After Robin Williams’ recent suicide, depression has been placed in the national spotlight.
How could someone so successful feel so terrible about himself? What does depression actually look like, and what do I do if I feel similarly? What do I do if someone in my life is battling depression?
These and other questions have been discussed on radio stations, news sites, and blogs. But what about in Christian circles? What does the national dialogue about mental illnesses such as depression have to contribute to our churches?
Let me start with this: I love Jesus with all my heart, and I battle depression. Sure, it’s taken different shapes in my life–notably in a difficult season my freshman year of college–but it’s always been a struggle. In fact, yesterday I had an episode where the last thing I wanted to do was walk out my door. Yet, the joy of The Lord is my strength.
The Church will never be able to address depression adequately until it can realize not all forms of sadness and despair are symptoms of sinfulness or spiritual warfare. Sometimes brains have a chemical imbalance, a disease, that creates depression. When someone we know breaks his arm, we pray for him, yes, but we also tell him to go to the doctor and get a cast and some pain medicine.
Sadly, in far too many Christian circles–we treat depression completely differently. Instead of telling our friend to see a doctor and consider medication, we assume he must not be fully satisfied in The Lord–that he is walking in some kind of sin. Certainly, that may be a possibility, but it may be completely off base. He may be suffering from a disease, an illness requiring professional treatment.
Depression may be more prevalent in our churches than we even know. A recent article on churchleaders.com cites Matthew Stanford, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University as saying, “The likelihood is that one out of every four pastors is depressed.” One particular section of the article goes deeper into the problem of depression in the church:
Nearly two out of three depressed people don’t seek treatment, according to studies by the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. Counselors say even fewer depressed ministers get treated because of career fears, social stigma and spiritual taboo. “Clergy do not talk about it because it violates their understanding of their faith,” said Scoggin. “They believe they are not supposed to have those kinds of thoughts.” Stanford, who studies how the Christian community deals with mental illness, said depression in Christian culture carries “a double stigmatization.” Society still places a stigma on mental illness, but Christians make it worse, he said, by “over-spiritualizing” depression and other disorders—dismissing them as a lack of faith or a sign of weakness. Polite Southern culture adds its own taboo against “talking about something as personal as your mental health,” noted Scoggin. The result is a culture of avoidance. “You can’t talk about it before it happens and you can’t talk about it after it happens,” said Monty Hale, director of pastoral ministries for the South Carolina Baptist Convention.
Yes, depression is happening in our churches. And it isn’t a new issue. Charles Spurgeon, arguably one of the most prolific preachers in history, struggled mightily with depression. Desiring God wrote a profile on him in which it states the following:
It is not easy to imagine the omni-competent, eloquent, brilliant, full-of-energy Spurgeon weeping like a baby for no reason that he could think of. In 1858, at age 24 it happened for the first time. He said, “My spirits were sunken so low that I could weep by the hour like a child, and yet I knew not what I wept for.”
Maybe depression is happening to you. Maybe it is happening to your friend or family member. Maybe you can relate to the depth of pain and sorrow Spurgeon expresses in this quote, the exhausting, debilitating sorrow of dark seasons. The weight of life may seem too heavy for you to carry, like you’re about to collapse under it. Let me encourage you with this:
It’s okay to be honest. Obedience means sharing your struggle with others, not hiding it under a rug. Counseling is not weak. Medication is not weak. Support groups are not weak. Prayer is not weak. They are strength. God loves you deeply, and he is with you in your pain–even when it doesn’t feel like it.
Now Church, listen up. We must become a place where the previous paragraph is communicated as true and communicated often. We won’t be a refuge or a place of healing for the depressed unless it is so. Jesus himself says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” We will never truly reflect this aspect of Christ to the depressed unless we give people the freedom to say they are weary.
The struggle of Robin Williams painfully reminds us, Church, that we must become a place where the depressed have a home with a kitchen table surrounded by people wanting to listen.
photo credit: Studio Grafico EPICS via photopin cc