a way of life of the broader faith community. Not the fluffy Hallmark© kind of love, but true agape – deep, personal, sacrificial.

Through the lens of mental health issues, here are a few modified verses from 1 Corinthians 13:

If a depressed person joins my small group, I will be patient, I will be kind. If an outcast kid in youth group acts weird, I will not seek my own clique, I won’t be provoked to irritation by their behavior, I won’t take into account the socially wrong thing he said. I won’t rejoice in the unrighteousness of those awkward people being cast out of my group, but rejoice with the truth that Jesus loves the one I find unlikable.

Ouch. Sacrifice and serving someone I don’t really like doesn’t sound like very much fun. But it sounds and looks and tastes and smells like the kind of ministry Jesus did. And it’s what He calls His followers to do. Love beyond your own ability to love. Love like that is impossible without the Holy Spirit operating through you.

More 1 Corinthians 13:

When my understanding of mental illness was small, child-like, I reasoned like a child: odd behavior has to be sin. When my understanding of mental illness and neurological differences grew through factual information, I did away with my childish interpretations, and though I still have a dim understanding of mental illness, at least I now understand more clearly, while my Lord fully knows my own flaws and frailties.

More than anything, mental health ministry is about your church community, as a whole, getting the concept that people with mental health issues aren’t problems to be solved, they are people to be loved.

The people most likely to provide that kind of deep, personal, sacrificial love to those who don’t fit neatly into our programs are the ones who have been wounded by mental illness, their own or that of someone they love.


One thing we’re working on that has been shown to be effective for other education topics: the power of stories.  Ask the wounded ones to share their experiences.  As theologian Henri Nouwen said of his own depression and why he wrote about it, “What is most personal might be more universal.”

If those who have experienced and lived with mental illness are willing, videotape their stories, so the beneficial and instructional aspects of their stories can be shared repeatedly. The professional mental health community has learned the great value that comes from engaging people with lived mental health experience in helping others navigate their own illnesses and recovery. Within the church community, we can learn from those with lived experience what has been helpful (or harmful) in allowing them to see their mental illness as part of the human condition and the journey of faith.

A 2014 survey of church attenders revealed that 65% of family members in a household of someone with acute mental illness want the local church to talk more openly about mental illness, so that the topic is not so ‘taboo.’ Only 2 in 5 of church-attending people with mental illness surveyed said their church has helped them think through and live out their faith in the context of mental illness. Sharing the stories of those with lived experience is one way to deepen church community and connection, begin breaking down the stigma, and begin delivering support to those suffering silently.

Here’s a link to the mental health ministry implementation outline at Ironbridge. We’re working through the third stage right now; we’re setting up training, working on consistent communications about mental health across the church body; we’re figuring out how to coordinate meeting practical needs.  More details on each of these in the months to come.


shutterstock_291556127Key Ministry encourages our readers to check out the resources we’ve developed to help pastors, church leaders, volunteers and families on mental health-related topics, including series on the impact of ADHD, anxiety and Asperger’s Disorder on spiritual development in kids, depression in children and teens, pediatric bipolar disorder, and ten strategies for promoting mental health inclusion at church.


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How does the Gospel apply to self injury?

shutterstock_343217441A month ago, I wrote a post titled Four Reasons Teens Cut to COPE, sharing my own history of self-injury as well as the four most common reasons kids and adults hurt themselves. We do/did it for control, as an obsessive behavior, as punishment, or as an emotional release. For me, it was all four; for others, it might just be one or two. To read more about the why of self-injury, see that post here.

One comment jumped out at me and warranted a post of its own in response. Todd Benkert, a Southern Baptist pastor and adoptive dad who I respect a great deal, asked:

Shannon, given that self-harm is meant to help one COPE, how does the gospel apply to this need? How do you find that Christ would address each of these reasons?

As I answer, let me go ahead and define what I’m meaning in this post as the gospel: the good news that the God who created us in his image saw our helpless sinful state and sent his Son to live the perfect life we couldn’t, die as the ultimate sacrifice we could never offer, and defeat death once and for all by rising from the dead, offering an already but not yet promise: that those who believe may already have indwelling of the Spirit here on earth but that we persist in the reality that we’re not yet living in the perfection of heaven.

Phew. That’s some meaty theology in one sentence, huh?

