The Black Dog: On Getting Real About Depression and Supporting Those That Suffer

The Black DogI still remember the day when I saw someone in my university hostel being taken to hospital following an overdose. Thankfully she survived, but many do not.

Since the tragic death of Matthew Warren a few years ago, much discussion has taken place about ways Christians can meaningfully minister to people in our communities who suffer from depression.

Depression is not an easy subject to talk about, or write about for that matter. But it needs to be brought out into the open. For depression seems to be rampant today. And the effects can be deadly. Almost all of us have known someone who has lost the battle to depression. It happens in church too. I have been privy to the stories of those bereaved by suicide, including pastor’s wives.

As heart breaking as these stories are, there are also many stories of hope. Individuals who have seen breakthrough, healing or maintenance of their depression.  I’ve always thought of the church as a hospital for hurting people and this is not a new phenomenon. The church has a significant ministry to those who are depressed. Jesus spent a large part of his ministry healing those who were ill. And we as his followers are called to do likewise. Consider Isaiah 61 where it talks about:

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,[a]
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
    and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendor’.

I love this verse. It’s my go-to verse. God wants us to ‘bind up the broken hearted’. This ministry can operate collaboratively with those in the secular mental health field. Sadly though, the church has historically fallen short in engaging in helpful conversation about depression. Sometimes Christian folk are made uncomfortable, and they can’t understand why the depressed person hasn’t ‘snapped out of it’ and declared amazing victory through their faith. Until one has been through it, one may struggle to understand it.

Many people in church leadership can feel lost when it comes to ministering to the depressed. We may be able to relate to feeling down in the dumps, but true clinical depression can be somewhat of a mystery to many people.  Perhaps the worst mistake we can make is to expect church leaders to be able to solve all the problems the depressed and their loved ones have. In a study cited in Leadership Journal, BuildingChurchLeaders.com, and other publications for people in Christian ministry, it was found that of the 500 leaders who responded, 16 percent indicated they felt “not equipped at all” to minister to people with mental illness. Another 53 percent felt “somewhat equipped.” Only 30 percent felt at least “competent.” Expecting ministers to be able to solely address depression may be equivalent to expecting them to perform bypass surgery, and the damage done can be extensive.

There are many misconceptions that abound when it comes to depression, and perhaps the first thing that Christians can do to help those who suffer is to become educated. It can be as simple as browsing some good websites about depression, like Psych Central,MentalHealth.com, Web MD, Revolution Health, and Everyday Health; checking out nonprofit groups such as NAMI (National Alliance for Mental Illness) orDBSA (Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance), and others; visiting a library to see what kinds of literature they have available on depression; attending a lecture by an expert in the field at a nearby university; tuning into one of the top 10 psychology videos found on YouTube.com; visiting an expert’s website or blog; and finally, making an appointment to speak to a psychiatrist or psychologist in the area. There is a wealth of information available today.

Wrestling with our theology of suffering

Part of becoming educated about depression is wrestling with our theology of suffering and how it relates to depression and mental illness. We need to recognize how depression and other mental illness fits within Christian teaching on the effects of original sin, the presence of sickness in our world, God’s unconditional love, redemption in this life, and complete healing in the next. We need to be able to make peace with the questions we can’t answer. After all, this side of eternity there will be many, many questions that we simply don’t have answers too. I think many Christians are not all too comfortable with mystery. Many of us want to have definite answers, rather than walk a journey of mystery.  We have a tendency to want to explain out the mystery of life and faith and God. But the older I get, the more I am at peace with not having all the answers. We can be assured of the overriding hope offered through Christ’s love, His purpose for all people, and His coming renewal of all creation. There is no need for us to have all the answers, but we must have assurance of God’s truth, or our own uncertainty will leave drowning people gasping for air.

The church also needs to talk more about depression. It would make a good subject for a sermon. After all, so many heroes of the faith suffered with depression. Consider David, Job and Elijah, amoung others. Job was known to despair: “I cannot eat for sighing; my groans pour out like water. What I always feared has happened to me. What I dreaded has come to be. I have no peace, no quietness. I have no rest; instead, only trouble comes …. I will never again experience pleasure … I would rather die of strangulation than go on and on like this. I hate my life” (Job 3:23-26, 7:11, 15-16, NLT).

In a piece over at CNN’s religion blog on mental illness and the church, Ed Stetzer argues the following really important points:

  • There are people in the pews every week—ministers, too—struggling with mental illness or depression.
  • People of faith know that God has freed them to love others, and that love extends to everyone, even (and sometimes especially) those we don’t understand.
  • Christians need to affirm the value of medical treatment for mental illness.
  • Compassion and care can go a long way in helping people know they don’t have to hide.
  • Mental illness has nothing to do with one’s beliefs or the beliefs of one’s family. It can impact anyone.

Churches can also provide a library of relevant literature and could even consider hosting support groups and a special service for those suffering. Before it’s needed, churches can create a network with local mental-health professionals. Get to know the Christian counsellors in your area; you may have some in your own congregation. The network ought to include professionals from across a spectrum of specializations—psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, general practitioners, who can address not just depression, but also anxiety disorders, eating disorders, Autism Spectrum disorders, psychotic disorders, and others. Perhaps consider hosting ‘mental health first aid’ for your church. ‘Mental health first aid’ may help people to understand the basics of various types of mental illness and how to respond. And you may like to ponder these questions – How can I handle conversations around depression? And how can I extend grace to someone struggling with depression?

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