It seems everyone is talking about it. Even Royalty. Mental Health. I must admit I’m very glad. And May is Mental Health Awareness Month. It’s been observed in the U.S. since 1949, amazingly, and has reached many millions with its message. But what does it mean for us?
I suffered my first major episode of depression when I was 28, when I was carrying my first child, and afterwards. It was a horrifying situation, because we were due to go overseas with Feba Radio when Timothy was about 6 months, and now it seemed we might never go. By my collapse into depression, I had destroyed my future as a missionary, something I’d been committed to since the age of 5. And I’d destroyed Peter’s future too! And it was very clear in some quarters (thank God, not all) that I was at fault for not trusting God properly, not having faith, and so on. It was devastating.
I often say that depression has 4 components: anger, grief, guilt and despair. That’s just my take – it doesn’t come from the medical profession – but it seems to be about right. And, for a Christian, sometimes the guilt is uppermost. In the non-Christian world, the stigma is hard enough to bear (perhaps especially for a man): the idea that you’re weak; that you should pull yourself together… but in the Christian world you face the added burden of the expectations of Christians who’ve apparently never been depressed with the indication that if your faith was stronger, if you just trusted, if you prayed harder, you’d be OK. Any Christian who has suffered depression can tell you that prayer is about the last thing you can do.
And that’s what makes it so important for us to recognise and support each other at times like this. We need others who will do our praying for us when we’re stumped, angry at life, angry at God, guilt-ridden, grieving the loss of the life we thought we had, and sometimes in a kind of terminal despair. We need to know how to touch and bring healing, how to reassure people that they haven’t backed down on God, nor God on them, because of the way they feel.
Remember Elijah? He goes up Mount Carmel and takes on single-handed the entire 450 false prophets of the Baal religion (and another 400 for another religion!) supported by a king who should have been worshipping the true God. He stages this extraordinary event in which, in the end, God sends down fire from heaven on the
sacrifice which Elijah has put on the altar. Read it, if you don’t know it – I Kings 18:16-46. And in the next chapter he’s cowering in a cave, hiding from the wicked queen who’s out for his blood, wailing at God, crying out for death. Depression – big-time, and it’s one of the great men of God in the Old Testament. Jeremiah is another who knew depression; so did Job. And I have always suspected that Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10) may have been a mental health condition, rather than the suggestions made by most commentators.
And have you ever considered the mental and emotional and spiritual anguish of our Lord Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane? He knows what it’s like to hit rock bottom – knows better than any of us.
I’m glad that we do talk about this things a little in St Matthew’s, and I believe it would be good to do so more. Our mental health is as important to God as our physical health; our minds matter as much as our bodies. And we should look out for one another and be able to offer the right kind of support to each other at times of need in this area as much as in any other.
We’re planning to hold a couple of Sunday evening sessions on this subject – called something like Hearts and Minds – not just for those who get depressed, and certainly not in order to depress anyone further! but to try and get a grip on this, see what the Bible has to say, and learn how to live with depression (if we are those who have to do that) and how to support our partners, other close family members, and each one in the family of God. In other words, it’s for us all.
Many years ago, I wrote this:
When I am in darkness
I do not seek
one who will say,
“Come to me! See, I am in light!”
Rather, I seek
one who will say,
“I have brought this little candle.
Let us walk together
until the sunrise”.