How your parish can help those suffering from depression
A pastoral response to depression requires more than just listening.
During Holy Week 2016, an obituary written by a woman in Duluth, Minnesota caught national media attention. Eleni Pinnow wrote the obituary for her young adult sister Aletha. She began, “Aletha Meyer Pinnow, 31, of Duluth (formerly of Oswego and Chicago, Illinois) died from depression and suicide on February 20, 2016.”
There it was, front and center: Aletha died from depression. Eleni went on to write how her “hilarious, kind, loving sister couldn’t see any of that in herself.” Depression created an “impenetrable fortress that blocked the light, preventing the love of her friends, her family, and any sense of comfort and confidence from reaching her.” She says depression “lied” to her sister. It told her she was “worthless.” But that was so far from the case. Eleni had to tell the truth.
As a pastoral minister, I do, too. I have seen depression rack people—family, friends, colleagues, college students, and people in my parish. Church communities need to bring depression out of the dark, expose it as the dangerous disorder it is, and then work on ways to care for people going through it.
The National Institute of Mental Health labels depression a “common but serious mood disorder.” Their research indicates 350 million people—or 5 percent of the world’s population—suffer from it each year. A 2014 study by Paul E. Greenberg and colleagues found the estimated costs of depression in the United States are over $210 billion. Clinical psychologist Rudy Nydegger describes depression as an “equal opportunity disorder” that “can affect anyone of any group, background, race, gender, age—anyone.”
Emotionally, depression may make a person feel sad, worthless, or empty. Behaviorally, a person experiencing depression may lack energy or motivation to engage daily tasks. Cognitively, depression can make it difficult to focus at work or in school.
A friend experiencing depression describes it as a cycle. He says, “Some days are good, some days are not so good, but the cycle never relents.” Another colleague says depression makes him feel “lonely, unlovable, and de-energized.”
Diagnosing depression is challenging. There is a wide spectrum of symptoms that people experience at various levels of intensity for a host of reasons. A person may feel irritable, tired, and uninterested in a hobby she previously enjoyed. Is this part of the “normal” rhythm of life or could there be an abnormal medical issue going on? If left untreated, depression can lead to severe isolation, substance abuse, or even death, as with Aletha.
How can parish communities be proactive in ministering to people who may be depressed? Let’s consider three common stigmas associated with people with depression and explore how people of faith can respond.
Stigma: People with depression are weak
Having depression is not like having a broken ankle. People with depression don’t have orders from a doctor to lay low for 6 to 8 weeks so their injury can heal. Often, depression is not as visible—and because of this, many assume it is not as big of a deal. When a person with depression doesn’t “just get over” his bad day, he appears weak. So often she keeps the depression hidden. Many people with depression try to fight it on their own because they feel shame for not being able to control what is going on in their own heads.
The first step in providing care for a person with depression is to encounter the individual. Reach out: “I’ve noticed you seemed down lately. Would you like to talk?” Naming it—I notice you. I care about your well-being. Encounter the person and their struggles. We have been doing this as a faith community since our earliest days.
Consider the story of Moses. He was just tasked with leading the Israelites through the desert. It’s hot. People are hungry, and their expectations of him are very high. Moses feels overwhelmed. He lashes out at God, saying, “Why have you treated me so badly? What am I supposed to do now? All these people are weeping around me and I can’t carry all of this alone. It’s too heavy for me. If this is the way you’re going to treat me, put me to death at once and do not let me see my misery” (Num. 11:10–17).
I’m not at liberty to diagnose Moses with depression, but it’s clear he’s in deep despair. God’s response is to send other people to encounter Moses. God tells Moses, “Gather 70 elders. I will take some of the spirit that is on you and put it on them; and they shall bear the burden of the people along with you so that you will not bear it by yourself.” God recognized Moses’ fragile state and sent others to encounter him, to check in and be present to him.
Similarly, Christians must encounter people who may have depression. Know common signs of depression, like intense irritability, anger management issues, and change in appetite or sleep patterns. Then talk about it as a parish community. Preach about mental health. Host support groups. Form hospitality ministers to reach out to people who appear distant or alone.
Stigma: People with depression are dangerous
Depression is a mental disorder. Most people with depression pose no safety threat to the public. This is especially true if they can express their feelings in honest, healthy ways so the feelings don’t get pent up to the point that something triggers an aggressive, harmful reaction.
Ministers can help by encouraging people with depression to express their feelings—whatever feelings those may be. Instead of letting the feelings fester, let them out. Scripture validates the whole gamut of human emotions.
Look at the psalms. The psalmists express despair (Ps. 22), suffering (Ps. 38), and loneliness (Ps. 88). They lament to God (Ps. 13) and ask for help (Ps. 6). These feelings that society tends to label as “bad” are honored in our most sacred book. So are the reactions that follow, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35): the shortest and perhaps most profound line in all of scripture. The Son of God let his feelings out. Others should be encouraged to do the same.
Ministers may first need to name that it’s okay to feel what you’re feeling and express it. I’ve found people often think they need permission to express feelings that are not considered “socially acceptable,” like anger, fear, or sadness. I remember watching a puffy-eyed student try desperately to wipe away her tears during a memorial service. She told me she’d be fine in a minute. It seemed like she was judging herself for crying, like it wasn’t an appropriate thing to do. I whispered back, “It’s okay to not be okay. Really, it is.”
Then create safe spaces for people to express those emotions, perhaps in a prayer group or spiritual direction. Offer to walk with a person to a quiet, private place. Listen.
Stigma: People with depression ought to be left alone
If you invite someone with depression out to a social gathering and they say no a few times, it can be easy to write them off as antisocial or assume they just want to be left alone. This stigma also persists because it is the easiest way out for people who are uncomfortable with mental health issues. The church is called to encounter people with depression, to encourage them to express emotions, and then to accompany them forward.
A group of psychologists shared their study in the Journal of Religion and Health on the role of faith-based communities in depression care. They recognize ministers are not trained medical doctors but that we have an important role to play in health care. The study argues the biggest role of the faith community is to accompany people who are depressed, to actively support them, listen to them, journey with them, and advocate with them. Ministers can serve as “gatekeepers” to more formal medical treatment. Parishes and health care providers already team up for blood pressure screenings after Mass. What about mental health screenings?
To accompany is to be actively present in the caregiving processes. I don’t know that there’s a greater gift one person can give another than their presence. Journeying together is what we do as Christians.
Take Mary Magdalene. She accompanied Jesus around Galilee (Luke 8:2), to the cross (Matt. 27:55–56), to the tomb (Luke 23:49), and then to his resurrection (John 20:11–18). She stayed with him. Mary stood at the foot of the cross with Jesus during his most painful moments. She was there. She was present.
Mary also saw the new life that came from Jesus’ suffering. She experienced the resurrection of a companion who suffered greatly and even died. New life is always part of the Christian story. Not every minister who accompanies a person with depression will witness such an obvious transformation. Depression is a continued journey, but in the act of accompanying another we can serve as sources of hope.
Celebrate small steps. Gently invite people experiencing depression to consider where hope lies in their lives. Amid the tragic darkness, Jesus gave us hope that day on the cross. In our words, in our actions, in our very presence, we are called to be Christ’s light for the world with those who walk in darkness.
This article also appears in the April 2018 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 83, No. 4, pages 31–33).