The blues. A black hole. The dark night of the soul. Whatever you call it, depression is a resourceful thief that seeks to steal any semblance of joy, happiness, and peace from those who suffer.
Depression is a devious and duplicitous agent. Given the specific situation, it can be a cause or an effect of substance abuse, ranging from alcohol to prescription and illicit drugs. It can also initiate a litany of other unhelpful and even destructive coping strategies.
Of course, one of the major things we frequently attribute to this condition is suicide. It is widely believed that more than half of suicide victims battled some sort of depressive disorder. Some of the better known victims include Kurt Cobain, L’Wren Scott, and Kate Spade. Difficult seasons of life can affect anyone. In recent months, several pastors, including Andrew Stoecklein and Jim Howard, took their own lives after battles with depression.
While depressed pastors receive more attention in today’s social media culture, they are not a new phenomenon. You’ve likely heard of renowned English pastor Charles Spurgeon’s lifelong struggle with depression, which he described as “extreme heaviness,” “the shadow of death,” and “my great horror of darkness.”
But there’s a clear disconnect in play. When we look to pastors and faith communities for guidance on how to deal with depression, the responses are a mixed bag of everything from hyper-spirituality—essentially, be a better Christian—to complete outsourcing. As an understandably frustrated former church member once put it, “Pastors don’t want to fool with brokenness. They just want to grow with healthy people.”
The cause of depression can be issues within us, the hormonal, biochemical, or organic. But depression may also be triggered by external issues like family and relationship conflict, grief and loss, or workplace difficulties. In reality, there are usually confluent factors for a large number of depressed individuals. Unfortunately, none of us is immune to the myriad life issues that wreak havoc on our emotional and spiritual wellbeing.
Why “pray more” isn’t enough
For most depressed individuals, causality is a mixed bag. That’s why more often than not, a two-pronged approach to treatment that includes both counseling and medical intervention is warranted. And that’s precisely why Christians must not be told to simply pray harder, be better, or just have more faith. A 2013 study by Lifeway Research found that nearly half of evangelicals “believed that people with serious mental disorders can overcome their illnesses with ‘Bible study and prayer alone.’”
Many of those who are depressed already pray, read their Bibles, and attend church regularly. And not just any church—your church. Shrouded beneath robes, they sing in our choirs. Hidden behind lecterns, they teach Bible lessons. Lost among toys, they serve in preschool worship care. They sit inconspicuously on pews or in chairs right beside you and me. They sing the words of the songs. They laugh awkwardly at the bad jokes of the preacher. And they mask their depression by responding “Fine, thanks” five or six times during the meet-and-greet piece of the service.
In a culture that is increasingly disconnected and unsupportive, church is often a depressed person’s last real hope of finding a community of truth and grace to walk with them through the cavernous valleys, oppressive shadows, and turbulent storms of life. Imagine carrying that prodigious burden yet finding no considerable connections.
Inconsistent and shame-based messaging within church families is one of the primary contributors to the ongoing stigma associated with mental health struggles or mental illness. Author and speaker Amy Simpson, in her book Troubled Minds, writes, “The church allows people to suffer because we don’t understand what they need and how to help them. We have . . . ignored, marginalized, and laughed at the mentally ill or simply sent them to professionals and washed our hands of them.” That’s a pretty strong indictment, but in my experience, it’s spot-on.
When confronted with hard stuff that is outside our comfort zone, our tendency is to gravitate to our safe place. We speak Christianese. We spiritualize. We wax eloquently, speculating about the reason and purpose for the pain. Our approach should be more personal and empathic, closely resembling the humble Christ, who time and time again met people on their turf, in their torment, and on their terms.
Far too often, in our quest to focus on them, we make it more about us.
Depressed people don’t just need Bible verses; they need compassionate companions who regularly live out the “one anothers” of Scripture.
Let’s look at three pragmatic benchmarks:
- Love one another: It’s awfully easy to fear or judge those we don’t understand. But it’s our responsibility to show his love.
- Pray for one another: We don’t have to know all the details of someone’s struggle in order to lift them to the Father in prayer. Stopping to pray with another is a particularly powerful demonstration of love and care.
- Bear one another’s burdens: There are so many ways to serve those who are depressed. From the practical day-to-day needs of meals and laundry to providing childcare during counseling sessions, support groups, or doctor’s appointments, you can be a blessing to someone in need.
It’s important to realize that ministry is messy, especially when mental health issues are involved. Ministry takes time, attention, and follow up. It requires intentionality and invariably invites interruptions and inconvenience.
Church pastors and staffers, be courageous enough to talk about depression, and assure those in your congregations and communities that this Jesus we preach and teach about has real hope to offer, hope that is often found within the skill sets of counselors, doctors, and psychiatrists who have spent a lifetime preparing to help people. It is also found in the friendship and nurture of the church family.