Mental Health and the Church
It was the spring of 2007, Corinna and I had been married about two years, and were living in our college town of Springfield, MO. I had graduated from Baptist Bible College in 2004, we had gotten married in the summer, moved to Maryland for me to work for a church, then moved back to Springfield in the summer of 2006 so Corinna could finish her degree and I could get back into the church network. At that time, we were attending Seminole Baptist Church, a large church on the southside of Springfield.
One interesting thing of note about the church was that its name derived from the fact that it was originally located on Seminole Street in Springfield, had since moved to a new location, but had retained the name. While I found this odd, it was a common occurrence in Springfield. In fact, there was—and is still—a Cherry Street Baptist Church and a High Street Baptist Church—neither of which are actually located on Cherry Street or High Street respectively, having both moved to new locations and retained their names.
Now back in 2007, at least in Baptist churches, before the main service they had age-appropriate small groups called “Sunday School.” Anyone remember attending Sunday School as a kid? Sunday school was basically the old-fashioned version of small-groups today, and Corinna and I attended a Sunday School class for young married couples like ourselves. The only problem was that we found the folks in the class to be a bit odd and unwelcoming.
I remember the teacher, a young man a few years older than me at the time, would always talk about these things we both found odd and a bit off-the-wall—like saying that each time we sinned here on earth, up in heaven, Jesus would have to pin-prick himself and squeeze out a little blood to atone for our mistakes—or something like that—it was just odd.
There was another time, they had a group picnic at a local park, and Corinna and I attended, hoping to get to know some of the others in the class a little better. It was for not. It seemed like everyone there was too interested in playing with their kids to socialize with other adults. I have kids, I love my kids, I love spending time with my kids, but I also greatly love having some adult time! So, rather than just stand there the whole time watching everyone play with their kids—not having our own kids ourselves—we just left.
A bit disillusioned with the young married group, we started attending the more middle-aged married class.
It was taught by the music minister, a bald man probably about the same age I am now. I know it may be hard to believe, but back then I had a very nice head of hair, yet with the looming threat of thinning hair because of my father’s baldness, I remember appreciating the way this man kept his hair—close cropped on the sides rather than some terrible comb-over or bushiness around the edges! But I digress!
It was one Sunday morning that this Sunday School teacher had us do a little interactive activity.
He passed out blank 3x5 cards on which we were to write a sin we were struggling with,
then pass it to someone sitting near us for them to pray for.
Perhaps you remember doing something like this yourself in church —it’s something that’s always bugged me about churches like this —the essentially forced vulnerability. Then as now, being as I don’t like having to share something personal with someone I didn’t really know, I wrote down something rather tame on my card,
and to be honest I don’t really remember what it was —but what I do remember strongly, even to this day, is what was written on the card I received. It came from a woman, sitting in front of me, which she had passed back to me.
The card, on which she had written a sin for which she had wanted prayer for was written,
“I’m struggling with depression.”
I was both frustrated and saddened for that woman.
I was frustrated because, even then, I thought it was ridiculous that she had been taught that depression was a sin, and I was saddened because of the load of guilt and shame she was likely bearing rather than getting the real help she needed to deal with her mental illness.
It wasn’t long after Corinna and I just stopped going to that church altogether.
Fast forward if you will with me, to the fall of 2007. Corinna and I had since left that church, frustrated over our experiences there and to a great extent disillusioned with all church. It was around that time that I experienced my first major bout of depression.
I’m not sure what it was—whether it was the crisis of faith, an unfulfilling job, being away from family and friends, or a combination of it all—I just remember in that time finding myself in a state of deep depression.
I remember at time going to bed at 8 pm just because I felt like there was no point in being awake.
Life had lost meaning for me. I remember at times just hugging my dog Toby for long periods of time.
It was a hard time.
Recognizing I was struggling, Corinna encouraged me to go see my doctor.
So, I called up my doctor’s office and made an appointment. What I remember as a cloudy, dreary day in the late fall, I walked into my doctor’s office, checked in, and took a seat. While sitting for my name to be called, I picked up a copy of Time magazine and started reading.
It was an August 2007 edition, with a feature story on Mother Teresa. The cover title told of “The Secret Life of Mother Teresa: newly published letters reveal a beloved icon’s crisis of faith.”
As I sat in the waiting room, I read through the article, in which she was quoted from a letter she wrote to a spiritual confidant,
"Jesus has a very special love for you, [But] as for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see,--Listen and do not hear--the tongue moves [in prayer] but does not speak ... I want you to pray for me--that I let Him have [a] free hand."
