Dear Christian, Your Depression Isn't "Just a Spiritual Issue."
"Just trust in God and you'll get through it."
"I'm sure it will all get better soon. Have you tried (fill in the blank)?"
"God won't give you more than you can handle."
Sound familiar? These are statements that my friends and I received when we were brave enough to open up about mental health. Vulnerability was met with statements too big to swallow. If you've gone through your own battle with mental health, you too know those comments are anything but helpful.
Last year, I was neck-deep in shame because of my struggle with depression. I loved Jesus and life wasn't all that bad, so it didn't make sense for me to struggle with depression. My conclusion was this: I didn't actually love God all that much because if I did, I wouldn't be feeling this way.
But oh how far that is from the truth.
In Christian circles, mental health can still be seen as taboo. Yes, it's becoming a more comfortable topic culturally, but I continue to hear stories of shame similar to mine. The integration of theology and psychology can be messy, but it's an essential integration for our growth as believers.
Depression, Christianity, and Shame
Let me give you a sneak peak into the cycle I went through for a year.
I feel guilty for being depressed
I question my trust in God because I'm depressed
I feel even more depressed.
My battle with mental health made me feel like less of a Christian, a less of leader, and simply not good enough. Depression in itself is hard. But when we tag on all the expectations of what we "should" feel and how we "should" act as Christians, it becomes unbearable.
So for those in Christ, where does the shame around mental health come from? Let me share the major places I have seen it.
1. A Christian culture that isn't accepting of mental health
Being in communities that refuse to acknowledge the complexity of mental health can be deeply damaging. Having your emotions and pain denied is probably one of the worst feelings, wouldn't you say? Thankfully, our culture is moving in a positive direction with mental heath, but it is by no means gone. The times I have had a Bible verse or Christian-ease statement slapped onto my pain were the moments I felt most alone. Of course this doesn't mean we abandon truth. But it does mean we learn that how to speak truth, and that truth doesn't invalidate our pain.
2. A lack of understanding of mental health causes
A lack of understanding about mental health can be a huge reason it's so stigmatized. How are we supposed to engage in conversations about mental health if we don't research, listen, and grow in our understanding of the topic? When I was naive to the causes of mental health, I defaulted to blaming my spiritual life because that was all I knew. We must broaden our understanding of mental health in order to find freedom from shame.
3. Unrealistic expectations
I will always get let down if I believe being a Christian somehow makes me immune to mental health issues. It's bad theology and simply untrue. While the body of Christ can have a different approach to pain, it doesn't mean pain is avoidable.
As believers, we have a beautiful opportunity to sit in a tension. We can simultaneously struggle with our mental health and hold eternal hope. We don't have to wear a mask to prove Christians have it all together, because we don't. We don't have to pretend everything is okay, because it's not. God doesn't need us to stay silent about mental health issues in order to defend him. If anything, we have even more freedom to speak out because we have a God who loves us unconditionally through our brokenness.
If it's not just spiritual, what is it?
This fall, I took an abnormal psychology class where we learned about all kinds of mental disorders. My professor presented each mental disorder from a “biological-psychological-social-spiritual” approach. We didn't just talk about low serotonin levels or the effects of diet. We looked at the whole picture.
This means taking into consideration:
(Read this article for examples of what each of those factors look like.)
In a counseling session about a year ago, my counselor had me do an experiment. She pulled out a whiteboard from behind her plush armchair and handed it to me along with an expo marker. She had me split the the white board into four quadrants and title each square with bio - psycho - social - spiritual. We then began to talk through the categories and gave space for each area in my life. I quickly began to realize how much sleep, diet, relational patterns, hereditary depression, stress, school, and thought patterns were also thrown into the mix. Since that session, I've been cautious to attach a singular cause to my mental health.
Could it be that, sometimes, a spiritual component has very little to do with it? Here me out- I'm not saying that God isn't in the equation or that we shouldn't pray about our mental heath. Regardless of the causes of our mental health health, we should still cover it in prayer and know God is still present. But we must expand our view of mental health beyond the spiritual. If we jump to label ourselves, or others, as "spiritually weak" because of a mental health struggle, it's going to be deeply wounding.
Depression doesn't mean you're lazy.
Depression doesn't mean you aren't a good-enough Christian.
Depression isn't something to be ashamed of.
Depression doesn't disqualify you.
Before you go, can I ask you to do something? With so much content floating around the internet on mental health, it can be easy to take whatever you read and run with it. I am one voice of many, so I hope this can be a pit stop on your journey. Keep seeking, keep reading, and keep exploring my friends!
Note: I am not a mental health professional. I am writing from my current education (BA in Psychology) and personal experience.