Depression seems like an awkward and scary word, isn’t it? By simply opening our mouth and uttering this word – “depression”, we can very quickly feel the awkwardness, the shame, and the strangeness running through our body. Even when we try to be as quiet as possible, even when we are barely making any sound, the feeling still doesn’t escape us. This scary word “depression” seems to have the power to cast a shadow on our world and, sometimes even worse, on our identities. And before long, we are trapped in the fear of becoming, if not already being, the “depressed person” in the eyes of others and of our own.
But why? Why does this word “depression” have to be so awkward, so scary, and so shameful? Why does this short word – with only ten letters – have the power to paralyze us and alter our sense of reality? Is it just the word? Sure, the word does seem to have terrifying teeth, but it doesn’t take long to realize that there is more to the word. Somehow the word may mean that others will start to look at us differently and treat us differently. The word may mean that suddenly all of our great achievements in life and everything we used to be proud of now surrender to this new condition. The word may mean that suddenly our greatest hopes and greatest visions in life shrink to a narrow focus “to get better.” And even worse, the word may mean that we are it, stamped and owned by “depression” for the rest of our lives. But is it, my friend? Is this really our destiny, our unchanging fate? If it is, then should it be?
Someone once said, “it’s a strange poverty of the English language…that we use this same word, DEPRESSION, to describe how a kid feels when it rains on his birthday, and to describe how somebody feels the minute before they commit suicide.” Friend, our language has failed us. This word “depression” has failed us. Or maybe it is the other way around, our society has failed to look at this word with utmost honesty – to acknowledge the simplicity of the ten letter word and to acknowledge the impossibility of it to overpower the richness of human lives. Our society and our culture, with its own insincerity, have granted this word “depression” too much power to turn us against each other and over our identities and our dignity. And this, my friend, I believe should not be!
It is a painful reality that depression is hurtful, not just the word itself, but the experience of it. I would never deny that the experience of depression is an experience of suffering. It wounds us, breaks us open, and makes us vulnerable. But my friend, do you know there is something else in the world that breaks us open and makes us vulnerable? It is love. A true and deep love of life doesn’t start in places where all is happy, on the contrary, it starts from the messiness, the wounds and the healing. My friend, do you know our acknowledgement of the painful experience of depression and its complexity is indeed a precursor for healing and a deep love of life? Do you know that it is a sign of profound courage and protest against all forces that seek to devalue our dignity and the richness of our lives? Depression seems to have the power to isolate us, but many of us also believe that our human instinct of longing for love has a greater ability to empower us to reach out, to unite with people, to heal, and help the world heal with us.
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Imagine walking into church and in the lobby, you see a sign-up area for getting a tooth extracted or a root canal. You go up to the counter to learn more and the pastor of Family Ministry says “Hi! Want to sign up to get your dental work done right here at church?!” You might be somewhat excited about this because you hate going to the dentist’s office so you ask more questions. The pastor assures you that even though a licensed dentist will not be actually performing your procedures, the church has a real dentist on staff. He has done training classes for some of the pastoral staff and a core group of peer leaders on how to take out teeth and perform other dentistry functions so have faith that you are in good hands. What?! Are they serious? Your interest in receiving dental care at church might be waning at this point. We could even exchange the dental service at church with cancer treatment. Instead of a dentist on staff teaching pastors and peer leaders to pull teeth, the oncologist that is employed by the church is showing people how to mix just the right chemical cocktails to treat a few well-known cancers. This way, the church can positively impact more people “for God” and hold a group class where everyone who has cancer can come, each get hooked up to a medication drip and the church is serving a great function, right? What could possibly be wrong with this picture? It’s actually very scary, isn’t it?
Do these scenarios sound outrageous? They shouldn’t at all because this is precisely what is happening in churches regarding mental health. Open up some church bulletins and you might see classes offered such as “Freedom From Depression,” “Inner Healing From Anxiety” or “Learning to Stabilize Your Moods.” You see friend, there are church leaders across the country who have no formal training in mental health or how to recognize risks, and yet they are offering to treat mental illness. Depression, anxiety and mood disorders are not just some fad words that should be taken lightly. I would imagine that the recent death of a beloved actor and comedian might have served as a spotlight for the general public that depression has at times very serious risk factors associated with it. Those of us who have made assessing, treating, diagnosing and evaluating mental health as our profession are reminded every day that depression can be dangerous.
Churches need to be taking mental health issues as serious as they would take physical health issues and stop advertising that they are equipped to treat these conditions.
In a church setting, where does the responsibility and liability fall when a dental extraction, chemo session, or depression treatment goes badly? I can guarantee you for those churches who are advertising they treat mental health conditions, if something goes wrong, church leadership will be very quick to point out they are in fact not licensed professional counselors. Back away, back away, back away. That’s what happens in churches when they overreach their skill set by offering to treat mental health issues and bad things happen. That’s just wrong. As licensed professional counselors, we can’t just wash our hands of a “mistake.”
