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When Missing Church Isn’t Okay

Saturday night rolled around, and Jocelyn was starting to feel feverish and a bit nauseated. By Sunday morning, she was full-blown sick and wouldn’t be making it to church.

 

At church that morning, people asked a friend of Jocelyn’s where she was, if she was ok. The friend wasn’t sure, so people were left to wonder.

 

The next day, a lady from Jocelyn’s Sunday school class called her, but Jocelyn didn’t answer. “Hey, Jocelyn, it’s MaryAnn. Just giving you a quick call to make sure you’re doing ok. We missed you in church on Sunday!”

 

Jocelyn didn’t call MaryAnn back all week. She figured she’d just tell anyone who asked the next week that she’d been ill. No one would question that.

 

Now let’s rewind. (Or, for those of you who don’t remember the VHS era, let’s go back to the Main Menu and choose the Start Over option.)

 

Saturday night rolled around, and Jocelyn was starting to feel depressed and a bit anxious. By Sunday morning, she’d had several full-blown panic attacks and wouldn’t be making it to church.

 

At church that morning, people asked a friend of Jocelyn’s where she was, if she was ok. The friend wasn’t sure, so people were left to wonder.

 

The next day, a lady from Jocelyn’s Sunday school class called her, but Jocelyn didn’t answer. “Hey, Jocelyn, it’s MaryAnn. Just giving you a quick call to make sure you’re doing ok. We missed you in church on Sunday!”

 

Jocelyn didn’t call MaryAnn back all week. She figured she’d just tell anyone who asked the next week that she’d been dealing with her depression and anxiety again. No one would question that.

 

Right?

 

No, unfortunately, almost everyone would question it.

 

So, Jocelyn talked herself out of going the next week before it even got close enough to worry about.

 

And she continued to talk herself out of going—it became a vicious cycle. She didn’t want to have to explain what she struggled with when she knew so many disagreed. And trying to simply say she had been sick wouldn’t work. First, she wasn’t sure it even counted as being sick. Second, everyone would ask, “Oh, did you have that nasty stomach bug that’s going around?!” But she knew she couldn’t say “yes” to that, because she hadn’t.

 

Now this story is entirely fictional, made up solely for the purpose of this article. However, Jocelyn’s story is far too familiar to many of us—on one side or the other. No one questions our missing church when we have an illness of the body. Why are we not afforded the same understanding when an it’s an illness of the mind? Rather, we are told, “You should make yourself come to church. You’d feel so much better!” Although these common phrases are not meant to hurt, they do. No one would tell someone who had the stomach bug and a fever to come to church because it would make them feel better.

 

Thus, it begs the question: Why do some feel the need to tell a friend who has had five panic attacks in a row that aren’t being helped by medication (medication that usually works, by the way) to show up to church to “feel better.” Is it because we’re to be “of a sound mind”? If that’s the reason, we need to re-examine the context of that verse.

 

But that’s for another article.

 

Those of us who struggle with mental illness have even come to believe some of these lies. Will church make us feel better? Sometimes. But sitting in service not being able to pay attention because of the anxiety and depression riddling your body probably isn’t helpful. The pastor sees a congregant who isn’t paying attention, and the struggling congregant isn’t getting anything out of the sermon.

 

So, I beg you, if your brother or sister is struggling with mental illness, don’t throw platitudes or advice born out of fear, misunderstanding, and/or stigmatization at them. Come alongside them—send them a card if you feel so inclined. Offer to make a meal. Do what you’d do for anyone missing service for a physical reason.

 

Mental illness is no easier to deal with than a physical illness, so, please, stop expecting those struggling mentally to make it to church every time the doors are open any more than you’d expect a physically ill person make it there.

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Think on These Things

When depression’s ice

Freezes my life

And stops me in my tracks,

 

Or when feelings of inadequacy

Hit me like the felling of a tree

And I want to turn back,

 

I think of…

 

An expanse of sea—

His creative majesty—

Sprawling before me.

 

Something Lovely.

 

A child of innocence,

Meaning no impertinence,

Simply telling the truths of his experience.

