I bought a book once purely for the title. It was a book called ‘Christians Get Depressed Too’ and at 19 years old, in the midst of another major depressive episode, it’s hard to explain how much I needed to believe those words. I felt confused, cut off and excluded from the Christian community, which had previously been a sanctuary to me. I was painfully aware that what doctors were calling an illness, was viewed by many in the church as lack of faith or selfishness. I was seeking reassurance that my illness was not incompatible with my faith. I needed to know that I was walking through valleys that had been trodden by brothers and sisters before me. I would love to say I found the answers in the pages of that book. Instead, every day since has been a journey towards acceptance and understanding.
For those of you who have not experienced it, depression is a lingering and often debilitating feeling of sadness and despair. Everyone experiences depression differently. For me, it was a crushing sadness and hopelessness that took all the colour out of my life. It felt like someone was torturing my mind, each day was excruciatingly painful and I couldn’t see an end in sight.
Sometimes depression can be triggered by a difficult life event, the loss of a loved one, unemployment, a relationship breakdown or financial strain. Sometimes the cause can be a lot harder to pinpoint and can be the result of a chemical imbalance in the brain. For me, there was no obvious explanation. The World Health Organisation estimates that 300 million people worldwide suffer from depression.
I will start by repeating those words: Christians get depressed too. And if those words sit too easily or comfortably then perhaps I need to add the caveat ‘good’ Christians get depressed. I have encountered many people along the road who would readily accept the first statement, but the more you talked to them the more it emerged that they believed a certain calibre of Christians would be exempt from depression. Sure Christians could get depressed, but not Christians who read their bible and prayed every day, not those who lead Sunday school or house groups, not church leaders or pastors. And certainly not Christians like them. Somewhere in the back of their minds, they were entertaining the belief that their behaviour and service would prevent mental illness from striking. The reality is depression has never discriminated and cares not about your social standing or church activities.
And secondly, I will offer my apology, for what it’s worth. Many people who read a post like this will have been hurt by the actions of the church. It is true that the church has fallen short over the years of how it should love those with mental illness. It’s easy when we refer to ‘the church’ to distance ourselves from its actions, to dehumanise it. We forget that it has failed because we as its body have failed.
I too am guilty of practising judgement in the place of love, of fostering a community that excludes instead of includes, of using the gospel as a stick to hit people with, instead of a life raft to reach out to the broken. I am sorry for the pain and the wounds that have been inflicted on many a heart. I am sorry for the times those experiences have caused people to turn their back on churches altogether. I am sorry that the people we hurt are often the most vulnerable and in desperate need of a family to love them.
So why do I need to write this post? It is true that in my decade struggling with depression, the vast majority of my experiences with other Christians have been positive. I have encountered a wealth of love, support, friendship and compassion. I owe a lot to brothers and sisters who have walked with me through the valleys I have found myself in.
However, I have also had some difficult encounters. I have been told by some that my depression would go if I prayed or read my bible more. I have read articles that encouraged depressed Christians to stop taking anti-depressants and worship God instead. I have been in more than one debate on whether mental illness was a result of demon possession. And I have my fair share of ‘cheer up’ or ‘smile’ in the place of empathy.
I think most of these difficult interactions stem from the way the church separates mental and physical illness. We are mainly happy to leave physical illness in the hands of the doctors, albeit supported with prayer. We leave the treatment to the medical professionals and are instead on hand with casseroles or practical help and sympathy.
But in contrast, mental illness is often left in the realm of the spiritual. Instead of signposting people to professional help we can try to weigh in on the state of the sufferer’s soul. We have historically struggled with the concept that the brain gets sick the same way the body does. And this separation between mental and physical illness can play out even when we aren’t aware.
I have seen this illustrated time and again in the way we pray for someone with a physical illness compared to someone with a mental illness. If someone is physically ill we are comfortable praying for healing, for comfort and strength. And whilst many may pray similar prayers for the mentally ill I have heard other phrases creep into prayers. Phrases like ‘casting out’, ‘breaking strongholds’ and ‘delivering from darkness’. Whether we realise it or not we have made mental illness a spiritual battleground, and left physical illness in the earthly realm.
I do think illness, both mental and physical, can become a spiritual battleground. I am experiencing now how physical illness can cause you to question God and doubt your faith. I believe that as we are spiritual beings, every illness has a spiritual component. I do believe there is an evil one who delights in all sickness and pain. And that living in a fallen world we will encounter illness. However, I think we’re wrong to single mental illness out in that respect. I categorically do not believe that mental illness is a direct result of sin or demon possession.
The reality is that depression is a deadly mental illness. It can leave people in so much emotional pain that they feel the only option is to complete suicide. And whilst I believe having faith can help with combatting depression, I don’t believe it’s enough on its own. There will be Christians in churches across the country right now, struggling with suicidal thoughts. And without the right help and support, some of them will lose their battles.
At the risk of being controversial, I have to say it’s not enough just to pray for those with mental illness. When you’re depressed it is so hard to hear God’s voice, with so many other voices shouting in your head. It’s like listening for a whisper in a hurricane. So you need others to demonstrate God’s love to you. Often practical things will be appreciated, as with any other illness, like bringing round meals or helping with housework. But above all the depressed need your time. Time to demonstrate that they are not on their own, that people care for them and will continue to hold out hope for them.
And if you are supporting someone who is struggling with depression it’s important you are not afraid to ask difficult questions. Questions like: how bad is it right now? Do you feel safe? Are you feeling suicidal? And then you have to be ready for the answers you are trusted with. These are not easy conversations to have. But putting a thought into words takes some of the power out of it. It gives people an opportunity to reach out for the help they need.
Churches at their best can be families which can offer love, compassion and companionship for anyone going through difficult times. But there will always be a limit to what the church can and should do. We are not mental health professionals and should not be offering advice on whether an individual does or doesn’t need treatment or medication. Recovery will likely require the help and support of health professionals as well as friends and family. It may take medication and therapy. We have to be realistic about our limitations and be signposting people to the right help and support.
Our Churches should be safe places to be broken. We’re all broken in different ways and in need of God’s grace. We are made to be in community, loving and caring for each other. By reaching out to those with depression we allow our churches to become richer for the diversity of experience within them. The more we get it right, the more the lost, lonely and hurting will be drawn to our doors. And the more like Jesus we become.