So here’s a fun game for you. What two things do the following people have in common?
I’m guessing the church history geeks among you will have already guessed the first trait.
They were all Christians, and notable ones at that, people who one way or another – whether through politics, literature, academia or the local church – helped shape the world, as well as our beliefs, in a big way.
As for the second shared trait? Well, the clue is in the title of this blog.
Every one of the people in the list above suffered with severe depression; which, let me tell you, is a piece of info I was glad to learn following my own first experience with the condition more than twelve years ago.
Back then you could find a fair few people who’d tell you Christians don’t get depressed, or if they do it’s because of sin, or a lack of faith, or some sort of innate character flaw etc., you know, the kind of stuff you’d probably be physically assaulted for if you dared to say in response to someone’s cancer diagnosis, or someone losing a limb, or the onset of any other long term debility.
Which I guess is the funny thing about mental illness.
Because despite the fact the World Health Organisation calls depression the number two cause of disability in the world, and despite the fact it kills more people, men especially, between the ages of 25 and 34 than anything else (including crime, illness or car accidents), and despite the fact it was experienced by people as illustrious and accomplished as those in the list above, depression still remains the thing we don’t talk about. An illness to be ashamed of. The spooky secret pain that often can’t be discussed without evoking dubious looks, uncomfortable stares or mild befuddlement.
It comes with a stigma, makes people wary, and in many ways is the 21st century western equivalent of leprosy. That thing we’d rather ignore than get too close to, in case it’s catching, or unclean.
In the gospels Jesus demonstrated his heart toward those with this kind of stigma. He reached out and touched those that others were scared or unwilling to, and in so doing brought healing.
So how can Christians emulate the attitude of Christ in how we approach mental health sufferers today?
Below are three suggestions.
1. Depressives do need good friends who are willing to listen.
Being a good listener is a surprisingly rare skill. Not everyone has it. But if you do, there’s a good chance you have a God-given grace that could help save someone’s sanity, and even their life.
Imagine carrying around a severe wound but instead of getting help you try to hide it from others because you’re worried they’ll be squeamish about the look and smell of the bleeding.
This is the basic dilemma a person suffering depression faces. On the one hand, apart from the pain, they will be experiencing intense loneliness, yet on the other hand they’ll also be experiencing an intense sense of worthlessness.
They’ll long to talk about their emotions in the hope of being understood, to feel less alone. But they’ll know how hard their experience is to understand, and are often convinced the last thing anyone will want to do is talk with them about it.
Like the woman with the issue of blood in the gospels, they’re bleeding out. Need help. But have major concerns about how others will respond to their wound.
So, friend, if you want to help, don’t be squeamish. Be willing to talk with them about how they feel, show an interest in their emotional wellbeing, ask them questions, make an effort to understand, and most importantly, without judgement, listen.
2. Depressed people do not need easy platitudes, trite suggestions, or out-of-context scripture quotations like ‘the joy of the Lord is your strength.’
And if you ever feel tempted to dole out this sort of sentiment to someone in a depressed state, then here’s a scripture quotation for you.
‘Singing cheerful songs to a person with a heavy heart is like taking someone's coat in cold weather or pouring vinegar in a wound.’ – Proverbs 25:20
Yeah, you heard it here first, telling a depressed person to just ‘cheer up’ is both hurtful and unbiblical. It’s like telling someone with two broken legs to just run it off. Not helpful.
So here’s an alternative.
Try ‘mourning with those who mourn.’ Don’t try and get them to cheer up because their mourning makes you feel uncomfortable. Be willing to be with them where they’re at. Be hospitable to their state. Be patient. In doing so you’ll show them they don’t have to hide their feelings. You’ll make them feel less alone, which is just about the most important and healing thing you can do for a sufferer of depression.
3. Having depression, or any other mental illness for that matter, isn’t a sign of weak character.
When someone breaks their leg it’s usually because it’s been forced to bend in a way it was never designed to, or because it’s been burdened by pressures that exceed what it was intended to carry. Well, it just so happens the same is true of the soul. What a broken bone is to the body, depression is to the mind.
Both involve acute pain, and both prevent you from doing things you were once capable of. What’s more, unless rehabilitated very carefully a broken bone can remain damaged and painful (like Mephibosheth, 2 Samuel 4:4) throughout a person’s life.
So, avoid the temptation to make sweeping judgements or easy assumptions about your depressed friend. One of the most valuable things you can do is pray for them, and, as importantly, pray for your own heart or mind toward them.
The reality is depression is painful and debilitating for the sufferer, no matter how good they may be at hiding it.
The severe form of the condition will affect 5-9% of women and 2-3% of men at any one time, whilst the milder forms will affect up to one quarter of the population at some point during their lifetime.
Which means the chances are you’ll either experience depression yourself or, at some point in your life, come into contact with someone who has or is.
But the greater truth is many of its symptoms can be greatly lessened through connection, compassion and understanding. In short, love. The very thing the body of Christ is called to.
So, if you’re a sufferer, understand you are not guilty of anything.
If you know someone who is suffering, do what Jesus did, reach out with compassion and be willing to touch their life, to spend time with them, talk with them, love them.
Because what the names in the list above prove is that our struggles cannot and do not disqualify us from being used by God to accomplish His will, if anything they can create greater opportunities, in suffering, to depend on Him and find deeper friendship with others, or in befriending those who suffer; to serve Him in how we serve and comfort one another. Like Paul said:
‘If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it, and if one part is honoured, all the parts are glad.’