Depression is one of those issues we don't talk about much in churches.
In any one year, it's estimated that there are 1 million Australians with depression – but despite how common it is, it's still a subject that Christians struggle to address in terms of faith. This isn't only because depression is complex and often misunderstood in our mainstream culture. It's also because the idea of depression in a Christian doesn't seem to fit neatly into a Christian perspective.
An article late last year has suggested that churches tend to fall into one of two categories of poor response to depression.
The first is that the church assumes that depression is only spiritual in nature and perhaps the sufferer is lacking in faith somehow and that's why they feel so "sad".
The second is that the church refers the person to a medical professional and leaves it at that, without the support or sounding board for the sufferer to turn to. Given how vital it is to feel God's presence even in darkness, it's a sad commentary if the people of the church aren't able to support a fellow Christian during a depressive period.
Obviously neither of those categories is a great response. And both would result in the sufferer feeling abandoned. In fact, in past generations, Christians have been known to misinterpret depression as anything from an emotional dysfunction, a character flaw, or a spiritual failing. And even worse, that people with depression should keep it to themselves – that they are lacking the joy of connection with God, and that they just need more faith.
Learning the right response
So how should we respond? It will mean something different for each situation, but here are some areas that it pays to keep in mind if we want to reach out to people with depression in the church.
(1) Depression isn't a "lack of faith".
I've often heard people say "I shouldn't be depressed – I'm a Christian!" The idea here, of course, is that if you really trusted in God and drew your joy from him, surely you couldn't be "sad".
But this misses the point that depression is much more than an emotion or a spiritual dilemma. Chemical imbalances, situations, genetic factors, childhood trauma, controlling impulses and other problems can all play a role (and it's not the same for everyone). Putting depression down as someone's spiritual weakness is incorrect, and it's also unhelpful.
(2) Depression isn't always obvious.
People with depression don't always seem sad – in fact, it's often the opposite. The onus is on us as a church community to build a culture that's open to talking about these matters and offering help. (This is another argument for building up community in the church.)
(3) Pastoral care is important. Medical care is also important.
Pastoral care workers may have the best intentions of helping a person with their depressive state, but the reality is many people in ministry don't have psychological training or resources to know what to do with these conditions. This is no criticism of the church, just a reality. Prayer and support from the church is important, but psychological care and medical treatment may be just as important.
(4) Awareness is key.
To me, the crucial starting point is for all of us to be aware of the problem, and to educate ourselves. If one in five Australians will experience a mental illness every year, as statistics have said, it's hugely important for Christians to be on top of what depression means and how it manifests. This awareness isn't just for professionals or pastoral care workers – it's for all of us. Who knows who you could speak to in the next pew and make a difference to, just by knowing what they are going through.
The solution should be in the church
Over the past couple years, my church has held two evenings with church members sharing their testimony about their struggles with mental illnesses and how this has affected their faith. These two evenings weren't connected or planned as a series, but I would love to see more of this.
We are lucky in Australia to have resources at our fingertips if we need help – everything from SANE Australia to Beyond Blue, as well as trained psychiatrists and counsellors – and I don't mean to downplay the important work of psychological professionals. These services are a lifeline.
But as a place which is meant to be a community, where people should feel safe and real about their struggles, wouldn't it be great if churches were more open to talking about these types of issues, to break the taboo and welcome people in? This is something every Christian can help with – by talking to each other openly, by reading widely about mental health issues, and by raising awareness.
How good would it be if the church could be leading cultural change on this huge issue?
Cheryl McGrath is a communications professional and lives in Melbourne. She has seen too many friends go through depression and is passionate about churches taking the lead in social change and tackling the hard issues.
Cheryl McGrath's previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/cheryl-mcgrath.html