One Sunday, when I was in my mid-teens, I walked over to hang out with my girl-friends before church (technically, they probably fit more in the “acquaintance” category, but in a certain sense, I consider most people to be my friends). One of them asked me the typical question “How are you?”, and, believing at the time that such a question was meant to be answered, I chose not only to respond, but to respond completely honestly.
We need to practice being more authentic, I thought. I’ll give her the real scoop.
So I proceeded to share that I had been battling depression.
What followed was painful for me.
My friend literally distanced herself from me by a few steps. She physically withdrew, looking very startled. She didn’t know what to say.
I might as well have shared that I had a contagious illness and then proceeded to cough in her face.
A biting awkwardness hung in the air.
At that tender age, it just confirmed the insecurities with which I was constantly contending.
I’m no good.
Nobody wants to know the REAL me.
I felt like I didn’t fit in. Like my “real self” – my depressed, messed-up soul – was not worthy of company or friendship. Only the fake Kate was worthy.
And I get it (especially looking back) – she was only a little older than I, and probably didn’t know how to handle this kind of information coming from a peer. She was a lot more comfortable chatting about movies, popular culture, and speech and debate, as were most of my peers.
I threw a lot of personal crap out there, and that probably scared the crap out of her.
But I think this also speaks to the stigma – or at least the unpreparedness – with which depression is met in the church.
A few years later, I was corresponding via email with an old church friend (considerably closer than the other friend), and we were both adults at this point […depending on how you define “adult”??? 🙂 ]).
My battle with depression had only continued to intensify, and again, I made the choice to share my struggles with another.
Guess I never learn.
She responded by recommending the book “When I Don’t Desire God”, saying something to the effect of “I’ve heard it’s helpful for those struggling with depression.”
Apparently, people who are depressed don’t desire God?
Again, this response was painful, because it reinforced my feelings of being weird and alone and misconstrued.
Do Christians even understand exactly what depression is?
Am I the only Christian experiencing this?
If so, is there something wrong with me?
Does everyone judge those who struggle with depression to be less mature or more distant from Christ?
Maybe, like my other friend, she just didn’t know what to say or do. She wanted to help. At least she recommended something. But her book recommendation felt so off the mark (this is a book about contentment in God), that it made me feel like a societal alien for being depressed at all. Is depression a foreign concept to Christians? Do Christians view depression as a personal shortcoming?
I wasn’t generally depressed because I thought I had nothing to be thankful for. I was just lonely, trapped, sick, in pain, tired, and weary of life and heartache. Who wouldn’t be depressed after all of this?
The fact that I was struggling with depression didn’t mean that I was always incapable of seeing God’s goodness and blessing. Although I’ve definitely had points in my life where I could see nothing hopeful or beautiful. Times where I could not be comforted or encouraged. Times where I felt that the goodness and blessings in life no longer mattered because the pain outweighed all of it.
But more often in my journey with depression, my “problem” wasn’t that I was unaware of or ungrateful for the ways I’d been blessed. I was simply beaten down and didn’t have anything left. I couldn’t see my purpose or direction in life, I felt stuck and isolated and misunderstood, and my physical strength was beginning to wane (even around age 18. Read about my health journey on my other blog, Reflection Cube). I had been sick, more or less, since I was a child, but my health struggles intensified over time, and primed my mind and body to be vulnerable to the emotional, mental, and spiritual struggles I faced in my teens.
During my many seasons of depression, I’ll admit, there were moments where I was angry at God. Or just very confused by Him and His ways.
But most of the time, I just felt alone. I knew God was good, but I couldn’t see any goodness in my current situation, and I felt that there was no one to support me. Even God felt distant.
I felt an overwhelming sense of abandonment and isolation. There was no strength left in my body. No strength of spirit remaining. I had been beaten, and beaten, and beaten, and finally I just said, “That’s it”.
