Posted on Leave a comment

High School and College Are Breeding Grounds for Mental Health Issues

I could see him in the corner of my eye, and I could tell he was looking in my direction. I kept my eyes on my work. Most people if they have a question ask the front desk attendant, not the trainers. But he came up behind me.

“Look at how much I did on the overhead press,” he said, holding his phone in front of me.

“Wow,” I said, “That’s impressive!”

“Yeah, it’s good to do heavy weight in here after a stressful day,” he said.

“Oh, absolutely. This is the best place to be when you’re stressed,” I replied.

“Yeah, today was horrible. I teach in a high school, and one of the senior girls committed suicide last night,” he said.

My heart sank. “Aw, jeez. That’s terrible.”

He shook his head. “Today was bad. I had to get in here and get the stress out. I’ll be back tomorrow too.”

“Absolutely, man.”

He looked toward the door and started walking. “All right. See you tomorrow,” he said.

“Yes sir.”

I glanced back at my work, heart still heavy. I couldn’t tell if he was mad, stressed, confused, or distraught. Maybe it was all the above. I said a quick prayer for the girl’s family.

The next day I opened up my school email and saw a message from the head of school. It was a school-wide email clarifying what had happened with a certain student, whose name I didn’t recognize. I opened the message, and my heart sank. Two nights before, a male student took his own life.

 

The Prevalence of Mental Health Issues in High School and College

 

Unfortunately, this isn’t all that uncommon. In America at least, most people have experienced hearing the news of a classmate’s suicide (or news of their child’s classmate’s suicide). It happened the one year I taught middle school. All staff got an email about an hour before school’s end informing us of an emergency meeting. The moment students left, we all huddled into the 7th grade language arts room, where our principal told us in tears that one of the high school students committed suicide a few hours ago. Several teachers gasped.

“Who was it?” one of the teachers asked, her voice shaking. At that moment I realized she likely knew the student. She had been the 6th grade math teacher for a long time. It was a small community—only one elementary school, one middle school, and one high school. The middle school teachers knew every high schooler except transfers.

Our principal said his name.

“Oh no,” the 6th grade math teacher said, immediately stepping back and burying her face in our social studies teacher’s shirt.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five of youth ages 13-18 live with a mental health condition, and “suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death in youth ages 10 – 24.” For those adolescents who develop mental illness, it takes, on average, eight to ten years before they get help[i].

Regarding college students,

 

Researchers from the World Health Organization, led by Columbia University Psychology Professor Randy P. Auerbach, surveyed nearly 14,000 first-year college students from eight countries (Australia, Belgium, Germany, Mexico, Northern Ireland, South Africa, Spain and the U.S.) and found that 35 percent struggled with a mental illness. Auerbach says this finding “represents a key global mental health issue.”[ii]

 

Furthermore, according to the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, “Anxiety continues to be the most predominant presenting concern among college students (41.6%), followed by depression (36.4%), and relationship problems (35.8%). Other common concerns are suicidal ideation (16.1%), alcohol abuse (9.9%), sexual assault (9.2), ADHD (8.9%), and self-injury (8.7%)”[iii].

 

What’s the Problem?

 

Adolescence is a turbulent time. Indeed, “50% of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14 and 75% by age 24”[iv]. High school and college years are the time when most mental illness begins.

The brain undergoes significant change during this time of life, and it follows that the brain is more susceptible to maladaptation. According to research on psychiatric disorders and adolescence:

 

The relationship between typical changes in the adolescent brain and the onset of psychopathology is not a unitary phenomenon, but an underlying theme may be conceptualized as “moving parts get broken”. Adolescence is characterized by major changes in the neural systems that subserve higher cognitive functions, reasoning and interpersonal interactions, cognitive control of emotions, risk-vs-reward appraisal and motivation. Not surprisingly, when not adequately surmounted, it is precisely these challenges that increase the risk of cognitive, affective and addictive disorders…Adolescence is a time of substantial neurobiological and behavioral change. These changes are usually beneficial and optimize the brain for the challenges ahead, but may also confer a vulnerability to certain types of psychopathology.[v]

 

It makes sense that mental illness develops during adolescence. The brain is changing and this is when many individuals experience true hardship for the first time. The amount of social, mental, academic, and athletic pressure placed on students doesn’t help.