Key Ministry exists because of that already but not yet friction. We already have the hope of Christ – hallelujah! – but our lives are marked with the not yet realities of life, including mental illness, disability, and childhood trauma. The church exists to be a community for those who know God and to shine the light of Christ into a dark world for all, including those who haven’t yet encountered our Jesus.

Cutting is a sign of already but not yet tensions. Some who injure themselves – be it by cutting or burning skin or punching surfaces or trying to break bones or some other means – don’t know Christ. Some, however, do. How do we respond in a gospel-driven way to both groups?


First, we must be humble. Just as we, in the church, wouldn’t try to treat asthma with repentance or set a broken bone with a Bible verse, we need to understand that professional help is almost always needed for those who persistently hurt themselves. For me, this includes both psychotherapy and psychiatric medications. When someone is engaging in self-harm, the behavior isn’t shameful or unspeakable. Self-injury occurs when the pain someone is feeling internally exceeds the resources available for healing. One such resource for healing is the professional help beyond what most churches are able to offer. This need for support outside of the church is one reason why those who attend worship services regularly may still go home and bring a blade across their skin.

Historically, the church has been slow to accept medical research about the physical and neurological foundations for mental illness, trying instead to treat challenges like these are purely spiritual. I’m seeing a change in this trend, thankfully. We still have work to do, though! We at Key Ministry are able to speak into that in a unique way, as Dr. Steve Grcevich – a clinical child psychiatrist – founded our organization and has served in a variety of roles ever since. In other words, as we train churches to respond to these needs, our approach will always involve a medical understanding of the problem.

But we’re Christians and ministry leaders too. So we also understand we aren’t just bodies with physical needs but souls with spiritual ones. One supernatural need we all possess is community. So, second, we must build relationships. Some refer to this as a ministry of presence or an incarnational ministry. After all, God didn’t just wave a magic wand or look down from the clouds to meet our needs; he came incarnate, wrapped in flesh, engaging our humanity from his own. Before the disciples in John 3 asked, “Who sinned that this man might be blind, him or his parents?” the first verse in that chapter tells us Christ saw the man. Before we jump to judging a person’s current state or trying to So how can we, in the name of Christ, come alongside those who hurt themselves? respond to them, we must first see the person. This response includes affirming each individual as a fellow image bearer of God, just like we are. Christ’s response – “neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this occurred that the works of God might be displayed in him” – does that. Each of us exists that the works and glory of God might be displayed and reflected in us. When it comes to self-injury, I’ve seen many well-intentioned adults respond out of their discomfort and try to fix the problem before loving the person. This will never work!

So how can we, in the name of Christ, come alongside those who hurt themselves? We can be with them, just as Christ brought healing as he walked side by side with the people he created. We can try to understand the reasons why. We can choose not to recoil from the behavior, even if it makes us uncomfortable, and instead dwell in discomfort with our hurting friend. We can help them access the resources needed – including professional support – to help them process pain in healthier ways.

Finally, we can share the already hope we have in Christ without denying the not yet struggles in the world. In other words, our gospel can’t just be one that stands before Daniel 3 furnaces and says, “God will save me and you from the fire.” No, it must also be able to say, “We believe in a God who can deliver us from the flames (and will certainly do so in heaven) but even if he does not on earth, we can still trust him.” We can’t proclaim a prosperity gospel (that is, a false gospel) which promises full healing and riches and comfort on this side of heaven. We shouldn’t offer Christ as the antidote to pain as if the Bible promises that becoming a Christian (or continuing in faith, for those who already know Christ) means we’ll never feel pain again. Our testimonies of how God has worked in our lives can and should not only include the highlights – how Jesus made and makes things new – but also the hard truths – how life still isn’t perfect in all the ways we might like it to be because we live in a fallen world. This isn’t denying the works of God in us but rather showing the hope of a heaven in which God, according to Revelation 21:4, will wipe every tear from our eyes as death and mourning and crying and pain are no more.

When those who are hurting cut into their skin or injure themselves in other ways, they’re saying that the world as we know it isn’t right or good or perfect. Our presentations of the gospel need to acknowledge that truth, or the hope we’re sharing will seem false. When Christ showed up to ultimately heal Lazarus, he didn’t start by calling him out of his grave. No, he met his sisters in their pain, he didn’t turn away from their agony, and he wept with them. We can do likewise. Then he raised Lazarus from the dead, but? Lazarus died again in due time. The miracle didn’t mean Jesus’s friend and Mary and Martha’s brother got to skip out on pain for the rest of his time on earth. And our salvation doesn’t mean that either.