These letters, preserved against her wishes we should note,
“reveal that for the last nearly half-century of her life she felt no presence of God whatsoever… ‘neither in her heart or in the eucharist.’”
I remember telling the doctor after I got called back that the article was both fascinating and depressing
—which I found to be a bit of gallows humor as I was there looking for treatment from my depression!
But more than just being ironic, something about her apparent battle between darkness and external expectations of faith resonated with me. I can’t say Mother Teresa was dealing with depression or some other mental health issue, but for me, in that moment, I couldn’t help but connect the dots. Mother Teresa had, despite her silent struggles, put on a brave face in public, speaking confidently and assuredly of her own faith and conviction.
Remember that 3x5 card I had been passed in Sunday School only a few months prior—a note that echoed everything I had been taught up and to that point about Christianity and faith—a true Christian, a faithful believer, someone not living in sin should be happy, joyous, fulfilled—not depressed. And sure, I’d say I didn’t believe that, but this was the message I heard again and again.
Some days later after visiting my doctor, I called who was then my best friend at the time, my former roommate, and best man at my wedding. Perhaps encouraged by my doctor or my counselor, I had called him to share my struggle and reach out for support.
I remember the evening I made the call, walking around my apartment complex amidst impending darkness,
the setting sun indicative of what was to come. I called him and told him everything; how I’d been struggling, how I went to the doctor, how he’d given me some meds to help. And then I waited for a word of encouragement…
But, instead of getting the support I wanted and needed, he instead told me that my depression was the result of my unfaithfulness to God. See, during that time in my life II’d been questioning some elements of my Baptist upbringing, doubting some things that weren’t ever supposed to be in question. Remember, we had stopped going to the Baptist church and Corinna had dropped out of Bible college.
To him—and I don’t want to say his name because I’ve forgiven him for this and I want to hope that as he’s aged he’s realized differently—but to him, my friend, my depression was the result of my falling away from God, it was the result of my sin.
As you can likely imagine, his words weren’t helpful. His words stung me—though they did not shame me. Deep in my heart, I believed I wasn’t running from God, I was trying to find God. Yet I was deeply discouraged that someone with whom I was close to, someone who was a church leader and ministry colleague, someone to whom I had reached out to for help had instead essentially kicked me when I was already down. As you can imagine, our friendship has never been the same since.
In the years since, I’ve had good times and bad times, times when I’ve been on more meds or less meds,
times when I’ve been in counseling and not. As I’ve continued in ministry training and biblical education, I’ve become more assured in my conviction that depression and mental illness is not—and l let me repeat this—is not a sin.
The Bible is full of stories of what I would call depression. There are any ancient Psalms in which the writer is angry, depressed, yelling at God. The ancient prophet Elijah, someone who asked God to kill him.
I think also of the book of Ecclesiastes, in which an ancient writer laments, “everything is pointless.”
I’m grateful that in many ways, churches have stopped referring to depression and mental illness as a sin.
Which is great.
But, rather than talking about depression as a real mental health issue, pastors and church leaders often talk about our “sin” being the way we respond to depression. In message a few years back from a pastor of a local, large church, the pastor listed four ways to get depressed.
"Wear yourself out, shut people out, focus on the negative, and forget about God."
Please hear me when I say this:
Depression is not discouragement; depression is not about being defeated.
To equate depression with feeling bummed out or sad diminishes the real and serious suffering of a person who is in need of more than just a pep talk. People who are suffering from depression have difficulty sleeping or find themselves sleepy and sleep too much.
People suffering from depression have trouble being social and going out with friends even though they know they should.
People suffering from depression find themselves suffering from overwhelming and uncontrollable negative thoughts.
And yes, people suffering from depression struggle with their faith and relationship with God.
Being worn out, shutting people out, focusing on the negative, and forgetting about God are not causes of depression suggesting that these are causes reinforces the false and dangerous misconception that depression is a result of personal failings and only pushes a person struggling with depression into a deeper hole and discourages them from getting the treatment they truly need.
I share my story not to elevate myself or even require anyone else to do the same, rather I share my story as a way of saying there’s another way. We can be real with each other, we can share our struggles, our doubts, our depression with one another—as we choose to—and in so doing we can find others, we can find a community in which we can live, and learn, and love.
And more so, I want you to know that God will always be with you, present alongside you, holding you, encouraging you, loving you—no matter how deep your struggles, how dark your depression —know that God is always with you.
The Psalmist wrote, “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence?” (Psalm 139:7).
Know that in the midst of your deepest, darkest valleys, God is with you, loving you, supporting you, holding you—and more—walking with you to the light.