Although depression may be the most well-known and widely understood mental illness, it's still mostly hidden within the church. It’s something that just because we don't discuss it much doesn't mean it's not a significant problem. Ten percent of American adults suffer from depression, and more than 38,000 people die by suicide each year. Plenty of the people represented by these statistics will be sitting in church next Sunday morning.
As Christians, we typically approach the subject of depression and mental illness completely wrong. We may think that a person simply isn’t connected enough with God, or that they could easily get over their depression if they really wanted to. However asking a person to be or think more positively when they are suffering from depression is like asking an injured bird to fly. Of course the bird would like to fly, but they can’t.
Unfortunately, as science has proved time and time again, people cannot simply snap out of clinical depression. That’s exactly the disease of depression: being stuck in a negative loop of emotions, thoughts, and feelings that you can't brush aside. It is not a failure of the person, and God knows this.
Depression is a Real Illness
Asking Christians that are suffering to stay positive doesn’t work. In reality, this only tears down the person down even further, because they likely have already tried to do that. If they had the will, motivation, energy to be happier, they would. Depression drains all of that from those it plagues. Such demands or advice, in fact, end up making the person feel guilty, and more miserable, since they understand what needs to be done, and everybody around seems to be able to do it, except that they can't, since it's not in their hands.
You would never tell someone with cancer to calm down, it will heal on its own, get over it, or that it’s all in their head. That would be completely irrational. Clinical depression is as real as any other physical illness where you will need to reach out for help. It requires professional doctors, constant effort, and an emphatic approach from a loyal support system.
God Supports Them
As with many uncomfortable situations, our first reaction is to flee, to ignore, to hope someone else tends to the issue, or to wait for it to pass. However, every example of Christ shows just the opposite; He was present, fully engaged, always had time for people and deeply cared about the individual. We can do the same.
God has His arms reached around each Christian that is suffering from depression, and supports them through this difficult time. God understands that the depression is not the fault of the person. The person’s sins did not cause their suffering, for example. God is not punishing them with this disease in any way.
If you are having trouble accepting the disease of depression, there are some steps you can take to be more Christ-like. Acknowledge your own fears about depression and other mental illness, and take them before God. Many of our most natural reactions to mental health problems are based in fear. Maybe we have a fear of possibly having to suffer from depression sometime in our own lifetime, or we’re scared by trying to help others we might fail. Most of these fears are irrational. Ask God to make you a bold and wise person and to remove fears that are not based in reality.
One other major issue in the church is simply ignorance. Get some basic education, and learn to watch for symptoms of depression and warning signs that someone is considering suicide. Consider yourself at the front lines of mental-health care. Most people are going to turn to friends and family first to discuss the pain they are feeling, rather than go straight to a psychiatrists or general medical doctor.
Whatever you do, if someone decides to confide in you about their mental health struggles it’s important not to judge. Even if what they are saying is a result of their damaged emotions and flawed thinking and doesn’t make much sense, don’t criticize them. Never tell someone they shouldn't feel the way they do, or that what they feel is wrong, or that what they are doing, saying or feeling is contrary to Scripture. They feel badly enough already. In the future there may be a place for that, but in the depths of depression, a person needs love, reassurance and support, not judgment. Allowing a person to feel heard and understood without being judged is a powerful way to make them feel loved.
When we see a church member that is depressed, we might have good intentions by encouraging them to become more positive but in reality that is pushing the problem to the side. Our love for another person in pain must be expressed by our empathy, our willingness to listen, our words and our demeanor. We must watch what we say and realize the negative impact it can have on others, even if we don’t fully understand what they might be going through. Next time someone brings up the topic of mental health, seek to understand and to help, instead of brushing it off as a non-issue.