 

  • Pressures and Stress

 

Research suggests that the expectations placed on the children of parents with higher social status increases suicide risk and self-harm risk: “Children from privileged backgrounds – social class I (doctors, lawyers, academics, etc.) appear to be at increased risk. While traditionally a low-risk group, children of high social class parents, especially females, may feel additional academic pressure during adolescence because of higher parental- and self-expectations”[vi].

This makes sense. In America, we tell high school students (especially middle-class, upper-middle class, and upper-class) that if they want to be successful, they need to go to a prestigious university. To do this, students must earn good grades, complete many hours of volunteer service, play a sport, play an instrument, be involved in student council, be involved in other school organizations, and have other hobbies they can tell colleges about in their applications. This is busyness that rivals the busyness of an adult working full-time, or even over 40 hours a week. Some kids thrive under this pressure, some don’t.

For those who don’t—well, too bad. You want to be successful, right? You don’t want to work in a gas station for the rest of your life, right?

I was one of these kids. I developed depression at 15. Within a year I started feeling the pressure to polish my resume for college. I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to do anything. I didn’t have the energy. But I had to.

Much of the same pressure applies in college. To graduate in four years, you must take between 12 and 18 hours of classes per week every semester. This can be a heavy load. For students with existing mental health conditions, this is probably hard enough. But to properly take care of yourself so you can take that many classes, you need to eat well (which takes time), sleep enough (which, for most people, is 7-9 hours per night), exercise regularly (which takes time), have rest time (which is longer for those with mental illness), and have social time. And that’s not mentioning work, which many students need to do to pay rent or help pay for college (crippling debt after college is another topic in itself).

I’ve never met a college student who isn’t swamped with work. They’re constantly stressed. These conditions are just asking for mental health problems.

Because of all the work and other demands placed on high school and college students, they don’t sleep enough. A National Sleep Foundation poll from 2006 concluded that “more than 87 percent of high school students in the United States get far less than the recommended eight to 10 hours, and the amount of time they sleep is decreasing”[vii]. Students have way too much going on, but they know the only way to “succeed” in school is to complete all their work and fulfill all their obligations. Even if they manage time well and use healthy coping mechanisms for stress, they’ll still lose sleep simply because the amount of work they have. In high school and college, lack of sleep becomes a badge of honor, a way of showing how dedicated you are to success. But it’s nothing anyone (including these students’ teachers) should be proud of. The consequences of sleep deprivation are far-reaching: “Sleep deprivation increases the likelihood teens will suffer myriad negative consequences, including an inability to concentrate, poor grades, drowsy-driving incidents, anxiety, depression, thoughts of suicide and even suicide attempts. It’s a problem that knows no economic boundaries.”

Research is starting to show that suicide rates increase during the school year[viii]. This doesn’t surprise me. I went through teacher training to become an English teacher, and I taught and tutored for a total of two years. For high school and college, I think teachers assign too much work. Some assign work like their class is the only class students take. Teachers and professors need to be aware of how much work they assign, and they need to do a better job of considering students’ health. Many teachers and professors tell their students to take care of themselves and then render it impossible with how much work they give. Let kids be kids. Let them have lives. Peter Gray sums up the negative effect of scholastic pressure well in the previously-mentioned article,

 

School is clearly bad for children’s mental health.  The tragedy is that we continue to make school ever more stressful, even though research shows that none of this is necessary.  Young people learn far more, far better, with much less stress (and at less public expense) when they are allowed to learn in their own natural ways, as I have pointed out in many of my previous posts and in my book, Free to Learn.

 

 

  • College culture

 

College culture is a problem in America. Many students go to college for the “experience”—which usually means drinking, partying, sex, and going to football games. Some of these students still excel academically, some of them don’t. This culture and the social pressure to conform that goes with it is a breeding ground for addictive behaviors (alcohol, drugs, and sex addiction). And addictive behaviors are detrimental to mental health, even if that manifests itself further down the road.

 

  • Big classes, big schools

 

This is an issue in high school and college. For high school students, having big classes means less interaction with the teacher. It’s easier to get lost in large classes, especially for quiet students who are hurting. The teacher may think there’s nothing wrong with the student. However, if the teacher had a smaller class and more opportunity to work one-on-one with all students, he or she would be more likely to spot concerning behaviors. Research suggests that feeling involved in school (perhaps more likely for students in smaller schools) decreases suicide and self-harm risk: “pupils with low levels of school engagement and involvement are more likely to attempt or seriously think about taking their own life or deliberately harm themselves”[ix].

