This past May, friends and family celebrated with me my graduation from Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary after ten years of part-time study. My joy that day was all the greater because of the adversity I had pressed through to get to this point. Alongside my coursework all those years I had been engaged in a parallel curriculum—learning to survive depression.
My own depression fits into a family deeply affected by depression passed down more faithfully than family heirlooms. We treated depression (though unnamed) as a character flaw, a spiritual failure, a source of shame. No one ever talked about it. When, as a teen, I too began to succumb, I forced myself to keep going and hid my pain from the church, as I saw others doing. I observed the church as a supportive community for others—but not in relation to our family’s secret misery.
As I moved into my adult years, I was afraid to set goals, never able to count on emotional stability, always on the receiving end of help. Yet at a critical life juncture eleven years ago, with the encouragement of friends who saw gifts in me I could not claim for myself, I cautiously began taking seminary courses, one at a time, frequently second-guessing my emerging call to ministry. My home congregation began contributing a modest amount to my tuition each semester, their faith an encouragement to persist in my studies.
Midway through my studies I began a pastoral internship. In that role, I helped to form a support group for depression that met monthly for nearly four years. Here at last was a place where those with depression could open up our private suffering to the care of the church. Here we could bring to God the pain that dominated our lives, sharing our stories and receiving the concern of others.
That year my mood began plummeting. The tasks of ministry were getting harder, and I had to force myself to keep at them. Medication that had helped for over a year was now failing me. My doctor held out hope that two particular meds in combination would be the “magic bullet” for me, as it had been for several of his patients. “Oh no!” I thought. “Now I am really sick--to need two antidepressants!”
Despite my sense of shame about it, I followed my psychiatrist’s advice. His intuition was right. As spring arrived that year, the sun emerged from the clouds for the first time in many months. After a few weeks, I was feeling better than I ever remembered feeling. It dawned on me that I had been living with depression all my adult life—even from as early as age 12. Until that spring, my life had been a roller coaster of ups and downs, but, I realized, even the best times were colored by depression.
A few months after I began to feel hugely better, depression started afflicting my son, then ten. For three tumultuous years we struggled to find effective treatment while I wrestled with agonizing theological questions, starting with “Why should a child be suffering so?” Mental illness raises theological questions that defy answers. Those of us with mental illness deeply need people who will face the abyss with us without flinching. Are our churches willing to enter such theological struggles with us?
Unfortunately, stigma often keeps the body of Christ from embodying the tangible love of God to those affected by mental illness. Stigma keeps us isolated in our suffering. It keeps us from accessing treatment that could help. Stigma prolongs and intensifies suffering.
Depression is a physical illness of the brain, not a bad habit we bring on ourselves because of character weakness or moral failure. We don't get depression from not trusting God enough. These are truths we need to integrate into the common practices of our congregational life. When someone has the courage to talk about feelings of hopelessness, let us affirm the courage and extend extra care. Churches can make mental illness something we regularly talk about, pray about, and even lament over in our public worship. In these ways, we can embody Christ’s love to the many among us who suffer from a mental illness.
Christine Guth served ADN as program director from 2010 to 2016, after several years of working for ADN as a volunteer. This story first appeared as an article in Connections in May 2008.