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Trauma or Brain Chemistry? What Science and Rick Warren Say About the Cause of Mental Illness

Pastor Rick Warren at Saddleback Church
Pastor Rick Warren at Saddleback Church

Last week, Rick Warren, author of “The Purpose Driven Life,” pastor of Saddleback Church in Orange County, CA, and whose son committed suicide, joined with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Orange County and the Catholic church to shine light on mental illness and the church.  God knows many churches need this light: churches of all traditions can be some of the meanest places for people who are struggling with depression, PTSD, addiction, dissociation or other disorders.

Unfortunately, Warren’s misguided comments show it’s going to take a brighter bulb to bring light into spaces in the church that are so dark when it comes to mental illness. For example, Warren explained to a person who had just finished speaking about his life with schizophrenia, “Your chemistry in your brain is not your character, and your illness is not your identity. ” Tell that to the guy’s employer, if he has one, or the people who want nothing to do with him because of his diagnosis.

There are two major schools of thought about the cause of mental illness – nature and nurture, or in this case brain chemistry versus a person’s history and environment. Of course, the brain chemistry culprit is the baby of Big Pharma, which is devoted to manufacturing drugs that are sometimes worse than the symptoms they seek to quell. NAMI also has an extensive history of promoting the “brain-based disorder” cause of mental illness. It’s easy to see how Rick Warren could find himself swept along at this conference to the point of removing mental illness completely from a person’s character: if mental illness is about chemistry in the brain, it’s not about the broken world we live in. And it’s easy to see how NAMI could do the same: if mental illness is a disorder of brain chemistry, there’s no blame on parents and families.

But no matter how comfortable it is, no matter how much Warren, Venn, NAMI or Big Pharma, or anyone wants it to be THE cause, it’s not.

The facts are clear: the majority of people in treatment for substance use have histories of childhood trauma.  And as many as 90% of the people receiving care in the public system have histories of childhood trauma, most notably abuse and neglect.   An even bigger truth is that there are lots of things in addition to abuse and neglect that overwhelm children—and parents – leading to what is frequently diagnosed as mental illness.

Let me be blunt about why I say this with such confidence.

My family moved twelve times before I was two because my father was a GI who was recalled and deployed before being separated from service.  He died of cancer not long after.  I was not quite three.  At four-ish,I had a rare disease that put me on phenobarbital for weeks on end to quiet flailing limbs, and I spent the time out of my body watching the priest at church deliver the Eucharist.  By the time I was six, my knees began to dislocate anytime anywhere. And even before my father died, there were already reports of my exceptional ability to become invisible – present but not seen or heard so as to keep things quiet – no matter what the cost was to me.

Did my brain—the wiring, the connections, the chemistry—change due to being overwhelmed by these traumas?  You betcha: the chemistry of my brain changed because of what happened.  But the what’s wrong (“bad chemistry”) came about as a result of what happened (“overwhelming events”).

And that, Pastor Rick, NAMI, and Bishop Vann, is something you desperately need to add to your beliefs.  Traumatic experiences before birth, after birth, growing up—all change how we respond to ourselves and others, and rewire the brain.  For generations.

There’s a whole body of Christians out here, and many people of other faiths, who are or have been diagnosed with mental illness and are disenfranchised because of their religion’s primary erroneous belief that brain chemistry alone shapes illness. It’s easy and it’s safe: when we settle for “chemistry in the brain” we can overlook so many things that Pastor Rick Warren and Bishop Kevin Venn would call sinful whether they are sins of omission or commission.

This perspective allows us to turn away from what is uncomfortable. And yet it continues to disregard the truths that a pill isn’t always the answer, that the easy culprit of chemical imbalance isn’t always at the root of illness, and that the messy lives we lead or the messy experiences into which we are thrown are so often at the root of a mental health diagnosis.  In any organization, the way in which we continue to turn towards health through prescription and practice reshapes our lives.

– Please join me on Facebook to discuss personal and organizational trauma, healing, ethics, and innovation.

Trauma or Brain Chemistry? What Science and Rick Warren Say About the Cause of Mental Illness

Elizabeth Power, M.Ed.

Elizabeth Power, M.Ed., CEO of EPower & Associates, Inc. is a sought-after speaker, facilitator, teacher, and consultant. Her firm's specialty is helping organizations make and manage change through learning and doing. Her mastery of diverse interests and innovation has been recognized worldwide through awards and publications across a wide spectrum of disciplines. Her firm provides services in the mental health and disability communities and to early childhood educators, families, parents and teachers.

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APA Reference
Power, E. (2014). Trauma or Brain Chemistry? What Science and Rick Warren Say About the Cause of Mental Illness. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 30, 2020, from


Last updated: 2 Apr 2014
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