 

Something Honest.

 

A gavel downward crashing,

As a judge, through mental thrashing,

Gives the sentence he can’t escape passing.

 

Something Just.

 

A bride deserving of her white,

Ready to make a life

In a new chapter as her husband’s wife.

 

Something Pure.

 

The Hand of the Lord,

Ready with His Word,

For my use—a Sword.

 

Something True.

 

 

“Think on these things,”

Paul exhorts:

 

It may not STOP the

Depression,

Anxiety,

Inadequacy—

 

But a Biblical attitude

Of Godly gratitude

Makes it harder

To fill our earthly larder

With feelings that God did not intend:

Ones that only came about with a Serpent’s end

In mind, in heart—

Of which I want no part.

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They Tie Up Heavy Burdens

Rather than sit

In a pew, week after week,

I sit at home on a seat—

Far more comfortable, yes,

But with the same Book in my hands

That tells me His commands—

Not man-made, not man-upheld

Like a whited sepulcher,

Like untruths from a Hell

They’ve created.

 

I can sit in a pew

And listen to a man spew

Forth these lies

That in Your eyes

I’m less than,

Not Christian,

Because I suffer from depression.

 

“Oh wait, that’s not all?

“Anxiety, too?

“God doesn’t want anything to do with you.

“Or, if He does,

“First you must be clean—

“Repent of your ways, you sinner.”

 

But don’t you see?

It’s an illness of the brain—

A refrain

I dance to week after week,

Day after day.

 

I can sit in a pew—

Would that make me friends with you?

I can listen to the clatter

Of the offertory platter

As it goes by

And its din gets louder and louder

In my head with each passing moment.

 

 

Yes, I can do those things, too,

Just like you—

But then, because of this struggle,

The words start to tumble

From your mouth to my ears:

 

Unclean

Unrighteous

Unrepentant

Unsaved

Sinner

 

But who’s to say

That you have the right way

Of judgment,

Of unacceptance,

Of unwillingness to understand.

 

If that’s your God,

You can keep Him—

For to my God,

I am His beloved child.

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4 Reasons Christian Men Don’t Discuss Their Depression

According to information from the National Health Interview Survey, about 9% of American men have “daily feelings of depression or anxiety” (American Psychological Association, “By the Numbers: Men and Depression”, https://www.apa.org/monitor/2015/12/numbers.aspx). It stands to reason that that number is probably the same for American Christian men.

For the last ten years, I’ve talked openly about my struggles with depression. Every now and then a Christian guy would admit to me that he too struggled with depression. And just since starting Persevering Hope three months ago, I’ve had several Christian guys tell me online or in person that they struggle with depression.

But with all that said, I’ve only had one other guy express interest in writing for Persevering Hope (as opposed to 12 women). Some of the guys who admitted battling depression to me never mentioned it until I said something about my battle, whereas almost all the women I’ve known who battle it discuss it freely.

From my understanding, more women have depression than men. But let’s face it: there are men—Christian men—who fight this battle but struggle to openly express it. In America, women talk about it more easily than men. That needs to change. We need to find a way to make our culture more conducive to men discussing their mental health problems.

Here are four reasons why Christian men don’t discuss their depression.

  • They feel most other Christian guys don’t struggle with depression, so they feel isolated.

I remember feeling this way. I had great Christian communities at both the colleges I attended and in the churches I attended during those times. In my small groups, I was the only one who battled depression—at least the only one who said anything about it. The other guys didn’t really know what to say to me when I’d discuss it. In a way, I can’t blame them. How do you know what to say unless you’ve been through it yourself? But the lack of understanding discouraged me from bringing it up. As you can probably guess, that only made things worse.

  • It’s not particularly socially acceptable.

In my experience, church people don’t really know what to do with a man who says he has depression. Again, let’s be real: it’s not as socially acceptable as it is for women. These men are anomalies—purple cows or unicorns or strange-colored something. They can feel as though they stick out like a sore thumb. That’s not easy to do. So why mention it at all? Which brings us to the next reason…

  • They want to be seen as godly men, so they sweep depression under the rug.

