By Jeff Brumley
Robin Williams’ suicide in August sparked a wave of articles on mental health issues, including many gauging society’s knowledge and sensitivity toward persons with mental illnesses.
Christian writers and media outlets pondered whether the modern church is any more accepting and compassionate toward those with depression than before — a question that also arose when Saddleback Church Pastor Rick Warren’s son, Matthew, killed himself in April 2013.
Debates flared in religious circles over medication versus prayer, faith versus science and the prevalence of depression among U.S. clergy.
While divergent in focus and opinion, most blogs, columns and articles shared one theme: that the American church is anything but a sanctuary for those plagued with emotional and psychological disorders.
Instead, congregations often are places where secrecy trumps transparency, and where those suffering from mental illness — including ministers — get the message that it’s better to look good than to feel good.
Baptists know that all too well.
One of those is Ka’thy Chappell, leadership development coordinator for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina. She’s battled depression all her life and has become increasingly open about her struggles in recent years.
Even as a child, Chappell says she sensed those unidentified feelings insider her — finally diagnosed in her 30s as depression — were a taboo topic in her church family.
“I knew from early on you had to be very careful who you told what in the local church, because people would think less of you,” says Chappell, 64.
That didn’t keep her from loving the church or pursuing a career in ministry, which led her to seminary and positions on church staffs and at Baptist Theological Seminary Richmond. But the need for secrecy around her feelings became even more important when she began working with youth. Parents, she feared, “may not trust you with their kids, or they may use it against you” if they knew of her struggles.
The recovery community, where Chappell found refuge for a time, teach their members that there is healing in letting go of secrets and that doing so is spiritually and emotionally liberating rather than embarrassing, Chappell says.
“In the church, we don’t know that. We don’t say ‘tell the secrets’ — until something blows up and we have to deal with that.”
But the reasons for that are far more complex than an aversion to authentic living or fear of embarrassment among Christians, she adds.
And there’s this: Signs abound that churches and clergy are catching on about mental illness.
“That’s getting better. We’re learning as we go.”
A very public example of that came earlier this year when a megachurch pastor in South Carolina, known for his opposition to the use of medications to treat depression, admitted he had been wrong on the issue.
NewSpring Church Pastor Perry Noble posted a blog in February asking if Christians should take medication for mental illness. He has previously answered the question with a resounding “No!”
It’s an entrenched attitude in much of Christianity, especially among evangelicals who believe in the healing power of prayer and the Holy Spirit. The resulting either-or attitude, however, ignores proven patterns in psychology and brain chemistry.
Yet Noble admitted in his blog, “That’s what I used to think.”
He has since moved on to view medication making as much sense for depression as it does for heart disease.
He explains that after years of prescribing prayer and Bible reading for others suffering from psychological illnesses, he underwent a three-year period of depression that had him considering suicide.
“I’m not ashamed of the fact I am taking an anti-depressant and have done a complete 180 in regards to how I used to feel about them,” Noble wrote on his blog.
NewSpring subsequently presented a series dealing with anxiety, depression and stress that presented what Noble had discovered for himself: “That it really is OK to not be OK … but it’s not OK to stay that way.”
Noble said the “’pray and read your Bible more’” prescription has been used by the church far too long. He said people who have disclosed their mental illness have been considered lesser Christians. Mental illness has been seen as a sign of weakness.
But the opposite is true, he wrote.
Now, he reminds those he counsels that a Christian taking medication for depression is no different than a Christian taking medication for diabetes. And in neither case does that mean not praying, as well.
Doing so has changed his own life.
“However, as a Christian and as a pastor I can honestly say that making the decision to swallow my pride and accept the common grace God has provided through medicine has made me a better husband, father and friend,” Noble says.
It took much more than three years of suffering for Chappell to learn what it was that oppressed her.
It began in her childhood, when abnormal brain chemistry created the internal conditions for her downward spiral. Externally, an alcoholic father exhibiting erratic behaviors also played a part.
“He was a nice man when he was not drinking and he was not a nice man when he was drinking,” she says of her father, who sobered up when she was 7 and died when she was 14.
“That was another trauma that affected my depression and my trust — my ability to function,” Chappell recalls.
Despite his recovery and later his absence, the fear surrounding her father’ bouts of drinking had established patterns of behavior that sabotaged future relationships — personal and professional — and took years to identify and treat.
“As a child growing up in a Baptist church, I thought there were things God could do — and he did — and that there were things I could do — and I did — to make my life better,” she says. “So I did those things, but I continued to realize there was a strain within myself that was sometimes paralyzing for me.”
She eventually sought therapy and at age 35 was diagnosed with depression and is now taking medicine for it.
“That was my life-turning event, going into therapy,” she says.
Therapy also helped her identify self-defeating patterns of thinking and behaving resulting from her father’s alcoholism. The prescription for that was four years in a recovery program for the adult children of alcoholics.
“I’m not saying I have it all together, but I have learned some skills that can help me not go back into that deep, deep hole I was in during my 30s.”
Today, she attends a women’s support group and returns to therapy whenever she hits rough patches in life. She also takes her medication daily.
“I have tried going off it, but I’m better with it,” Chappell adds. “I have a better perspective with it.”
But all of her treatments are part of a larger plan that includes prayer, Scripture and quiet contemplation.
“I am an extrovert off the charts, but I know when I must withdraw to replenish,” she says.
In no way does Chappell consider her mental illness a gift. But she says the tools she’s picked up along the way for dealing with it are a gift — and one that she tries to pass along to those she meets in her church and ministry.
That can range from helping college students who need them find recovery meetings, or just reaching out to someone clearly struggling in the pew beside her.
Robin Williams’ suicide was a reminder to her how dark the isolation of depression can be — especially considering the reported diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease the comedian received shortly beforehand.
“When you get bad news, that colors your ability to think.”
Chappell says she can identify with that desperation — even as a believer in Christ at the time.
“I used to think I was forsaken.”
She remembered meeting people in her recovery group who she knew from church, and how surprised they all were to see each other there. Chappell says she hopes one day fellow disciples won’t have to experience that kind of isolation from one another.
“I would like to think we could do that in the local church, to tell each other what we’re struggling with.”