Self-injury isn’t simple. The obsessive behavior component can make the habit into an addiction that is hard to break. If we act like we can simply solve the problem by walking someone through a salvation tract, then we’re treat the gospel like a magical incantation – hocus pocus or abracadabra – for self-harm. Not only does that dismiss the complexity of cutting, but it also presents a false prosperity gospel, promising a perfection on earth that the Bible never presents.

Let’s be humble. Let’s engage others in relationship. Let’s share the full gospel – both the already hope we can all have in Christ without sugarcoating the not yet tensions we experience in this world and the promise of an eternity without pain or tears or any reason to cut anymore. And let’s do it all for the good of our neighbors and the glory of God.


shutterstock_291556127Key Ministry encourages our readers to check out the resources we’ve developed to help pastors, church leaders, volunteers and families on mental health-related topics, including series on the impact of ADHD, anxiety and Asperger’s Disorder on spiritual development in kids, depression in children and teens, pediatric bipolar disorder, and ten strategies for promoting mental health inclusion at church.


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Is the sexual revolution driving our kids to suicide?

shutterstock_298069748In the quarter century I’ve been practicing as a child and adolescent psychiatrist, I’ve come to appreciate the extent to which early involvement in sexual activity represents a risk factor for anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts and suicidal acts among the kids served by our practice. From a developmental standpoint, there are lots of teenagers who aren’t remotely equipped to manage the intensity of emotions that accompany a sexual relationship. Buried beneath the headlines of a government-funded study released this past week, there’s lots of evidence that teens who voluntarily engage in sexual activity or are victims of sexual violence are far more likely to experience suicidal thinking or behavior than their peers.

The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released a new study this past Friday,  Sexual Identity, Sex of Sexual Contacts, and Health-Related Behaviors Among Students in Grades 9-12. The study is based on data from the 2015 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), an ongoing project to monitor six categories of priority health-related behaviors among youth and young adults: 1) behaviors that contribute to unintentional injuries and violence; 2) tobacco use; 3) alcohol and other drug use; 4) sexual behaviors related to unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, including human immunodeficiency virus infection; 5) unhealthy dietary behaviors; and 6) physical inactivity.

Students by Sexual IdentityFor the first time, the CDC investigators asked questions about sexual orientation, gender identity and the sex of sexual contacts of survey participants. The resulting survey is the first nationally representative study of U.S. lesbian, gay, and bisexual high school students. Not surprisingly, the media coverage thus far (see here and here) has focused upon the data from the LGBTQ participants, who represented 11.2% of a sample in excess of 15,000 teens (2.0% identified as gay or lesbian, 6.0% identified as bisexual, 3.2% identified as “unsure” and 88.8% identified as heterosexual).

What we’re going to look at in this data set is how sexual experiences impact suicide risk across the board for high schoolers of both majority and minority sexual orientations.

Let’s start by looking at the association between sexual orientation in this study of high school students and presence of self-reported “serious” suicidal ideation in the last twelve months.

Serious suicidal thoughts

What we see here is that around 18% of U.S. high schoolers expressed “serious” suicidal thoughts in the past year – 15% among heterosexual students, 43% among LGB students, and 32% among youth identifying as “not sure” of their sexual orientation. Rates are clearly higher among females as opposed to males, in keeping with what we know about the sex rations of suicidal ideation in teens. Two observations…

  • The frequency with which high schoolers across the board endorse the presence of serious suicidal thoughts is unacceptably high for kids of all sexual orientations.
  • The statistics describing rates of suicidal ideation among LGBQ teens are especially  alarming and public health interventions targeted at reducing suicidal ideation and behavior among sexual minority youth are clearly indicated.

One of the responses we’ve seen to the very high rates of reported suicidal ideation among teens from sexual minorities is the implementation of anti-bullying strategies in schools across the country. The CDC made very specific support recommendations to schools for supporting youth from sexual minorities. The President made a video to express his support for anti-bullying initiatives. From the data below, we see that LGBQ kids report significantly more frequent victimization from bullying than heterosexual peers.

Bullying at school

In the sample, 20.2% of all students; 18.8% of heterosexual students; 34.2% of LGB students; and 24.9% of “not sure” students had been bullied at school during the twelve months prior to the survey. Put differently, LGB students are about 80% more likely and “Q” students are about 30% more likely to be bullied compared to “straight” peers.

