Wednesday, February 2, 2011
Christian churches, depression and mental illness - my own story.
I have probably had some level of depression from about the age of ten when I was referred to a child psychologist because I was a bit withdrawn. Yes, she was a Freudian, and no it had nothing to do with sex. She was not very helpful and the experience probably put me off seeking help later on.
My condition has varied over the years from perfectly functional to totally suicidal with elements of self harm. In spite of this I have been very successful in life by adopting a strategy where I choose work and social activities that suit my abilities at the time. For example, I was at my most successful in business when my condition was at its worst because I did not care about my own well-being and working hard became a substitute for physical self harm. At other times I have chosen to pursue my music through recording rather than performing because I could not face an audience.
I can go several years without any depression at all and often it is not that severe. The severe episodes seem to be about ten years apart. I am very conscious of signs that I might be losing interest in things or taking less care of myself, as these are the early indicators of my depression.
Mental health problems and the church
I was first diagnosed properly with depression while living in Edinburgh. It was only after reading a book by Dorothy Rowe called Depression The way out of your Prison that I realised that I had a real, treatable condition that I could recover from. So I went to see my doctor, who actually uttered that classically unhelpful line “pull yourself together”. I got no help at all, but I persisted and after moving house and changing doctor I did start to get some help in the way of medication and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.
As a very keen Christian, attending an independent evangelical church, I felt very guilty about being depressed as it appeared to me as a great spiritual failure. The reason I thought like this about my brain chemistry when I wouldn’t have about an injured leg is probably down to the bible itself where people with symptoms of mental health problems are quite literally demonised, but I digress. As a Christian I thought that the church might be part of my recovery so I went to see my minister, told him that I was being treated for depression and that I really needing to feel involved with other people as part of my recovery. I had become quite distant from things and a bit unwilling to mix with people so I hoped he might be able to help me get more involved again. Instead of this, he told me that I must have no contact with anyone else in the church in case they caught the depression from me. I was permitted to come into the church service and sit at the back, but that was as far as it was to go. I was not to mix with anyone else socially until I was well again.
As it turned out, this sort of attitude is not unique amongst ministers, and undoubtedly this type of treatment has led to me being iller for longer during my lifetime.
After moving house and changing church to a Baptist church the new minister’s preaching was very much of the “you must try harder” variety which made me feel really guilty as I was already running at full capacity just trying to function as a human being. He only had one sermon regardless of the text which was “look at what God has done for you, so how much are you going to do in return”. For a long time I thought I might have misinterpreted what he was saying due to the poor reasoning caused by my depression, but I met someone recently who had attended the same church shortly after I stopped going. He mentioned the same thing with no prompting from me so it seems that my understanding of what the minister was saying was correct.
Sad to say, if I had stayed away from that church I would have got better quicker.
After withdrawing from church my condition did improve a lot and I made a good recovery followed by a few years of very good health when I was not attending any church. Then another bout of depression set in with quite serious self harm. By this stage I had started going back to church and had chosen the nearest church to my house. This was a pentecostal church. Goodness knows why I was going there. I suppose I went because they were very welcoming, but they had a very clear expectation that the normal Christian life was one of very fast transformation within six months or so of attending. Anything else was a sign of something being wrong with your spiritual life or the result of hidden sin. It was a guaranteed recipe for disaster with regards to my mental health. I didn’t spot the signs of depression this time till it was too far advanced, having spent time in prayer rather than seeing a doctor, but finally I forced myself to go to the doctor (and felt a failure in doing so). He was able to get me very good help, including psychological treatment and this has given me the tools to move forward and prevent future recurrences of my condition. I know that I have already prevented one major recurrence since then and my life is much more stable.
If I had not attended that church would I have had a recurrence of depression? Probably, but I doubt it would have been as severe as I definitely would have sought professional help sooner.
Suggestions for ministers
Isolation is not the answer. People with depression are isolated enough and usually feel lonely and vulnerable. When I was depressed I wanted to feel wanted. You should assign someone to check regularly on people with this condition in your congregation and work at maintaining a relationship with them. Don’t consider people to be “backsliders” if they can’t regularly attend services. They may be uneasy being in large groups, which always made me feel very lonely and vulnerable. When I have been depressed I have been very nervous about travelling to be with strangers so home groups were not really an answer either unless someone had picked me up and taken me there. Even then I might not have been that keen. The key is probably one to one contact with someone and encouragement to seek and maintain medical and psychological treatment.
Are people with mental health problems likely to be more religious?
One of the regular suggestions made is that religious belief is a form of mental disorder and it has even been classified as such by some psychiatrists. I think there are correlations, but more like this: people of an artistic or intuitive temperament are more likely to suffer from mental illness. They are also more likely to explore spiritual issues so are more likely to be religious. As a result, I would expect the percentage of mental patients with an interest in religion to be higher than the population average. Its not a significant statistic and not directly elated.
Some thoughts on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
I won’t go into the details of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) here as you can find information in this article, but I found that CBT did not work for me. Principally because it challenged my creative intuition which is one of my most useful senses. My intuition is generally quite good and I have made a large part of my living from being able to discern the best path to achieving something without any supporting analytical evidence for my decision. CBT turned that on its head and made me less functional in business and as a musician because it said that everything has to be reasoned out and based on evidence. This was actually quite damaging and I began to question if the sky was really blue or the grass really green. I found interpersonal therapy with a psychologist to be the answer for me and its been surprisingly long lasting. Probably because it provided me with tools and dealt with underlying issues, rather than being solely a treatment for symptoms.
I found these books very helpful in my own recovery:
Why Do Christians Shoot Their Wounded? (Not Hurting Those With Emotional Difficulties) By Dwight Carlson - explained to me why I was treated the way I was by people in the church and helped me to depersonalise the hurt.
Depression The Way out of your Prison by Dorothy Rowe - helped me to recognise that I needed help.
There are a number of books about depression written specifically for Christians. I would advise against these because their authors' underlying position seems to be that mental illness is not like physical illness and requires spiritual cures rather than medical help. This, in my opinion, is wrong and is likely to deter people from seeking the professional help they need and which will help them to recover more quickly.
Update July 2012
I recently took part in a BBC Radio 4 programme on this issue called Beyond Belief. You can hear it here: