In Christian circles, we tend to shun speaking about depression. Often it is seen as spiritual weakness or a “sin problem.” It is neither. However, depression could develop into one or the other if not treated and overcome. Depression is a normal emotional response when faced with loss or trying circumstances. Depression can be caused by severe exhaustion or burnout. The problem comes when the individual seems to stay in a state of depression.
We often see people become overwhelmed with a series of trials, both large and small, compounding the normal response. In two decades of working in ministry, I have seen and heard of many pastors or other Christian leaders who have simply quit ministry, depressed and discouraged, because there were simply so many crises, so many fires to put out, so many hurts, that they could not keep up. Some fell into depression because of one major event, either personally or ministerially. Some went even further and committed suicide. Why? They didn’t have the encouragement and support they needed.
But, they are pastors; they are Christians. They should be able to handle it.
A family losing a child is a great trial, a tremendous grief. This same family made a significant ministry change and move two years later. They then had several job changes due to layoffs and another move to a different part of town. Additional stress came when the wife became pregnant and placed on bed rest. Unfortunately, all measures the doctors attempted could not help her carry the baby to term. She delivered at 24 weeks. They spent 17 days traveling to and from the hospital NICU to see their baby, waited anxiously during surgery on a heart smaller than your thumb nail, only to have him die in their arms on day 17. The next year she miscarried; he was laid off three times in six months. The following year she again followed her doctors recommendations of surgery and bed rest, only to have their baby girl at 23 weeks. Three infant losses in three years; four infant losses in six years. More lay offs and job changes – including the husband working three jobs a day just to meet the bills; another move across town. Ministry hiccups, disappointments, hurts and betrayals came as well during this time.
All these things occurred over 12 years, most during a 7 year span.
It was in the midst of all this that I found myself in serious trouble. It was not a lack of faith on my part. I was in the Word; I was praying. I was serving in choir, Children’s Church and any other area asked. Nevertheless, I still was in a desert with no oasis in sight.
Professionals might call this complicated grief – the inability to move on from one loss. I call what happened compounded grief, compounded depression. There wasn’t a chance to come up for air, to heal, to recover from one event because there was one loss or stress taking place right after another.
I knew that I needed help when I contemplated taking a bottle of pills. It was by God’s grace that I did not. It was in the midst of an argument, a rage on my part, that I finally blurted this out to my husband who insisted that I go see a doctor. I did. (Until that point, he had no idea just how deep in depression I was.)
I told the doctor I felt like I was at the “kill or be killed” stage. She ran tests and put me on hormonal therapy. Within a month, I was a different person; I physically felt the difference. It was only then that I was able to begin to deal with and heal from all those stressors, from the depression that had taken over my life.
How did it get so far? Why didn’t anyone see what was happening?
I think there are two reasons. First, being a ministry wife, I’m not supposed to have feelings like this. I’m supposed to be strong, to be the example of how to handle life’s problems, disappointments, griefs. So, I hid it. I played the role that I thought was expected of me. I succumbed to the potential stigma. I didn’t feel I had anyone I could talk to without judgment, to talk to freely. Which brings me to the second reason: no one noticed. No one asked how I was doing. And, if they did, they did not push to help. I really think it boiled down to that they didn’t see the signs.
One of the keys to healing from depression is to recognize the signs of depression. It was because I did recognize that I was in trouble, and finally told someone albeit accidentally, that I was able to heal. Keep in mind, depression is a part of grieving. That is not the problem. It is when someone remains in a state of depression for a prolonged period of time that they may have crossed over to clinical depression. Many going through times of grief may exhibit some of the listed signs; the key is that they are able to move on at some point. The signs listed here are for clinical depression, the inability to move on and heal from a grief causing event.
- Persistent sad, empty, or numb feelings. Blank stares, loss of interest in life or things they once enjoyed. The inability to recognize happiness.
- Feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, helplessness. Persistent pessimism. Inability to see the bright side; to see another way. Blames themselves for what happened (anger turned inward). May fixate on past mistakes. May feel no one cares.
- Increased agitation or restlessness. Easily irritated, even over small matters. Quick to anger. Hand wringing, pacing. Inability to sit still.
- Fatigue, decreased energy. Inability to finish projects or lists as before. May feel unproductive. Slowed thinking, speaking, or movements. Much effort given to the simplest tasks.
- Loss of interest in activities, hobbies, etc. that were once enjoyed. May stop visiting family, decline invitations. May stop participating in hobbies such as reading, crafting, clubs or sports.
- Difficulty remembering details, focusing or concentrating. Mental “fog.” Taking a long time to complete a complicated process. Forgetting appointments, names, etc. Indecisive. Easily distracted.
- Physical signs: sleeping too much or too little (insomnia); overeating or loss of appetite; persistent pain, headaches, stomach issues that do not resolve despite treatment.
- Thoughts of death or suicide. Direct statements might include: “I wish I were dead.” “I want to end it all.” Indirect statements might include: “You’d be better off without me.” “I can’t go on.” “Soon, I won’t be around anymore.”
The person experiencing clinical depression may not be aware of what is happening to them. It is important to be mindful of the above signs and act to help the person. Depression is one of the most common factors associated with suicide.
If you or someone you know experiences two or more of the above symptoms more often than not for more than two weeks, you or they may be experiencing clinical depression. You can learn more about hope for depression here at the Meier Clinic website.
Where can you find help? Begin by talking with a friend or family member, your pastor or a Christian mentor. A medical doctor should also be consulted to check for chemical or hormonal imbalances or other possible physiological causes.
For me, I needed a medical doctor to determine that I was suffering from a hormonal imbalance before I could move on in order to heal.
Depression tends to bring about a spiritual stigma. It shouldn’t. Elijah, King David, Job, Jeremiah, Jonah, and Paul are only a few in the Bible who experienced various degrees of depression. It is how we deal with depression that makes all the difference.
Not all those who suffer from depression do so because of a “sin problem.” Depression is a natural response to overwhelming situations and, occasionally, from sheer exhaustion. The longer a person stays in a state of depression, however, it can lead to spiritual weakness which may further complicate the situation.
I encourage you to seek the help of your pastor and doctor to help you. If you simply do not feel comfortable with those resources, the Meier Clinic provides a whole body approach to counseling which will deal with physical causes as well as emotional and spiritual causes. Another excellent resource for locating a Christian counselor is the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors.
Finally, let me encourage anyone in ministry who finds themselves, a family member or, perhaps, the entire family in a situation where you need counseling care to please seek help. Our ministry, Hold Fast the Truth, is completely based on anonymity for any pastor or ministry leader that contacts us, regardless the need. If you need help, but do not know where to turn, please do not hesitate to contact my husband, Evangelist Dan Woltmann, through our ministry website, churchhelps.org. We will do all we can to match you with the help that you need.
No words can express how much the world owes to sorrow. Most of the Psalms were born in the wilderness. Most of the Epistles were written in a prison. The greatest thoughts of the greatest thinkers have all passed through fire. The greatest poets have “learned in suffering what they taught in song.” In bonds Bunyan lived the allegory that he afterwards wrote, and we may thank Bedford Jail for the Pilgrim’s Progress. Take comfort, afflicted Christian! When God is about to make pre-eminent use of a person, He put them in the fire. — George MacDonald
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