With my own ears I have heard church staff members literally say “Why do people call the church office like we are some suicide hotline?!” Yep. My mouth dropped open too. Well, when churches advertise that they treat mental health issues, people are going to assume they treat mental health issues! It’s pretty simple actually.
What does a church do who genuinely want to help their congregation members live better lives and want to offer group classes in order to reach the most people? Call the classes something like “How To Enjoy Your Life More” or “Changing Thoughts Changes Feelings” or “Learning To Live Stress Free.” See, not one of those titles implies a treatment for a mental illness. Big difference. Churches should be a place for folks to gain Bible based encouragement of how to overcome life’s challenges. The moment church staff start to believe they can treat depression, anxiety or mood disorders, they might as well put up their booth for root canals and cancer treatment because they have gone too far.
What is my point of this blog? People who need help are getting hurt in churches that are trying to treat mental health issues with pastors and peer leaders who have no formal counseling education. It’s unethical.
I have no doubt that I will hear from people who have gone to a Freedom From Depression class or Inner Healing From Anxiety and they will tell me how much it changed their lives. I will not deny that some good truth is being shared in these sort of classes. The bottom line is that no church should be offering to treat depression or anxiety unless the leader of the group is a licensed professional and the group standards are those that meet ethical licensing guidelines.
Through the recent suicide of a famous actor, I hope that there is a collective understanding that mental illness should not be taken lightly. I hope churches across the country will start re-evaluating how they address these issues within their congregations because people are getting hurt by ill-equipped leaders. Those of us in the mental health profession see it on a regular basis. We see how people’s faith is called into question when they are dealing with depression, anxiety or even abuse.
We hear when people are told that if they are grateful enough, they won’t deal with depression.
We also see how inadequately trained leaders are digging through people’s personal history without the skill set to keep that history from imploding in on the person. Many individuals deal with trauma in their life story and untrained church leaders have absolutely no business unraveling hurts they do not know how to therapeutically manage.
We also see that people are advised to not take their medication because God will heal them. We see that spouses in unsafe homes are spiritually abused into staying where it is causing more emotional and physical harm. We are seeing it all because after folks leave a church class or pastor’s office and have been hurt, guess where they go next? Christian counselors who are trained professionals and can help put together the mess that has been created. We are hearing and seeing the aftermath.
Please know it is not escaping our notice.
Have you been hurt in a church setting regarding your own challenges with depression, anxiety, mood disorder or abuse? If so, what helped you move forward and not allow the wounding within the church to affect your relationship with God? Always remember that the works are men (or women) are very different than the grace, unconditional love and hope that are the promises of God.
Five Things I’ve Learned This Week or Was Reminded Of:
1) Sleep is so very critical to our overall well-being. Skimping on it to do other things is ok for a very short season but it can’t become a habit without it catching up in a negative way. I will try and remind myself this tonight as I stay up reading; probably much too late for my own good.
2) Parents of seniors in high school: Breathe. Try not to let the stress of this season in life overshadow the fact that in a few short months your babies will be launching out as adults; as crazy as that might seem. You’ll never get this time back, so enjoy it.
3) Adult emotional bullying comes in a variety of forms. If you sense you might be on the receiving end of bullying, you probably are. Talk to a friend, family member or counselor if you have a bully in your life. It’s very toxic to ignore the situation and let the bully go unchecked. We often start to slowly believe the bully and/or lose touch with how inappropriate their behaviors are towards us.
4) If someone neglects or rejects us romantically it doesn’t automatically mean that they believe we are not good enough for them. Sometimes people push away because they don’t see themselves as good enough for us. Guard your self-esteem if you are or have been neglected or rejected in a relationship. The reasons for the behaviors are not always what they seem.
5) Getting out of depression isn’t just about someone pulling themselves up by their bootstraps; as many people try to suggest. There are different factors to a person getting overwhelmed by hopelessness. Getting out of the dark hole takes several steps and just trying to “be happy” isn’t one of them. If you find yourself dealing with depression, talk to someone who understands the struggle. Even if you can’t see it today, things really can get better.
What’s on your list?
Five Things I’ve Learned This Week or Was Reminded Of:
1) Being a Christian doesn’t make us immune to mental illness, depression, anxiety, fear, trauma or any of the other struggles that are possibilities in this world
2) New solutions breed new problems. Example? Technology. It’s great until it doesn’t work the way we want it to
3) Texas weather is absurd and makes me crazy sometimes. Why would it be 37 degrees in April? That’s just unnatural. I have flip-flops that want to be worn
4) When a person acts in a way that is not normal for them, it is their subconscious jumping up and down, waving their hands saying “hey, over here!” We need to watch what people do and not just what they say. We could learn a lot about how they are feeling
5) Single folks shouldn’t expect an instant connection on a first date. It would be like meeting a new friend and assuming you’re best friends right there on the spot. Human connections take time to grow and become enriching to our lives. It doesn’t happen quickly (or at least it shouldn’t)
What’s on your list?