Let’s be real, life gets pretty dark sometimes and this darkness is something that is often pushed down and not talked about in society. This is also true of the Church at times, and I think many people who suffer mental illnesses or who go through tough times feel like they can’t speak out about this or that it shouldn’t happen to them, that it’s their fault for some kind of lack of faith. When a tragedy such as the death of Robin Williams occurs, issues of suicide and depression come under the spotlight and get a chance to be spoken about (despite the constant presence of these issues in society, with a total of 478 people dying by suicide in New Zealand in 2011).
I wanted to have a bit of a chat about these issues in the context of our faith, because it is not only one that is close to my heart, but one that is so important to talk about. There are so many misconceptions and so much stigma surrounding mental illness and although I don’t claim to be an expert it’s important to start the discussion somewhere.
So let’s first talk about what depression actually is, because it’s a word you hear a bit. For example someone might say “Oh my goodness they’ve run out of skittles at the supermarket, I’m so depressed” but they are not actually suffering a mental illness, or “I’d rather kill myself than go to maths this afternoon” and not actually be suicidal. We all feel sad sometimes, and for those that haven’t experienced a mental illness themselves it can be hard to understand. Depression can be separated from this ‘normal’ sadness by its duration and severity, it can take over a person’s entire life, change the way they think and act, while lasting longer than any trigger that may have caused it. There is a lot of study going into this area to figure out the exact causes, and like so many illnesses it is not fully understood, but it is known that somewhere along the line there are changes to the brain with the amounts of chemical messengers and the receptors they attach to. This means that the brain of someone who is suffering from a mental illness such as depression is actually acting differently to how a healthy brain would, through absolutely no fault of the person. In this way it is often a good idea to compare depression to other more organic diseases such as diabetes or cancer.
So, if a Christian had diabetes you wouldn’t expect them to be just get better on their own. You wouldn’t blame them for their illness. They – or others around them- would not feel like it was a problem in their faith or relationship with God that caused them to get ill (although any illness or hardship can cause people to think ‘why me?’). This is the way we need to start approaching mental illness, as a medical condition like any other, one that can require medications and one that the person suffering cannot control themselves. Depression can happen to anybody, because it is an illness of the body which affects the mind. Although our Christian faith is amazing and our God is great, it is our souls which are saved. We still live in this world with these bodies in a fallen world, and like any other form of suffering people struggling with a mental illness need our understanding, love and support.
Some well-known biblical figures were no strangers to depression, here are a few examples;
‘Elijah walked a whole day into the wilderness. He stopped and sat down in the shade of a tree and wished he would die. “It’s too much, Lord,” he prayed. “Take away my life; I might as well be dead!”’ 1 Kings 19:4
“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
How much longer will you forget me, Lord? Forever? How much longer will you hide yourself from me? How long must I endure trouble?How long will sorrow fill my heart day and night? How long will my enemies triumph over me? Psalm 13:1-2
So where does that leave us? How do we as Christian respond to those suffering or if we ourselves suffer depression? As I said earlier, I am certainly no expert, but from my experience I would say to reach out.
Reach out to those who are struggling, to someone who seems a bit down. I know that it can seem scary if you don’t know what to say or how to help, but that isn’t what is expected of you. Generally someone will just want someone to listen, to have somebody to be with them and acknowledge their suffering.
Reach out for help. If you are having a tough time and if you struggle with depression it can be so hard to do anything let alone let someone in to help, but please try. Talk to a trusted friend or family member, they can help from there. It can seem awful right now but things can get better.
Reach out to God. Prayer can seem like the last thing you want to do if you are depressed. God can seem so distant, and you may feel like He isn’t even there. But as we are told in the scriptures
“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” Hebrews 13:8
God is with you, always. He is not only God to us when we feel close to Him and compelled to worship but is also God of the deepest valley where we cannot seem to find the energy to turn towards Him. If all you can manage is to silently say “God I need you”, then just say that. If you can say nothing, let someone else say the words. Got to the scriptures, the Psalms are full of wonderful words for all kinds of struggles.
This topic is too big and complex to fully explore in one blog post, and I understand that my experience may be different to what yours may have been. I welcome you to join in the discussion on this topic, don’t be afraid, let’s start talking about mental health.
If this has raised any issues for you or you want some more info or resources, check out these websites:
Free call Youthline on 0800 376 633 or free text 234
Remember that God is with you, in every season of your life. Although we face trials and struggles in this life, our faith in a God who has conquered brings meaning to this suffering. Let us walk forward together, caring for and loving others to build up the body of Christ we are all a part of.
May Christ’s light shine in your life.