Churches must face depression

Churches tend to avoid talking about mental-health issues that make people uncomfortable until after a tragedy has occurred.

By Dwight Duhon

One of the most compelling issues facing the church today is depression. Christians are not immune to the economic, social and countless other factors that can lead to depression, but depression among believers is not a recent development.

Many of the writers of the Bible seemed to struggle with depression. In Psalm 88 the words written there proclaim: “My soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol. I am counted among those who go down to the Pit; I am like those who have no help, like those forsaken among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, like those whom you remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand. You have put me in the depths of the Pit, in the regions dark and deep.”

I can certainly relate. For as long as I can remember, depression has been part of my life. As a child, I was never happy. Most pictures of me from that time show a child with dark depression. There is no light in my eyes.

My parents were poor and lived from paycheck to paycheck and could not afford to send me to a doctor for my mental condition; they could barely afford to send me to a regular doctor when I was sick.

It would be many years before I was formally diagnosed with MDD (Major Depression Disorder), and many more years before the doctors found just the right combination of drugs that would allow me to function without a sense of constant darkness. Before that, I had determined, I would be alone in this struggle. I had friends, a wife, and even children, but I still felt so very alone.

What is depression? “Depression,” according to the Centers for Disease Control, “is not just having ‘the blues’ or the emotions we feel when grieving the loss of a loved one. It is a true medical condition that is treatable, like diabetes or hypertension.”

The facts of depression are striking. According to the CDC, one out of every 10 adults is depressed. Depression is not a normal part of growing older, but it does seem to affect older people to a greater degree than other age groups. Depression affects 15 percent of those 45 and older.

The problem that many congregations face when dealing with this is that many people are not open to discussing depression. The other issue is that, quite often, as in my own situation, the pastors themselves suffer from this debilitating disease and they find it difficult to approach the subject for fear that they might be seen as less perfect in the eyes of the congregation they shepherd.

How then can we learn to help our congregations learn to understand what depression is and how to better handle it? First, let us look to the Bible and specifically the Psalms. The Psalms represent, I think, the best and worst of human thoughts on this experience we call life. Many of the Psalms help us to see that questions and doubt are a natural part of the Christian experience.

Too often we are told to just lay all our concerns on Jesus and he will take care of everything. But what do we do when we feel that we have done that and we still have to deal with darkness and doubt.

Too often the church has taken the position that those of us who suffer from depression ought to just believe more; to have more faith and everything will work out. For those of us who suffer, we know that is not true and we need the church to recognize this. In not recognizing the seriousness of depression, the church is morally denying the impact it has on so many of its members.

How can we do better? We need to address these issues with conviction and with honesty. The church needs to be talking more openly about depression and taking opportunities to make those conversations happen.

More often than not, we only bring up those conversations when someone in the congregation has gone so far into depression that they attempt — or actually succeed — to take their own life.

We as a church shy away from topics that we think might make people feel uncomfortable. But which is better: to feel uncomfortable about discussing a hard-to-discuss topic, or having to comfort a family after a hard-to-accept tragedy?

I hope the choice is obvious — we need to get over our fear of talking about the elephant in the room.                                                             

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.