Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Christian churches, depression and mental illness - my own story.

The church has a poor record of handling mental health issues and my own experience bears this out in a number of ways which I will outline in this article.

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had some level of depression from about the age of ten when  I was referred to a child psychologist because I was a bit withdrawn.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.

Useful Books
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:

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  1. Thanks Gordon for posting this. You are right that churches have the potential for worsening depression, and your personal journey shows haw this can happen. I do however think that there are also good examples. Hope many will take your advice.

  2. Thanks for sharing, Gordon. As a Christian who's in full-time lay ministry, I can identify with some of your issues. I went from Easter to early December last year without attending my local church simply because I was exhausted from work and home responsibilities. For most of the year I was taking Cymbalta but in December I stopped, with my doctor's permission. I finally went back to church and it felt like I had been fasting and, having been 'cleansed', I was more able to hear the Lord's voice. Worship and especially praise can be a tonic for depression but it seems there's no pattern or method that fits all. For my life, all types of music have been helpful, from folk and gospel to formal choir and classical, and yes, even 'popular' music! As an 'introvert', I've even been led to sing solos, or to join with our praise and worship team, but I'm also content to be back in the congregation. Strangely I've found release in singing in the Spirit alone, or even using my own words, quietly, while singing with others. God will be praised one way or another! Keep on keeping on!

  3. Hi Gordon,

    I followed the link you put on Phil Monroe's blog to find this. Good stuff.

    I also have a story that includes joys and sorrows, hurts and healing, ups and downs and all mixed together.

    I especially appreciate your critique of CBT and IPT for your life and the specific help you received from the book "Why Christians shoot their wounded."

  4. Thank you for your comments. I don't think my experience is unique, but I do think it's important that these things are brought out into the open.

  5. Hi Gordon,
    I'm recovered from clinical depression. I know what you are talking about in reference to churches and how they handle those with depression.
    You can enter church seeking the love, comfort and healing of Christ, but you may just leave more broken then when you came in.

    I think it's time to confront the church on these issues.

    And who shall confront them. It will have to start with us. I'm tired of churches, they have morphed themselves into a social club.

    They exclude whom they choose and welcome whom they wish.

    Christ came for all who were broken. Christ did not die on the cross so that churches could lord it over others, and reject those most needy.
    These days, the Gospel has a heavy price tag, all that is holy is for sale.

    And who calls such churches into account?
    I've read your blog and many others, and my heart grieves.

    I spoke at only one church on the issue of how the church treats the mentally ill.

    I have come to the conclusion that many more need this message. They must be called into account.

    And how many of us are ready to be sent, to right this wrong? Will all those who have responded on blogs go?
    It's time for action.

    It is time for us to go and stop the mouths of lions.
    It is time for us to call the church into account.
    It is time to give testimony. How will they know, unless we confront them, in love. But tell them we must.

    I'm going, praying for strenght as I go. I've written on the topic but it's not enough.
    I encourage all to let the churches know that their treatment of the mentally ill is unGodly.

    Even if one can just write a letter. Paul the Apostle wrote letters.

    Writing letters to these Pastors is a good way to start.
    There are churches who minister to the mentally ill. But one needs to be careful with some, since they lack so much knowledge.

    Nevertheless we are assured of Gods never ending love for the mentally ill and all people. Some may reject us but God our Father love us.
    Thanx for your blog, I was born in England as well and long to visit.

    God bless you and strengthen you, I hope you will find ways to link to blogs authored by Christian leaders.

  6. The word of God teaches us that God's people peish from lack of knowledge.I'm a member a group that speaks at churches but we need more voices. Churches need to hear from those who have been rejected.If our brother sins we should help restore them

  7. Thanks Marlene, you have spurred me on to contact a few people to see if they will link to this page.

  8. Gordon,

    Thank you for your words - valuable and timely where I am.

    Would you mind if I published them on the 'Vic the Vicar' blog as you have publicly led us where other privately 9and so remain confidential) have do,



  9. Yes, you can do that. Its here to be in the public domain. Please put a link back to the original article.

  10. I am an unemployed Church of England priest.

    I am unemployed because 12 years ago I went through a couple of years suffering from a serious depressive illness. I was in and out of hospital and nothing the psychiatrists prescribed would shift it. Eventually I met a young occupational therapist and something clicked. Together we came up with a regime that pulled me out of the hell I was living in.

    About ten years ago I was well enough to start working again. At the time I was the vicar of a two church parish, although I had been off work for over a year. I suggested to my archdeacon that I could manage one parish for a while until I was strong enough to cope with both. I was told this would not be possible.

    Then I was called into the bishop's office and he told me that I should retire and there was no job for me in the Church. I fought hard and he eventually gave me the post of assistant curate on a two year contract. He also insisted that I saw counsellors who reported back to him and undergo review procedures far more intrusive than what other priests had to go through.

    At the end of the two years I had to fight again to keep my job. Again Iwas given a two year contract. At the end of that, after another fight, I was given a one year contract and at the end of that I was told there was no job for me, and I wasn't given any contract. However, I carried on working and they still paid me for another two years.

    Last September, the bishop finally got his way and I was dismissed.

    During all those years of temporary contracts I did a perfectly fine and appreciated job and did not have a single minute off work because of illness, let alone mental distress. I have managed my depression by sticking to the regimes that were formulated with my OT and with medication.