That’s not to say that mental illness and suicide don’t happen in small schools. I’ve witnessed student suicide in a small community.

At the end of the day, how close-knit a community is likely determines the suicide risk of its school(s) (see the research study above). In big cities and big school districts, it’s harder to have a close-knit community (although not impossible).

This is one of the cons of large universities, in my opinion. My freshman year I attended a small school in northeast Texas. I’m introverted and I had zero problem feeling socially connected during my time there. However, after I transferred to one of the largest universities in the country, it took me almost two years to feel remotely connected. Shocker: my mental health suffered drastically during that time.

 

  • Hopeless ideologies

 

This isn’t discussed enough in regards to mental health. In my opinion, this is a big problem facing our country for numerous reasons.

The anti-religious, often atheistic ideologies pushed by college professors affects almost everyone, whether we realize it or not. Influencers (i.e. politicians, teachers, writers, speakers, researchers, business owners and entrepreneurs, etc.) usually go through college. Some may come to college already holding anti-religious or amoral beliefs, but all are exposed to them in college, whether prior beliefs are reinforced or new beliefs emerge. These people—again, I’m speaking generally—then go into the world and advocate for inherently atheistic beliefs and policies (whether they realize it or not). Ideas are contagious, and college is a place for ideas.

If professors are increasingly atheistic, the general population will likely follow. As Christians, we know that beliefs grounded in atheism produce only death and decay. Universities are implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) encouraging harmful mindsets, which only results in people doing more to harm themselves.

If life has no meaning, then life is inherently hopeless. This mindset is a catalyst for the destruction of mental health. If all truth is relative and there is no right and wrong, what’s stopping someone from sleeping around or using drugs? Universities are encouraging self-destructive behavior. We need to call it for what it is and start the conversation about alternatives or how we can address the issue.

 

Are We Willing to Change Our Systems?

 

I understand that adolescents need to develop coping skills. I understand they need to learn how to push through challenges. I’m not saying we need to ensure our kids experience no hardship whatsoever. Healthy coping skills, time management, and perseverance should all be taught to high school and college students. But we also need to examine our systems and be willing to change ineffective and unhealthy traditions. Research studies increasingly confirm school’s negative effect on mental health, yet few people listen and fewer still do anything about it. If this continues, we will only perpetuate high school and college students’ mental health struggle.

 

 

References

[i] “Mental Health Facts: Children and Teens.” National Alliance on Mental Illness. 3 June 2014, https://www.nami.org/getattachment/learn-more/mental-health-by-the-numbers/childrenmhfacts.pdf

[ii] Hess, Abigail. “Massive survey finds 1 in 3 college freshmen struggle with mental health—here are 4 things you can do.” 4 Oct. 2018, https://www.cnbc.com/2018/10/04/4-ways-to-be-proactive-about-your-mental-health-in-college.html

[iii] Mistler, Brian et al. “The Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors Annual Survey.” 2012, http://files.cmcglobal.com/Monograph_2012_AUCCCD_Public.pdf

[iv] “Mental Health Facts: Children and Teens.” National Alliance on Mental Illness. 21 Sept. 2016, https://www.nami.org/NAMI/media/NAMI-Media/Infographics/Children-MH-Facts-NAMI.pdf

[v] Paus, Tomás et al. “Why do many psychiatric disorders emerge during adolescence?.” Nature reviews. Neuroscience vol. 9,12 (2008): 947-57. doi:10.1038/nrn2513

[vi] Young, Robert et al. “Do schools differ in suicide risk? The influence of school and neighbourhood on attempted suicide, suicidal ideation and self-harm among secondary school pupils.” BMC public health vol. 11 874. 17 Nov. 2011, doi:10.1186/1471-2458-11-874

[vii] Richter, Ruthann. “Among Teens, Sleep Deprivation an Epidemic.” Stanford Medicine News Center. 8 Oct. 2015, https://med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2015/10/among-teens-sleep-deprivation-an-epidemic.html

[viii] Gray, Peter. “Children’s and Teens’ Suicides Related to the School Calendar.” Psychology Today. 31 May 2018, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/freedom-learn/201805/children-s-teens-suicides-related-the-school-calendar

[ix] Young, Robert et al.

