“She showed me that she had been cutting severely up and down her arms,” said Pastor Howard of his daughter one morning before taking her to school,” It must have been forty cuts on each side.”
Pastor Howard’s 16-year-old daughter had always worn long sleeves to hide the fact that she had been cutting herself. He remembered her habit of often pulling down her sleeves so no one could see the scars. Immediately upon finding out, Howard and his wife took their daughter to a clinic where she was initially diagnosed by a psychiatrist with major depression.
“We knew she was having some trouble but we didn’t know the extent of it,” said Howard.
The term “depression” is very familiar to us, yet remains something of a mystery in the church. IT should come as no surprise that as part of our ministry there would be among our congregants those who struggle with depression. But unlike physical sickness, where Christian brothers and sisters quickly respond with hospital visits and meal support, depression is unfortunately frequently misunderstood and neglected.
“I think mental illness is something people tend to hide, maybe they don’t want to talk about it or they don’t understand or they’re afraid,” said Pastor Howard. “It’s really swept under the rug in the Asian community and even in the church community.”
Depression, a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest in daily life, an unshakable feeling of guilt and worthlessness, is not uncommon among Christians. It is a sickness that can affect any age and culture. According to the World Health Organization, more than 350 million people of all ages around the world suffer from depression. It is the leading cause of disability worldwide and major contributor to disease on a global scale. At its worst, depression can lead to suicide. However, even the most devoted believers, from pastors to lay leaders and even many in the Scriptures, have struggled with depression.
“It is prevalent. Probably most people have someone in their family dealing with a mental health issue,” said Pastor Howard. “Behind the scenes, they don’t know how to deal with it and they will delay to get help so part of our job as pastors is how do you get them to follow referrals or to talk about it?”
As 21st-century American life has become increasingly stressful and complicated, even the church is becoming filled with exhausting activities and demands. We all have “down” days, feelings of melancholy when we find it hard to hold everything together. These symptoms should not be taken lightly. Awareness and ministry to the ongoing emotional health of brothers and sisters is critical in the life of the church. But severe depression lingers long and deep, and is not easily remedied with the standard “encouragements”.
For the Pastor Howard and his wife, their daughter’s depression did not easily go away. They found out six months later that their daughter was cutting again; this time on her legs. She was admitted to the hospital for six days and this time was diagnosed with type 1 bipolar disorder and psychosis. Howard and his wife took her out of her regular, 7-hour school-day schedule and enrolled her in a hospital high school program where a teacher was sent to her home to help her finish high school through independent study. Because of her hospital and therapy visits all over Los Angeles County, Howard sometimes had to drive a hundred miles a day. Even with constant care and therapy, she burned herself a few months later and returned to the hospital for five days.
“A depressed person, the last thing they need is someone to say, hey, pick yourself up by your bootstraps and get back on the road, get back on your bike,” said Howard. “You may need a little bit of that encouragement, but it has to come from love. That has to come from a person who you know loves you and that you trust and you have to build that by listening to that person, showing tangible care.”
Depression among Christian seems to carry a certain stigma. The implication is that if you truly have the joy of salvation, or if you serve others instead of thinking of yourself, you would not be depressed. Here it is helpful to think of depression like cancer. Yes, some cancer is caused by our own neglect of our body, But some cancer victims never smoked, ate healthy, exercised and lived a clean life. There are carcinogens in our environment all around us that can claim anyone as a cancer victim.
“There’s a lot of misconceptions,” said Howard; “there’s this idea that if you take medication or if you have to see a counselor, that’ you’re weak … You don’t have enough faith … That’s all shame-based.”
The human make up is complicated, thus depression is intertwined with many areas of a person’s life. IT’s not just a social problem, or a spiritual problem, or a chemical problem. What’s worked for someone else does not guarantee success with another. As with other kinds of sickness, God surely will use various means, doctors, medication, therapies, and hear our desperate prayers for the depressed. Bi natter what our condition, we must always keep our eyes on our Lord Jesus Christ, who understands fully the wretchedness of sin. His resurrection and power over death and gives us our hope. We as the Church carry that hope for the hurting. The love of Christ, expressed in the Body of Christ, envelops the depressed members so they do not have to walk those dark moments alone.
“Paul talks about the God of all comfort, who comforts us in our troubles so that we can be a comfort to others—2 Corinthians 1,” said Pastor Howard. “I think that a lot of times, Christians are a lot harder and judgmental…than God is Himself when you look at the biblical record.”
Some advice that Reverend Chang suggests Chinese Christian churches can do today to help those who are crying out for help as they struggle with depression include the following:
1) Educate the leadership. Consider training lay leaders who have the caring gifts—encouragement, mercy, hospitality—in some of the things they may face such as personality disorder, depression, and mental illness. These trained leaders can act as the front lines for the caring of those in the church who need it. No church is going to be able to educate all its leadership, staff, and members all at once so start with those who already have a bent toward reaching out to those struggling.
2) Live out grace. If our faith and salvation are based on grace, this same grace should carry into our ministries and relationships. Shame and guilt issues that arise from cultural values need to be understood in light of God’s grace. We need to be willing to accept persons who are different.
3) Understand that God can use depression and our sufferings for good. In James 1:2-3, it says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.” One’s depression may be a pathway to growth in character. Though it may not be easy to go through, understand that God may use this time of trial to grow you personally, form you spiritually and to allow you to be of service to others once you have gone through it yourself.
The verse that the Pastor Howard’s family has held onto during this time of trial has been Psalm 34:18 which says, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” In the midst of their daughter’s struggle with depression, their answer has been the Lord’s closeness and presence even through times of difficulty and despair. As a family, they have sought to walk in faith through this valley together with their daughter one step at a time, knowing that their Heavenly Father has been and will be right there beside them.