When your child is struggling with suicidal thoughts, simply 'more faith' isn't the answer

Kelly Rosati has four adopted children. Three of them have a serious mental illness. And one thing she doesn’t like to hear is that her problems would be solved if her faith was stronger.

“This idea that as Christians, if we were just spiritual enough, that somehow Christianity teaches we wouldn’t experience these things — I’ve seen so many people suffer and have their faith crumble because of those lies,” Rosati said in an interview with Saddleback Church co-founder Kay Warren this week.  

After Rosati and her husband, John, were unable to have their own children, the couple began the adoption journey through the foster care system.

Several of her children were born addicted to drugs or exposed to alcohol in utero, she said. Among her four children, three have dealt with suicidality. One has bipolar disorder and another has schizophrenia.

Her children have been in and out of emergency rooms and residential psychiatric care facilities. One, the youngest, is currently at a residential facility.

It’s not exactly what she and her husband pictured when they first decided to grow their family through adoption.

“We wanted to create this family for these kids who didn’t have one. We were going to watch 'VeggieTales' and do all the Christian things,” said Rosati, who is vice president of community outreach at Focus on the Family. “Instead, our lives have been full of hospitals, psychiatric wards, and the police and a lot of bad cuss words.

“There’s a grieving that comes from losing what you imagine.”

The first time signs of mental illness emerged was when one of her children was in middle school. The child was violent, had extreme mood swings and almost complete debilitation.

“We were completely undone. We had no idea what was happening, what to do,” Rosati recalled. “We were going day to day in complete survival mode.”

That child had very serious bipolar disorder and sometimes expressed the desire to commit suicide.

“When our child would weep in my arms and express thoughts of not wanting to be alive, what I felt was pure terror. On my inside, it was a terror like I had never known and a despairing and a franticness,” the mother described.

Rosati described life as hell.

And Kay Warren, wife of Pastor Rick Warren, agreed, having had one of her own children struggle with mental illness and eventually take his own life.

“How hellish it is to have a child that you love with your entire heart and that you have done everything that you know to do, have sought all the mental health help, all the medication help, all the therapy help, all the prayers that you’ve prayed, all the Bible verse believing you’ve done, all the on the face crying in the night for your child, and still know they are facing an illness that will eat them alive if something doesn’t happen,” Warren said.

“I call that living on the edge of hell.”

Warren’s son, Matthew, was around 12 when she realized that he was having suicidal thoughts. He had already been diagnosed with depression at age 7.

“I tucked him into bed and in the quiet … as I’m getting ready to walk out … he asked me if I would kill him and put him out of his misery,” Warren recalled, completely heartbroken to hear those words coming out of her child’s mouth.

Matthew ended up dying by suicide at age 27 in 2013.

Warren said she had lived in denial for a long time, thinking her son would eventually outgrow his depression and become “normal.” But it never happened.

Both Warren and Rosati recognized that many Christians are suspicious of or hesitant to seek help through therapy or a psychiatric clinic. They’re also afraid of being judged as a bad parent if they try to get mental health help for their children.

“I want to say: none of that matters,” Rosati stressed as she encouraged parents to get the help they need.

The first time she and her husband decided to get residential treatment for one of their children some six years ago, Rosati felt like “the world was coming to an end” and she was scared about making the wrong decision.

But after four straight years of daily violence from their child, including holes in the wall and blood drawn, they decided they could not continue that way. They had other children they needed to take care of as well.

The day she dropped her child off at the residential treatment, she sobbed and even had to drive to the mountains of Colorado to be alone in a hotel room because of how “undone” she felt by everything.

“I felt almost incapable of functioning,” Rosati said.

But she wants parents to know that resources such as residential treatment are “incredible blessings that exist int he community to help the kids who are really sick and who need more help than we can get them at home.”

“Sometimes your kids are so sick they need an army to guard them. They need a staff to keep them safe,” she said.

It’s wrong to think that you failed as a parent if you choose those treatment options, she stressed.

“Have a little compassion for ourselves in the midst of this,” she advised parents.

“I believe my kids are still here today in part [due to] access to residential services.”

The journey is lonely. Though Rosati would like to have a group of people supporting her through all of this, there is a lot of misunderstanding. Some friends or relatives would tell her that her children just needed a spanking or more discipline or that she needed to pray more.

People would regularly ask if her children were doing better. She got tired of saying “no, … he has schizophrenia.”

She commended Warren for her work in making more people aware of mental illness, debunking myths and saying it’s not a sin to be sick and that it’s OK to seek help.

“I shudder to think if you weren’t doing what you’re doing so faithfully in the midst of your tragedy, how alone so many people like us would feel because there was no one that people would listen to saying ‘no, don’t tell people it’s not because they don’t have enough faith,’” Rosati said.

The Colorado mom was able to let go of her dream of a “perfect” family. “I can’t attach my well-being to the outcome. That’s tough when you’re a mom,” she noted.

She’s confident that the Lord cares and now has more peace in the midst of what has been chaos.

Rosati offered the following advice for parents whose children are struggling with mental illness or suicidal thoughts:

  • Do not minimize your child’s problems. Validate their feelings and be empathetic (as opposed to comparing their “small” problems to your own)
  • If your child expresses suicidal intentions, do not diminish it and take it very seriously. Do not let the child out of your sight.
  • "Uber nurture" or go full throttle nurture — “When your kids express any kind of emotional anguish, when they have taken the risk to share with you that they are suffering,” do not shame, blame, judge or lecture them. Let “every ounce of the love of Christ that is in you flow through you to them.”
  • Go to an emergency room and have the medical staff assess whether your child poses an immediate threat to him/herself or others
  • Be open to and cooperate with the staff/therapists. Sometimes, an involuntary hold may be placed on your child and your child may be sent to a safe, locked-down psychiatric hospital (for a few days). Though it may feel like the end of the world, that feeling will pass. During this time, go home and sleep and thank God your child is safe.
  • Always frame things with your child in terms of “we’re going to get the help that you need so you can feel better and be home and be healthy and happy.”
  • Make sure your home is safe — lock up the meds and weapons
  • Consider residential treatment
  • Get a lot of therapy (both Rosati and Warren can attest to that)
  • Have open communication within your family (especially if you have other children who are not struggling). Encourage one another to be honest.

Resources available

Mental health support groups for caregivers:

Grace Alliance 

Phone numbers:

211 (if you’re searching for mental health care as well as physical care)

1-800-273-8255 (Suicide Prevention Lifeline)

310-855-HOPE (Teen line)

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