Posted on 3 Comments

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.

Posted on 1 Comment

Trying to Function with a Mental Illness–Even During the Good Times

I’ve struggled with significant OCD and depression for a little over 10 years. When it first started, I could barely function at all. I managed to, but it took everything I had, and my athletic as well as my academic performance still suffered (I was in high school).

Since then, I’ve completed counseling and got on medication. I’ve also learned through the years what makes me feel better and what makes me feel worse. I’ve learned to manage myself. As a result, my mental health has improved considerably.

Things aren’t perfect, but I’m pretty happy with my situation in life. And yet, my mental illnesses still make it hard to function. For instance, as I write this my mind constantly wants to look at the coffee table to make sure my phone isn’t frozen on the home screen. In two years of having an iPhone that has never happened. But that’s the irrationality of it—I still feel the need to check, even though I know it’s a silly thought. As a writer, it doesn’t help that I’m always wanting to check something. It makes concentration very difficult. I just make myself push through.

Two of the worst parts of my day are leaving for work and going to bed. It’s hard for me to leave my house, and I dread it. My OCD kicks in, and I feel the need to check every door, light switch, electrical outlet, candle, and faucet, as well as the oven and stove. I often check multiple times, though the feeling remains—even when I leave—that I forgot something and need to go check again. I force myself to keep walking to my car, and the first few minutes of my drive are spent fighting off the feeling that something bad will happen in my house while I’m gone.

Here’s something that people with depression will relate to. Due to the nature of my job, I work in the mornings and in the evenings—I have the middle of the day off. Every day between 11am and 2:30pm I feel drained, although some days are better than others. I force myself to get up and go back to work. And this is coming from someone who sleeps around eight hours every night, eats well, maintains healthy relationships, isn’t particularly stressed, does outdoor activities, is married, doesn’t feel lonely, is involved in church, reads a lot, lifts weights regularly, and does cardio exercise regularly. I check off all the “healthy” boxes, and I still feel tired.

For me, this is the reality of living with mental health disorders. I’ve accepted it, but sometimes I still feel like I can’t win. I mean, isn’t exercise supposed to give you energy? But I played basketball last Thursday and Saturday, and I felt ridiculously sluggish on Sunday. This morning (Monday), I woke up and realized I slept an hour past my alarm. It definitely went off, but I don’t recall hearing it at all. What the heck? Would it be better for me not to exercise? I even read somewhere that team sports (like basketball) are supposed to be the best exercise for depressed people. It makes me happy when I play, but then I’m exhausted the next day—like, I’m in good shape and I can still barely move exhausted. I guess you can’t get a pure, through-and-through “win,” so to speak. With mental illness, even when you follow the rules there’s still something not working right. That’s the way it feels, at least.

If you looked at me at my job or at church, you probably wouldn’t think I struggle with any of this. I function pretty well…it just takes all my energy and focus, and I make myself do it. But there’s pretty much no part of normal functioning that I take for granted anymore.

We often assume that if people look like they’re functioning okay then they are. But we need to be aware that it takes some people everything they have to reach that point. We need to look deeper than the surface level and be understanding.

Posted on 1 Comment

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.

Posted on Leave a comment

We’re All Hurting. So Why Don’t We Talk About It?

Let’s be real: we’re all hurting. If not, then I maintain you’re in the minority.

 

After starting the recovery process years ago, I noticed how many people around me were hurting. I saw the benefits of recovery for myself and realized most people would also benefit from recovery and/or therapy.

So why aren’t we more open about our problems? Why aren’t more people in therapy or recovery groups?

For one, there’s still a stigma around therapy and recovery. For many people, if you tell them you’re in recovery or therapy, they immediately wonder what’s wrong with you and if they should even be around you. Your reputation is instantly tarnished. This is despite the fact that those same people are hurting inside because of a break up or the death of a loved one.

We want to display a good image of ourselves. We want people to think we’re smart, we’re beautiful, we’re upstanding, we’re successful, we’re godly. In short, we don’t want others to think we have problems.

But that’s the thing: we all have problems. We’re all trying to look perfect for each other, yet none of us are. It’s a big masquerade.

Many of our problems simply come from hiding behind these masks. We’re lonely, depressed, anxious, grieving, hurting. If we’d just open up and receive support, we’d feel better. Many of our wounds would be healed. We’d be happier.