This is especially true if men are in leadership positions. Sometimes men feel as though everyone looks up to them when taking care of their families or organizations or churches. I don’t think men should feel this much pressure when leading people. I think it’s a result of complementarian theology, but that’s a discussion for another day. But if they don’t feel particularly accepted when they admit depression and they want people to view them as godly men, why would they bring it up?

  • Some Christian communities still believe depression is always a sin.

This drives me nuts. I’ve talked to a few women the past month who said their church told them they don’t know Jesus because they struggle with anxiety and depression. If you’re a guy in one of those churches, you’re never going to let anyone find out about your depression. You are going to suffer in silence and put on a happy face around everyone, not to mention the voice in your head constantly asking why you don’t have any faith in God. That is a recipe for disaster.

If you’re a guy suffering from depression, I hope you’ll discuss it unapologetically. Don’t let anyone shake your confidence. You are a man of God—you keep loving and serving those people who look at you funny or don’t get it.

We need to change our church culture. Christian men—godly, godly men—have depression. They are as much of saints as anyone else. Get over the social awkwardness and love them. Make it socially acceptable for them to talk openly. Even if you don’t understand, ask them how they’re doing when they mention it in small group, ask them how you can pray for them or help them, tell them you admire them for speaking up, spend time with them and try to understand, and be there for them. The absolute worst thing you can do is say nothing and hope it never comes up again. That’s what church people have been doing and it has devastated suffering men.

Let’s get the conversation going about depressed Christian men.

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Recovering from Depression

(Excerpt from full article entitled, “Be Sure of Your Healing”, as seen in the September issue of Faith Filled Family Magazine, page 10, https://indd.adobe.com/view/e1112bc6-09e6-4f19-abb7-46fc27b3db84)

As a mental health nurse, I see the devastating effects that depression has on the person and their family. For those who haven’t experienced it themselves nor known anyone diagnosed, it is often misunderstood, sometimes even ridiculed and written off as ‘all in the mind’. Sadly, this misunderstanding can even come from those closest to the person, with hurtful and unhelpful comments along the way. 

With depression, the person may feel hopeless and helpless, fearing they may never escape the darkness; they may feel like a burden to their family and friends; they feel out of control and overwhelmed with life; the energy is drained from their bodies; quality sleep eludes them; their body may be racked with pain; eating becomes either a mood-enhancer causing over-indulgence, or a chore; the thoughts run wild, like a recording playing over and over and over in their mind; negative self-evaluations pervade their mindset leading to thoughts of being unworthy of love, of being pathetic and unable to cope with life.

Most people believe that medications are the main form of treatment. Research tells us, though, that a combination of treatments has been found to be the quickest and most effective for sustaining remission from depression.(1) Of course, medications play an important role, but most don’t find them exclusively effective. (2)

In order to work out a combination of treatments, it is worth a closer look at the ‘biopsychosocial’ model.  This model can be understood easily when broken down into three easier parts: biological, psychological and social. Current mental health science says that a majority of emotional problems stem from these three interrelated areas, and are therefore effective to use as a basis for combination treatment.(3)

BIOLOGICAL

Your physical body is a precious gift and looking after it physically is a way to honor God (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).

When we consider biological treatments, we need to include medications, exercise, nutrition and sleep, as well as treating other medical conditions that are contributing to depression, for example, pain management.

We all know that these things help us to feel better. These improvements don’t just occur for vague, unidentifiable reasons. They happen due to biochemical changes that take place and tangibly improve your mood.(4)

Medications help change your biochemistry and play a role in recovery. While they aren’t the sole answer, they can help lift your symptoms enough that you are able to work on the other things that are required for recovery and maintenance.  They can lift you out of that dark pit, so that you can at least start moving forward. 

In recent years, there has been much research and information shared in regard to nutrition and mental health. You may have noticed more news reports, documentaries and articles on the topic. Even on Facebook you may have seen this topic pop up in your newsfeed.