In contrast, let’s go back to the slide on serious suicidal ideation and look at the impact of sexual contact on suicidal ideation in teens.

Suicidal ideation by sexual contact

  • Overall, students who experienced sexual contact with the same or both sexes were approximately 225% more likely to experience serious suicidal thoughts than students who had sexual contact with the opposite sex only and 370% more likely to experience serious suicidal thoughts than students with no sexual contact.
  • Boys who experienced sexual contact with the opposite sex only were twice as likely to report serious suicidal ideation than those with no sexual contact.
  • Girls who experienced sexual contact with the opposite sex only were nearly 60% more likely to report serious suicidal ideation than those with no sexual contact.

Let’s look at the statistics on high schoolers who developed a suicide plan

Suicide plan

  • Overall, students who experienced sexual contact with the same or both sexes are approximately 250% more likely to report having developed a suicide plan than students who had sexual contact with the opposite sex only and 390% more likely to report having developed a suicide plan than students with no sexual contact.
  • Boys who experienced sexual contact with the opposite sex only were 78% more likely to report having developed a suicide plan than those with no sexual contact.
  • Girls who experienced sexual contact with the opposite sex only were 55% more likely to report serious suicidal ideation than those with no sexual contact.

Here’s the data on suicide attempts and sexual contact

Suicide attempts

  • Overall, students who experienced sexual contact with the same or both sexes are approximately 285% more likely to report having attempted suicide compared to students who had sexual contact with the opposite sex only and 650% more likely to report having attempted suicide than students with no sexual contact.
  • Boys who experienced sexual contact with the opposite sex only were 215% more likely to report having attempted suicide compared to those with no sexual contact.
  • Girls who experienced sexual contact with the opposite sex only were 300% more likely to report having attempted suicide than those with no sexual contact.

Next, let’s look at kids who received medical intervention as a result of a suicide attempt

Suicide and medical intervention

  • Overall, students who experienced sexual contact with the same or both sexes are approximately over three times more likely to have been seen by a doctor or nurse following a suicide attempt compared to students who had sexual contact with the opposite sex only and over twelve times more likely to have been seen by a doctor or nurse following a suicide attempt than students with no sexual contact.
  • Boys who experienced sexual contact with the opposite sex only were seven times more likely to have been seen by a doctor or nurse following a suicide attempt compared to those with no sexual contact.
  • Girls who experienced sexual contact with the opposite sex only were more than three  more likely to have been seen by a doctor or nurse following a suicide attempt than those with no sexual contact.

Some thoughts that crossed my mind after reviewing this study…

To what extent is very early exposure to sexual intercourse a contributing factor to higher rates of suicidal thoughts and behavior in LGBTQ youth? Kids who experienced sexual intercourse prior to the age of 13 are more than twice as likely to identify as a member of a sexual minority. Girls with first intercourse prior to age 13 are four times more likely to identify as a member of a sexual minority.

Do all of our kids need “safe spaces” or do they need to learn resilience? When one in twelve high schoolers reports having attempted suicide at least once during the preceding twelve months, we have millions of kids who lack the ability to cope with the day to day challenges of adolescence?

What if sexual contact contributes significantly to the risk of suicide for youth from a subculture defined by sexual orientation and sexual expression? One issue begging to be explored in more depth is the extent to which suicide risk is reduced when kids from sexual minorities refrain from sexual contact.

shutterstock_98370545Finally, how is it still socially acceptable in this day and age for advertisers and social media platforms to promote sexual behavior in youth when a clear association exists between sexual behavior and suicide? Hats off to Abercrombie and Hollister for getting rid of their shirtless models. And how is it OK for parents to facilitate opportunities for their teens to engage in sexual contact with other teens? How are “coed sleepovers” any more acceptable than playing bartender to a basement full of teenagers just before handing them their car keys?

We live in a culture that puts great pressure on teens and adults to define themselves through their sexual behavior and sexual prowess. Many of our teens would be better served through discovering their identity elsewhere.


shutterstock_138372947Know a family impacted by disability in need of help finding a local church? Encourage them to register for Key for Families. We can help connect families with local churches prepared to offer faith, friendship and support, while providing them with encouragement though our Facebook communities. Refer a friend today!

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