Instead, we feel crushed by the pressure to appear perfect—like we have it all together. We feel trapped because we’re terrified of others knowing the truth. And it eats at us. Because of this, some feel they can’t go on another day, which is one reason why seemingly perfect people fall from grace overnight or take their own life.

I pray that our society—including churches—would be more transparent about personal problems. I pray it would become more “mainstream” for people to discuss their issues. I pray we would throw away the masks and be real with each other. I pray hurting people would feel less terrified of coming out into the open. I pray the stigma around therapy and recovery would end. I pray we would truly connect with one another.

 

There’s freedom in honesty. There’s freedom in true connection.

Posted on Leave a comment

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.

Posted on 2 Comments

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
Posted on 1 Comment

How I Feel Vs. What God Says

An Excerpt from my book Obsessions: Hell and Back Again

I turn off the overhead light, turn on my lamp, sit in my bed, and grab my pen and journal. Ever since my counseling session I haven’t been able to stop thinking about my works-based approach to God.

I wish I could just click a button and it would go away. No matter how many times I pray or tell myself grace-based truth, this mindset won’t leave.

I open up my journal to vent my frustrations.

Somehow over the past four years I developed the idea that God is mad at me because I’m not good enough. I think I have to be better to meet his approval. The more I read theology the more I feel I’m not good enough or don’t know enough. I would never admit it to anyone, but it’s the way I think.

I’ve believed for a long time that God is angry at me, but I’ve never told anyone. My happiness in him has diminished. I’ve become depressed and withdrawn. I’ve dug myself deeper into a hole, although I’ve hid it behind books, schoolwork, and mission. I’ve replaced God with mission, theology, and acceptance from others. Once these pillars I’ve hid under collapsed, I was exposed.”

I turn the page. On the top left-hand side, I write “How I Feel.” On the top right-hand side, I write “What the Gospel Says.”

On the left side under the title, I write, “Rejected. God is displeased with me.”

On the right side under the title, I write, “I am saved by grace through faith in Jesus.”

On the left I write, “Cast out. God won’t take me back. Alone. If I don’t get my life together, God won’t accept me.”

On the right, “My salvation is based upon the work of Jesus, not my performance. I am God’s child; he will never leave me or forsake me.”

On the left, “Beyond his forgiving grace.”

On the right, “My sins are completely forgiven.”

On the left, “God has bigger and better things to attend to than me. He doesn’t care about my soul.”

On the right, “He loves me with everlasting love.”

I immediately turn to the next page and start writing my prayer.

God, I don’t believe you. I want to believe your every word—to embrace it, cherish it, and love it—but my heart refuses. I’m lonely, and it feels as though you’ve forsaken me. But your word promises you won’t.

I’m hurting. I should have dealt with these issues long ago, and now I feel like you’re mad at me. I want to feel your love again. I don’t want to think I have to ‘be somebody’ for you to accept me. I want to believe you love me in spite of me. Help me believe, whatever it takes.

I confess that I studied your word and prayed for the sake of others and not my own relationship with you when I led Bible studies and Christian groups. While I was serving you, I forgot you. Forgive me, and never let me repeat my mistake.”

My eyes are closing. I set my pen and journal on my desk, turn off my light, and place my head on my pillow.

Posted on Leave a comment

Why Rejoice Over Suffering?

In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things. (1 Peter 1:6-12)

 

Why would we “greatly rejoice” over “suffer[ing] grief in all kinds of trials”?

Scripture tells us in many places that trials can strengthen our faith. Think about it. Do you grow the most when life is easy or when life is hard? The hard times often make us press closer to God. We need His help; we are dependent on Him. The easy times don’t encourage as much dependence.

Scripture often refers to the purification process of metals: “when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold” (Job 23:10); “For you, God, tested us; you refined us like silver” (Psalm 66:10); “The crucible for silver and the furnace for gold, but the Lord tests the heart” (Proverbs 17:3). As the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible puts it, “Ores of precious metals (the most precious of which was gold) would be melted in a furnace to separate out the impurities and produce purer metal” (note on 1 Peter 1:7). The analogy is fitting—like precious metals, our impurities are purged and our character is made more beautiful, so to speak, when we go through the furnaces of life.