(In case any of you are wondering what “That’s it” meant, yes, I entertained suicidal ideation and planning more than once. And how many people in my church [besides some of my family] knew this? Exactly zero. They saw me smiling and seeming “normal” the following Sunday.)
This experience taught me to never trust a person’s smile. We don’t know what pain a person may be going through, but concealing from us – either to protect us, or from fear of judgment or embarrassment.
Depression = Sin: A Common Belief Among Christians
The position that depression is a sin is not uncommon in Christian circles.
Depression is seen as a sign of a fractured relationship with God.
If you were really close to God, you would never weep, feel beaten down or discouraged, feel exhausted, lose interest in hobbies or any activities, or feel alone.
For many years, I felt that I had to hide my depression and maintain a veneer of happiness in order to avoid judgment or awkward situations from perplexed or condemning Christians.
I feared that if I let my guard down, I could be judged, shunned, or possibly even rebuked/chastised for suffering from depression or for being emotionally transparent.
It is a popular position in some groups that depression stems chiefly from a broken relationship with God, or that God creates or allows depression in a person primarily because of disobedience.
Many are either not aware of or do not accept that there could be (partially or completely) a physiological explanation – neurotransmitter/hormonal imbalances, or genetic susceptibility and life/health struggles that trigger the genetic expression, causing depression.
While depression certainly can (and often does) have a spiritual component (depression can cause one to draw closer to God, and also can be caused in some by oppression from the enemy), depression is rarely a sign of God’s disfavor.
We all have areas where we struggle and fail or displease God. So by this sin-leads-to-depression logic, we would all be depressed all the time.
But if we belong to him, our sins are covered in the blood of Christ, and the disfavor has already fallen on Christ on our behalf.
I didn’t feel a specific conviction over some sin that I had committed or something that I knew I had to “get right” before I would be healed of depression. This is not to say I was flawless or sinless. Just that there was no piercing conviction or sorrow from the Holy Spirit about something specific. And even if there had been, I wouldn’t have expected my depression to lift upon confessing or changing my ways.
The idea that depression is reserved for “extra-terrible” sinners may be popular among those who wish to feel superior in their faith. Or among those who simply have never had to fight depression, and so it is a foreign concept.
However, in my 24+ years of life, I’ve observed that some of the weightiest trials and most incomprehensible life struggles often fall upon those who seek God.
“My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” he said to them. “Stay here and keep watch.”
Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”– Mark
He was despised and rejected by mankind,a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem– Isaiah
The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. – Psalm 34
He can be our closest Friend. He has been for me.
But I’ll admit, there were times where it felt like even He, too, was distant.
I couldn’t see or hear Him.
There were times where I felt like I’d been abandoned to the lions’ den.
Jesus understands this, too. He knows that we have these moments – or seasons – of utter despondency and complete discouragement, and He doesn’t judge us for not being able to feel or enjoy His presence. He gets that we’re human and fragile and that we tend to crumble under pressure, stress, loneliness, and heartache. He knows that we’re trapped in dying flesh, and that the weights our physical bodies carry can take a toll on our minds and spirits. Can hamper our ability to see the broader picture or to recognize anything beautiful, positive, or encouraging. He knows the fabric of which we’re made.
He doesn’t condemn us for our questions, or our feelings of abandonment, isolation, and hopelessness.
Fighting and Treating Depression
Help is available. Please don’t feel that you must conceal your pain or endure this struggle alone. Talk to a friend, and seek professional therapy. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org (please do not treat this as a substitute for seeking professional help though. <3 ).
If you or your loved one is struggling with suicidal thoughts, tendencies, speech, or other signs, please get help. Call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) at any time of the day or night to talk to someone who understands. Or go online at www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org for more information and support.
Wondering why the church isn’t drawing in (or keeping) more Millenials (Gen Y) and Gen Z peeps? Depression rates are now higher than they’ve ever been, and members of Gen Y and Gen Z are highly represented among those who suffer from depression.
Could it be that the church is not perceived as being knowledgeable about depression or accepting of those with mental health struggles, and this is pushing young people away?