There's a lot in the news about depression and suicide these days, since the April 6 news of Matthew Warren's death brought it into the public eye. But although depression may be the most well-known and widely understood mental illness, it's still mostly hidden within the church—and this is a big problem. Just because we don't discuss it much doesn't mean it's gone. Ten percent of American adults suffer from depression, and more than 38,000 people die by suicide each year. Plenty of the people represented by these statistics will be sitting in church next Sunday morning.
Most church leaders are very aware of the challenges depression and other mental illnesses present within the context of ministry. Some have experienced the devastating concussion of a suicide within their congregation, or close to it. But when it comes to mental-health problems, people in ministry can feel as lost, intimidated, and fearful as most others. In my book Troubled Minds: Mental Health and the Church's Mission, I cite results of a survey I conducted through Leadership Journal, BuildingChurchLeaders.com, and other publications for people in Christian ministry. Among the 500 leaders who responded, 16 percent indicated they feel "not equipped at all" to minister to people with mental illness. Another 53 percent feel "somewhat equipped." Only 30 percent feel at least "competent."
When a mental-health crisis hits, it shouldn't catch you off guard. The best time to address depression and suicide is before someone needs crisis intervention.
Here are some steps you can take.
• First, understand that depression is a disease; it's not a failure of the will or a triumph of self-indulgence, and people can't just "get over it." It's not simply a spiritual problem requiring a spiritual solution. Your basic understanding will affect the way you react when you realize someone in your church is suffering.
• Get some basic education, and learn to watch for symptoms of depression and warning signs that someone is considering suicide. Consider yourself at the front lines of mental-health care. One quarter of people who seek treatment for mental disorders go first to a member of the clergy. This is higher than the percentage of people who go to either psychiatrists or general medical doctors.
• If you believe someone is in immediate danger or presents an immediate threat to someone else, call the police. This is not the time for second-guessing or trying to address the problem yourself.
• Acknowledge your own fears about depression and other mental illness, and take them before God. Many of our most natural reactions to mental-health problems are based in fear—either fear of the suffering person, fear that we are getting in over our heads, or fear that acknowledging someone else's mood disorder means we have to acknowledge the possibility that depression can strike anyone—including ourselves. Most of these fears are irrational. Ask God to make you a bold and wise person and to remove fears that are not based in reality.
• Wrestle with your theology of suffering and how it relates to mental illness. 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. Come to peace with the questions you can't answer and the overriding hope you can offer through Christ's love, his purpose for all people, and his coming renewal of all creation. There is no need for you to have all the answers, but you must face these questions and rest in God's truth, or your own uncertainty will leave drowning people without a lifeline.