Depression-Sufferers in Your Church Wish You Knew These 3 Things
When I was pregnant with my oldest son Jordan, every book I read urged mothers to nurse, and many well-meaning ladies at my church asked, “You’re going to breastfeed, right?” When Jordan wouldn’t latch on and my lack of milk prevented pumping, turning to a bottle felt like failure. Even as I enjoyed more sleep, I still felt exhausted (Jordan wasn’t a napper and I hadn’t yet been diagnosed with a thyroid condition) and fell into a deep pit of depression. My once-helpful coping mechanisms of achieving and perfectionism had failed me.
Thankfully, with the support of my husband, doctor, a biblical counselor, and scripture, my healing began. It's a continual process that has spanned twenty-three years, and I'm grateful that at my lowest, God didn’t abandon me.
However, I didn’t reveal the depth of my struggle to people in my Church. For many years, Christians didn’t talk about such things. Thankfully, much has changed in Christianity, and we’re now more open about issues such as mental health. However, depressed believers often still feel shame and loneliness because those who’ve never experienced depression have a difficult time understanding those of us who have.
Since the pandemic has increased the percentage of adults with anxiety or depressive symptoms from 36.4 to 41.5 percent, we in the Church must not miss the opportunity to be a beacon of hope for depressed people and those who love them. If you want your congregation to be a place of empathy, compassion, and support, the following advice may help:
Not everyone experiences depression--or finds help for it--in the same way.
Some depression sufferers have chronic low-level or high-functioning depression; others suffer from more circumstantial depression. My friend Wanda says, “I find it interesting that immediately after the prophet Elijah’s greatest triumphs, he suffered the lowest lows. That's been my experience as well. I am most vulnerable to depression when I'm tired or after I've had a really big success.”
Also, depression “presents” in a variety of ways. My brother Will notes, “If you see me in a crowd of people laughing and joking around, it doesn't mean I'm not struggling. And it doesn't mean I am. Mood swings are complicated, and I'm good at hiding them when I need to.”
Just as the individual experience of depression varies, so does its treatment. Some people find healing through therapy, others need medication, and many people improve through a combination of both (that’s been my experience).
Medication is a gift, not a crutch. In my thirties, I sometimes felt ashamed that I needed it, but now I’m thankful for the scientists who developed it and the doctors who prescribe it. It has made the quality of my life and my family’s life much better.
Please don’t offer answers or diagnosis (especially spiritual ones).
My friend Patti has struggled with severe depression and suicidal tendencies for many years. She admitted, “Having this illness is hard enough, but people have said hurtful things like, ‘just get it together, think positive, just focus on Jesus, the sin in your life is causing this,’ and many more shaming phrases.”
Shame increases loneliness, and isolation worsens depression. It’s a vicious cycle which has no easy fix, but I’d love to see a rising tide of compassionate believers become educated about depression’s causes and symptoms. (Today’s young Christians are already much better at this, which is encouraging.)
Because each person’s story is unique and complicated, it’s frustrating when people ask us “have you tried X, because it worked for my great-aunt” or “do you exercise, because I’ve heard that helps” instead of empathizing and asking what they can do to help.
I’d also love to see more ministry leaders talk about biblical examples of depression (Elijah again comes to mind, as does David) or their own struggles with mental health issues. Faith-based support groups for depression would be helpful for churches to offer, as would vetted counselor referrals and therapy funds to help pay what insurance won’t cover. Your church might consider paying for members and staff to go through training programs led by trained psychologists.
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Prayer is good; engaging with us is better.
Finally, I’m not discounting the miraculous power of prayer, but only saying “I’ll pray for you” can come across a bit trite. It’s better to ask how you can pray for us, or gently offer to pray with us in the moment.
Still, we don't expect you to always say or do the right thing. Your presence alone speaks volumes. Will says, “Learn to be the kind of friend who can just sit and be with me. Some call it the ministry of presence, and it can be powerful.” Staying engaged and inviting us to go on a walk or get together for coffee (even if we decline) helps us feel cared for. If we come to your mind, text us and let us know you’re thinking of us.
For me and many others, faith--and the compassion of our suffering Savior--has been a pivotal part of our healing. It can be for men and women in your church, as well. As you cultivate and implement the ministry of presence, His presence will go with you as the guide and goal.
Dena Dyer is a professional author, speaker, and book coach, as well as the author or co-author of ten books and hundreds of articles. In her day job, she serves as Executive Assistant to Jamie Aten at Wheaton’s Humanitarian Disaster Institute. Ministry roles she’s held include worship leader, youth minister, non-profit director, and teacher. Her book (co-written with Tina Samples), Wounded Women of the Bible: Finding Hope When Life Hurts, was named the Golden Scroll Non-Fiction Book of the Year in 2014 and was a finalist in Serious Writer’s 2020 “Book of the Decade” Contest. She lives in Texas with her husband, youngest son, and their rescue pup. Follow her on Instagram or Facebook.