It has been said for many years that ‘You are what you eat’. More than ever this is being proven, with the research pointing to your gut health as a key factor.

Simply put, research has found that there is a link between our brains (mental processes and emotions) and our gut (intestinal functions).(5) In other words, they ‘talk’ to each other.  Think about a time when you were feeling excited.  Did you get butterflies in your stomach? Or when you were anxious, did you feel nauseas or experience diarrhea or reflux? The emotion is happening in the emotional centre of your brain (amygdala), yet those responses are in your gut.

It stands to reason then, that if your gut is healthy, it contributes to better mental health.(6) But how do you improve your gut health?

Research tells us that improving gut health is two-fold – increasing gut friendly (anti-inflammatory) foods in your diet and limiting or removing foods that aren’t gut friendly (inflammatory).(7)

PSYCHOLOGICAL

There is a well-known verse from Philippians 4:8 that gives a great pattern for us to follow with our thoughts, “And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise” (NLT). Of course, this is much easier said than done, especially when depression overwhelms.

However, there are things that you can do to help lift your mood and therefore help you model this kind of thinking.

Psychological treatments include formal therapies (such as cognitive behavioral therapy), gratitude journals, music, building self-esteem, kindness, prayer, meditation, controlled breathing, and relaxation (to name a few).

One of the key things as Christians is our connection with God through prayer. There have been studies done on how prayer affects our wellbeing, both physically and mentally.  One study found that practices such as prayer actually thickens the brain cortex which is thought to be a protective factor for depression.(8)

SOCIAL

The Bible has many verses that talk about our relationships with others.  It speaks of who to connect with and how we should manage those relationships. All areas of our life are covered, from marriage and families, to friendships and business partners, to enemies and strangers. Obviously, we are designed for connection!

When someone suffers from depression though, connections can fall by the wayside.  The person may not have the energy to connect; they may not feel worthy to connect; they lack the motivation to connect. Sometimes bridges have been burnt, so to speak, and some connections have been irreparably severed. But this social isolation from family, friends and support networks only compounds the problems with depression.

In the biopsychosocial model, the ‘social’ not only relates to relationships but also to environmental circumstances.(3) Avenues for treatment of both of these include social connections/supports (eg family, friends, clubs, church, professionals-doctors etc) and working on issues such as unemployment, housing, transport – many things contribute to one’s social situation and need to be considered to assist recovery.

A key factor to consider for recovering from depression is social supports. There are many ways this can be done, but as Christians, we have a great support network provided to us through the church. In Hebrews 10:25 it says, “And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.” While we have viewed these three areas individually, it is important to keep in mind that there is a lot of overlap. When you work on one area, the other areas tend to improve also. Just like medications alter your biochemistry, so too do these other treatments. By using a combination of treatments, you can improve your mental health quicker and with longer lasting effect.

You can check out Shauna’s website and book at https://www.shaunagallagherauthor.com/

References:

  1. Medscape: https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/286759-treatment
  2. PubMed Health: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0087089/
  3. Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/think-well/201605/why-the-best-therapy-is-biopsychosocial-process
  4. Healthline: https://www.healthline.com/health/depression/exercise#1
  5. Psych Scene: https://psychscenehub.com/psychinsights/the-simplified-guide-to-the-gut-brain-axis/
  6. Harvard Health Publishing: https://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/the-gut-brain-connection
  7. Harvard Health Publishing: https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/foods-that-fight-inflammation
  8. Mental Health Social Support: http://www.mhss.net.au/research-and-statistics
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Poem: The Night I Died Inside

This is a poem I wrote many years ago when I was first struggling with depression. I hope you enjoy it. – W.R. Harris

 

The Night I Died Inside

 

Insects consumed my heart

The night I died inside.

They made my blood defunct,

And all light seemed to hide.

 

Contaminated chaff,

My blood crept through my veins.

It deadened nerves and sight

And cast my hope in chains.

 

The bugs exulted in

Their lofty victory,

But to the bugs surprise

They died inside of me.

 

Though haunting still remains,

Hurt still tries to abide,

Rebirth transformed my heart

The night I died inside.