    During all those years the bishop never once considered putting me forward for a full time post. I am certain that he was convinced from the start that somebody who had suffered from mental illness could never be trusted to take on any position of responsibility. I also think he believes that all mental illness is the same and that we are all schizophrenics. He certainly does not understand that major depressive episodes are usually temporary and that even those who suffer from occasional relapses can be perfectly capable of holding down a job as well as anybody else between episodes.

    Basically my bishop was an ill-informed bigot.

    Of course, having been subject to such prejudice for so long and held back from pursuing my vocation, all the parishes I apply to for work are suspicious of me. After 75 rejections in less than a year I gave up.

    This would never have happened if I had been in secular employment because my employer would have been breaking English law if he treated me in the same way as my former bishop. My bishop used the church's exemption from employment laws to get away with worse than murder - stripping me of my vocation and my reason for living.

    The Church occasionally makes the right noises about mental illness but they are, in reality, a bunch of hypocrites.

  11. I am sorry to hear this but I am not surprised. It seems to me that churches are indeed hypocritical on this issue when it comes to employment. I know someone who had a similar experience in another denomination, but at least he has been able to work in chaplaincy (in Scotland the hospital chaplains are employed by the health board not the church).

    If this was a one off story we could ignore it, but it does seem to be the norm. It makes it impossible for the churches to speak out on this issue.

    Also, the exemption to discriminate needs to be dealt with. In one case a few years ago it was used by a church to fire a cleaner because he was Jewish. So much for interfaith work!

  12. I hear what you're saying about CBT, but I honestly believe I wouldn't be alive today if I hadn't found a bloody good psychotherapist who would help me using CBT. However, I don't think it's the quick fix many expect, and the standard 8 sessions offered on the NHS are nowhere near enough. It took me 4.5 years of CBT for me to be able to prevent my own depressive relapses, and since then I have only needed another 6 sessions to help me through the grieving process when my husband passed away. I'm sure you'll agree that there is no blanket approach for mental illness, and this makes me wonder if the church's attitudes you have described would indeed have helped someone else?

    I'll be honest though, I was shocked when I read your blog. It's bad enough churches excluding people based on sexual orientation, I've even heard of one who will exclude people if they have facial piercings or brightly dyed hair, but to exclude people because they are not in full health is just as ludricous.

  13. Oh, I think the Church is perfectly justified in excluding Goths, simply because of their appalling taste in music :-)

  14. I too was shocked by what you have experienced Gordon; similarly, If I shared some of mine and my family's experiences they would make your jaw drop. I was a minister who for a long time abandoned the church, taking the view that although Jesus was great, the church sucked. I think what you experienced (as in most cases)comes down to plain old fear. Fear of what they don't understand or fear that their inadequacy or incompetence in this area will be exposed. Leaders (Church or otherwise) tend to well supplied with ego.

    Oh, and then there are the Pharisaic ones who accept nothing but their own blinkered opinion and woe to anyone who questions them. They can do untold damage.

    But amongst all this mess there are the godly ones, the humble, genuinely caring ones, who love and serve others as though it's second nature. And for the Christian suffering from mental illness, it's finding out those who will be true friends to help them on the journey to recovery. I accept that may not be easy.

    Recently, I was reminded in the Bible that although the church can and does fail people, Jesus still loves it. So for me now, my mission is to provide education to churches/leaders on faith and mental health and (I hope) do my bit to remove some of the fear and prejudice.

  15. Thanks for that. I have to sauy though that I have a very jaundiced view of church (and don;t currenlty attend one) although I do work in the headqarters of one. Odd though it may seem.

  16. Just to say that I took part in a BBC Radio 4 programme on faith and depression called Beyond Belief this week. It is available to listen to for seven days here:

  17. .All I hear is a bunch of whining about something that you could fix if you werent too busy looking for attention.combating depression

  18. I just came across your article and appreciated reading about your experiences at church with mental illness. I've had a more severe mental illness - psychosis - which was really exacerbated because it was already on the theme of being followed by Satanists, so it wasn't a huge leap to conclude that I was being demonised.

    I have had prayer for deliverance, which on one occasion was quite aggressive, and which led to me having two blood shot eyes through trying to cough the demon out and finding that voices I could hear got worse instead of better. In trying to make sense of this I have I am left with the conclusion that either I am not saved and am afflicted by demons (because of overwhelming experiences) which according to the bible is my fault (because God wants me to overcome and the reason a person gets demonised is because of their own sin) or to conclude that Christianity doesn't mix with mental illness and that there are biochemical or psychological causes.

    Either way I come up against prejudice and stigma.

  19. You know the nature of your mental illness Rachel. Jesus healed mental illness in ways that were comprehensible in his day. When Jesus healed the 'demoniac' and the man saw the pigs nose dive into the water the pigs were doing what the man himself had considered doing, in a way they brought him some closure through this. We would say that the man was self-harming and for his own protection his friends had chained him up. Jesus used the way that mental illness was talked about to help the ill man and it worked. There is no need for us to name those things that afflict us as 'demons' unless this is helpful.
    Your illness enables you to empathise with and help others who suffer in similar ways. Whether you are healed or not God can use you in ways that you couldn't have been used without it.
    You recognise prejudice where you see it and that sensitivity is also a gift for you to use for good.

  20. Pidge, that does come across as unfortunately patronising. You seem to be suggesting that Rachel should accept that stigma and limit her activities to supporting others who are similarly afflicted. Of course, people with depressive illnesses can be encouraged to seek treatment and contribute more widely to society. Ever heard of Winston Churchill?