Peter sticks to the metal analogy and affirms that our faith is even more precious and enduring than gold: “These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” The reason or end result of trials, he says, is “praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” Our faith and growth through trials glorifies Jesus. This is great news because God deserves the glory and we get to contribute to His glory. Indeed, our joy is interconnected with His glory—when His glory increases through our lives, our joy increases. We become more heavenly creatures.

Peter tells his readers they are even more blessed because “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy.” Peter was with Jesus, but he commends his readers’ faith for believing even though they weren’t with Jesus. As Jesus said, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29). Jesus and Peter both imply that future generations who don’t physically see Jesus are blessed for not seeing yet still believing. This is especially difficult during hard times. However, it is also another reason to rejoice during and after hard times. If you cling to Jesus during trials, there is always reason to rejoice.

 

Question: Do you rejoice during hard times? How do you see God working in your life during those times? How can you learn to rejoice even more and serve God more during those times?

 

Prayer: Thank you for the trials in my life and how you’ve used them to make me more like you. Give me the vision to see how trials are changing me. Help me to have Spirit-filled joy at all times, especially when it’s hard. Amen.

 

This is an excerpt from a devotional book I’m writing on 1 Peter – W.R. Harris

Posted on 1 Comment

Around the World

A fun game of “Around the World” basketball was recently an avenue where God chose to speak to my heart. I love when God speaks in the everyday moments, and I am learning how to look beyond the everyday moments and the everyday people I pass by to peer into the windows of their soul. Author Ken Gire, in his book Windows of the Soul explains, “There is something beyond the surface of the everyday events of our lives and something beyond the surface of the lives of the everyday people we pass by” (pg. 43). Having recently returned home from a short mission trip, I looked past the everyday people and events of Guatemala during our time there. I am learning to keep my spiritual eyes open back at home in order to look beyond the everyday of those I pass by here. There really is something beyond the everyday, if only we have eyes to see and ears to hear. We all have stories and backgrounds, struggles and victories, and each is vastly different and personal.

Playing “Around the World” with my husband at our local community center where we had just finished working out, we were both struggling to make it around. Neither of us have played basketball in years, but we were having fun just shooting baskets and having a little friendly competition.  I didn’t think much of it until somehow I made a connection in my brain and a thought occurred to me. I’ve been around the world, and I’ve struggled. From struggling with reverse culture shock after returning home from a mission trip, to walking through the desert of the Middle East while deployed with the military, I’ve come home changed every time. Sometimes growing for the better, and sometimes I’ve taken two steps backward as I deal with anxiety and depression.

My anxiety and depression are a silent battle, which makes it hard to get help even when I do reach out. People don’t understand because they don’t see it, and I don’t let them see it. There’s so little real conversation about mental health, especially in the church. Yes, there’s a lot of talk about “getting help is a sign of strength” or “if you need to talk, I’m here”, but in my own experience, those are often just sayings. Having a strong support system is crucial when it comes to battling mental health. Over the years I’ve built relationships and developed a strong support system with my church family. They know me, and they have been given permission to hold me accountable. It makes it easier for me to have my voice heard, especially when I am struggling. However, when I was separated from the support and I didn’t have that accountability pulling me back up, the battle was harder to fight. I was on my own, but never really alone. Even when it seemed God was silent in answering my prayers, He was still there when I didn’t see Him. There were many times during my desert walk where I came close to giving up, where I lost my purpose and didn’t see a reason for being there. Thankfully though, my support system back home was faithful in praying for me. It is for this reason, I believe, at just the right moment my focus would return to Jesus Christ, my Rock and my Healer, and my strength for the battle would be renewed in the Holy Spirit. We are never alone, even when it feels like it. There’s always someone praying, and God is faithful. He never leaves our side, and He always “shows up” at just the right moment to remind us of that.

I learned how to persevere. As I was playing basketball, I was reminded of the determination I had as a kid when I played sports. I was never the best, but I was never one to quit. I showed up to every practice to get better, and I was at every game even if I didn’t get to play. Life is like that, too. There’s always something new to learn, a new perspective to see from. Sometimes seeing from that new perspective makes all the difference in our struggles. Look for the new perspective, the view which goes beyond the surface into the window of the soul. Whether it’s your soul, or the soul of someone you pass by in your day-to-day, peer in and catch a glimpse of the person beyond the moment. You never know who you will see.

Enjoy the View,

Tracy D.