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23 September 2014

Mental Illness, Part 1: We Don't Talk About That

Recently, a young woman I knew in college reached out to me on Facebook.  We were in the same college/young adult ministry at church, and we got along well enough, but she was a bit younger than me and we ran in different social circles.  We've both since married, had children, found different church homes...she's even moved to another state.  So why reach out to me?

Because she had recently been diagnosed with an anxiety panic disorder, and she knew that I had been diagnosed with depression and generalized anxiety disorder.

According to the CDC, 1 in 10 US adults report depression.  According to the NIMH , 18% of  Americans over 18 struggle with anxiety disorders. Since this vibrant, friendly young lady surely knows more than 10  people, why did she need to dig into the past and find a friendlyish acquaintance to ask about the condition?

Because we don't talk about mental illness.

I first met depression face to face as a teenager.  Two of my closest friends in youth group had depression.   My best friend rarely spoke of it.  I was able to, for my own comfort, ignore the fact that she had it.  But my other friend was more...vocal.  Once she was diagnosed with depression, everyone knew about it.  And we had to face it.  We had to decide what we believed about it and how to respond.

I have to say, we didn't respond well.

We attended a caring, Bible-based, church with lots of good "programs" and lots of good people.  I don't remember any sermons or Sunday School classes on the topic of depression, but I know there were a lot of people who had depression (I didn't know that at the time), and I know there were a lot of people who didn't have depression and didn't understand that it was a medical condition.  We were never explicitly taught as much, but there was an underlying vibe that "Christians don't get depressed" or "depression is a sin".

I tried to talk my friend out of being depressed.  I tried sweeping it under the rug.  I began to doubt that she was even saved...a few years later in college, I told her as much.  I failed to love her.  Because I was SCARED.

Guess what?  The Bible never says anything about a chemical or hormonal imbalance being sinful.  But it says an awful lot about being unloving, hypocritical...being afraid of anything but God Himself.

My friend may have, at times, handled her depression in a sinful way.  I don't know.  I know she is a sinner, saved by grace, just like me.  I know that I handled her depression in a sinful way.

Could it be that the young lady in the opening paragraph only knew to contact me because everyone else with mental illness keeps silent so that they won't be treated the way I treated my friend when I was a teenager?

So what is the Biblical response to depression?  How do we make the church a welcoming place for those who suffer from mental illness?  The two verses that come to mind are:

Galatians 6:Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. (ESV)
Romans 12:15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. (ESV)

I also think of the story of Job.  We don't want to be "Job's Comforters" to our friends with depression.  We don't always know why God allows suffering, and in most cases we can't even come close to judging whether a suffering is the direct result of sin.  So don't try.  Just LOVE.

I'll talk more about my own journey with depression in a later post...whenever the kids give me time.  But I want to leave this one thought...I think I was so scared because I didn't want to admit that I might have depression.  And I was so scared of having depression because I was scared that people would think I wasn't saved.  

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