Since the garden, our world has been thoroughly and profoundly broken from the introduction of sin. This brokenness affects every part of our lives, from who we are, how we act, how we work, and how we relate to one another, to natural disasters and physical illness. As evangelicals, we are quick to see this universal bodily brokenness in cancer and heart disease, but when we approach mental illness, often our first response is to assume a lack of faith or inward transformation of the gospel. Why is this?
My family is no stranger to mental illness. Genetics have certainly played a huge role as three generations of my family, including myself, have been affected by depression and anxiety. Out of all of us affected, my mom's depression and anxiety has certainly been the most severe, particularly in the past few years. What has made this particularly hard is that she is a pastor's wife.
More than 18 percent of Americans struggle with depression and anxiety, but the stigma and shame still holds strong in the church and even stronger for those who hold roles in ministry. I recently sent her a few questions in hopes her story will encourage you or someone you know walking a similar journey.
Tiffany Marshall: When did you first start struggling with depression and anxiety?
Leigh Ann Marshall: I have struggled with diagnosed clinical depression for almost 30 years. The first time I sought professional help was in the early 1990s.
TM: What have been some of the factors that have amplified your depression and anxiety in different seasons of your life?
LAM: I was sexually abused by an older teenage boy when I was a child. I suppressed the abuse until I was a young adult. I believe this was the root of my anxiety and depression. My depression was managed for many years on low dose depression medications under the supervision of doctors. Over the past few years, there was an accumulation of factors that caused my anxiety and depression to resurface more severe than ever. We moved twice to two different states in a period of 13 months. My husband’s pastoral job changed twice in that period of time. In addition to that, I began to lose a large business that I had built from the ground up for over 19 years thinking it would be part of our retirement plan. I also went through a very severe physical illness during that 13-month period of time.
TM: How was this most recent season of depression and anxiety unique? What brought it about?
LAM: In November 2014, I spent 19 days in an ICU for sepsis, a very severe illness that more times than not, causes one to lose their life. Almost every major system in my body was shutting down due to an infection from a minor surgery for kidney stones. I ended up being on a ventilator for eight of the 19 days. Rehabilitation, including learning to walk again, took several months.
Just as I was getting physically stronger, my husband was called to another church, and we moved once again. My business began to decline even more rapidly as I was not able to work to keep things moving in a positive direction. I started to feel like a failure and was not sure how to handle the rapid decline of something I had put blood, sweat, and tears into for 19 years. I also felt like a failure as a pastor’s wife. I have always known the importance of being a helpmate for my husband, but it was all I could do to get to church, and then once I was there, I found it very difficult to engage with people.
Very soon, I began to slide into a deep depression that ultimately led to my decision in early 2017 that it would be better for everyone if I simply took my life. By God’s grace, I was in counseling and revealed this plan to my counselor. Thankfully my husband took this seriously and checked me into a facility for a week to get the help I needed. It was while I was in this facility that I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The doctor informed me an illness as severe as my sepsis, coupled with a lengthy stay in ICU, could produce PTSD. I slowly began recovering as my doctor discovered my medications were out of balance and found the right medications for me.
TM: What has helped you out of this most recent bout of serious depression?
LAM: As someone who has battled anxiety and depression for almost all of my adult life, anxiety and depression are things I will most likely always battle with at some level. The factors that contribute to my illness are several. There are chemical imbalances (physical), as well as emotional and spiritual factors. I know, therefore, that I must battle the struggle on several fronts.
As I have mentioned, getting my medications balanced and accurate was a big step in the right direction. I am grateful God directed my steps to get me to the doctor who is right for me. He does an amazing job of listening to me and keeping my medications where they need to be.
I also continue to see a Christian counselor. I believe this is important because over a lifetime of handling stress in an unhealthy way, he has helped me see other ways of dealing with difficult situations in a healthy way.
My family (especially my husband) have been supportive of me as I have walked through this. It is important for those you love to see clinical anxiety and depression as an illness. If I had any other chronic illness, such as diabetes or heart disease, people would understand it has to be treated. In the same way, people must understand mental illness is a very real disease. My family has supported me in that way.
I would certainly not want to leave out the spiritual aspect of this battle. Satan wants to destroy us. He will use any and all tactics to see us taken down. This certainly includes the battle of the mind. It has been important for me to continue to press in to God and my walk with him. I have Scripture and words to some of my favorite worship songs around my home. I see them everywhere I go. They remind me of where my real strength lies. When I am weak, I know God is shown to be strong.
TM: How did your role as a pastor's wife make this recent season harder? Why do you think that is?
LAM: When you are a pastor’s wife, you want to be strong around others. Expectations on pastors can be unrealistic. I was afraid if people in our church found out what I was really going through, they might think I was not a strong Christian or my faith was weak. We had not been at our current church long before the severe season of anxiety and depression set in. “What would others think if they knew their pastor’s wife was contemplating suicide?” I felt trapped with no place to turn for help.
TM: What can the church do to help church members affected by mental illness? (Personally or a loved one)
LAM: We must get past the stigma that somehow mental illness is a taboo subject. There are people sitting in our pews every week that are hurting and afraid to admit it or seek help. If we can bring mental illness into the light in our congregations, this will go a long way toward helping those who think they are the only ones or that other Christians will not understand.
We must educate our people. Our church has a strong partnership with a counseling ministry in our area. We lean on the professionals in this ministry to help educate our people on the real causes of mental illness as well as giving them help.
My husband recently preached a series of messages on discouragement and depression. With God’s leading, I shared my story on a Sunday morning as he completed the series. As hard as this was, it has opened healthy dialogue among our people. Many have reached out to me for help. They now know if the pastor’s wife can publicly share about her struggle, this is a safe place to go with their struggles.
We encouraged people to not ignore symptoms in the lives of those they love. They may just need someone who cares to reach out to them and keep gently nudging them until they get the help they need.
Because of the overwhelming response to my story, we are looking at ways to further educate our people and keep this conversation alive in our church. We want to be seen as a safe place that offers the real hope only found in Jesus Christ.
This has been such a hard season for my family, but we have also seen God’s grace so clearly. The Lord has used this to bring our family closer together, and it has made each one of us more thankful for the time we have together. We have a common faith in Christ that has helped us through this season, recognizing the broken, giving grace to each other when needed, and ultimately trusting in his sovereign and good purposes on the hard days. I know there are many other families out there that are walking through similar seasons without the hope of the gospel, and I pray the church rises up to meet them with good news in their moments of need.
If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800)273-8255.