I am a therapist and Baptist pastor who suffers from depression, so it would be fair to assume that Mental Health Awareness Month in May would be “my thing,” at least as far as monthly reminders to change the border around your Facebook profile go; but it isn’t. In my view, much of what passes today as “mental healthcare” or “self-care” involves an almost Herculean effort at ignoring the actual, raw data of our lives by filling our days with enough brunch, work, yoga, authentically staged Instagram photos of our beautiful farmhouse kitchen sink brimming over with dirty dishes, or even well-meaning diagnostic explanations from mental health professionals for the myriad reasons many of us are having difficulty getting up, getting to work and getting back to purchasing things we don’t need on the weekends like normal people who bury their feelings in Frappuccinos.
“Depression quite often won’t let go of me until I pull myself over to the side of the road and finally acknowledge that the steam billowing from my eyes, ears, heart and soul is more than ‘a rough patch.’”
This is not to say that mental health diagnoses delivered by humble, competent and empathic clinicians don’t provide helpful insight, meaning, hope, medication and direction to those of us stumbling our way through life; they can and sometimes do. Our brains (like the pancreas of a diabetic or the lungs of an asthmatic) might need a bit of help, and there’s nothing inherently shameful or even unexpected about that. However, I would argue that depression and anxiety, which plague nearly 40 million American adults (not to mention 25 percent of children ages 13 to 18), should be discussed with a bit more nuance than a strange mole on our back awaiting biopsy or a messy break-up of a romantic relationship. Instead of burying it under bottomless mimosas or psychotropic medication, I have learned that pausing for a moment in the midst of my existential and physical discomfort to listen to what depression is telling me about life on earth is, at the least, unexpectedly interesting.
Here’s clinical psychologist and Vanderbilt Divinity School professor Bruce Rogers-Vaughn on the counterintuitive power of letting our depression have its say:
Depression embodies the final dissent of soul. It constitutes, as it were, the last outpost of the autoimmune system of soul. It is the visceral, organismic response of soul to a world no longer fit for human habitation. It is, in effect, the final cry of soul just this side of extinction.
According to Rogers-Vaughn (and the unending gaggle of teenagers parading in and out of my therapy office each week), depression is our body’s fumbling search for a way to tell us that how we’re currently living, thinking, praying, coping, eating and (not) sleeping is terribly destructive. In my experience, depression quite often won’t let go of me until I pull myself over to the side of the road and finally acknowledge that the steam billowing from my eyes, ears, heart and soul is more than “a rough patch.” In the wake of the almost daily tragedies befalling so many of us across our world, I wonder if depression, rather than something deserving of being anxiously “trampled underfoot” like an unexpected cricket in the middle of the night, is actually an invitation for us as individuals (and as a nation) to reflect upon whether or not we actually like living this way.
“Good news for those in the grips of despair might mean finding out that getting back to ‘life as we know it’ is actually the last thing any of us needs.”
In times such as these, perhaps bad news is the only good news we can hear.
As hard as it might be to admit, good news for those in the grips of despair might mean finding out that getting back to “life as we know it” is actually the last thing any of us needs, because “life as we know it” helped to produce what we’re currently experiencing. Maybe your punishing job really is the problem, or that a life spent struggling to provide for your family seems impossible to overcome with podcasts and positive self-talk, or that yet another shooting in a school or synagogue is evidence of something more than an unpopular political fight, or that your lack of affordable housing and reliable healthcare really does take an emotional toll on you to the point that you can’t quite dream board your way out of it anytime your child comes down with a strange cough.
Normal brain chemistry can’t overcome food insecurity, crippling student loan debt, joblessness and the general sense that unfettered capitalism has helped to produce a nationwide mental health crisis. Being human in America is incredibly difficult, maybe that’s why it’s so damn depressing and anxiety inducing.
Our world has gone crazy, and hearing (in effect) that – “Well, no, the only crazy thing is your chemical imbalance, and if you can talk yourself out of it like the rest of us productive citizens, you can get back to working hard, unflinchingly, for that one sunburned week at the beach like everyone else” – comes up a bit short in the wake of seeing behind life’s curtain, no matter how many week-long vacations you take in order to make people jealous on the internet.
I have heard that admitting you have a problem is the first step to healing it, so when I encounter someone with depression who outlines a problem that sounds like something motivated by a bit more than a loose hose in their brains, I begin to wonder what exactly needs fixing.
“In the kind of world in which we’re attempting to survive, sometimes the only good news is that you aren’t alone, and you aren’t crazy to notice what’s wrong.”
For instance, when anxious adolescents tell me they can’t sleep or keep their hands from shaking in the midst of high stakes testing, active shooter drills, or being forced to decide what exactly they’re going to do with their lives at 12 (or 19) years of age, I could give them a few coping skills to calm their body’s overactive fight-or-flight response and send them on their way, a little better prepared for the life awaiting them. Or, after first slowing their shallow breathing, I could respectfully listen to what their bodies are trying to tell them (and me) about the kind of world we’ve created and foisted upon them, in order to find ways to collaboratively overthrow that which is oppressing all of us who can’t keep our hands from shaking and chests from heaving in the middle of the night.
Once again, Rogers-Vaughn offers a sacred word:
It becomes crucial, then, that depression not be anesthetized or extinguished. Rather, we should listen to it. If it has been silenced by those who declare it a ‘disorder,’ we are compelled to assist it in reclaiming its voice. And what if even the cry has ceased, or the sigh is no longer discernible? Might there be a form of depression, especially in societies demanding cheerfulness and compliant productivity, that no longer exhibits the expected mood?”
The bad news that our world isn’t fine, that life is profoundly unfair, misaligned and wobbly and violently broken should tell us all something important about depression – namely, that depression isn’t wrong to declare life on earth uninhabitable; it’s just terribly misguided about what causes our maladies and exactly what solutions provide their remedy. In the kind of world in which we’re attempting to survive, sometimes the only good news is that you aren’t alone, and you aren’t crazy to notice what’s wrong. The answer, then, isn’t to ignore the things besieging your brain and soul with more drugs, or consumption, or repression or even violence to yourself, but to unearth them with a trusted guide, to respect them, listen to them, utter them aloud for others and ask for help in bringing a new world into being both for yourself and for a civilization gone mad.
Depression teaches us that we have to actually live in the world we work to create. So, as Christians living in one of the most inequitable and anxious societies in the history of civilization, perhaps we can create something more habitable, together. At the least, we could start by realizing if the “good news of Jesus Christ” typically began with bad news for the powers, principalities and politicians of Jesus’ day, perhaps it true for our day as well.