By Rhett Smith
December 13, 2012
Rhett is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in Plano, Texas and is on staff at The Hideaway Experience marriage intensives in amarillo, Texas. Rhett specializes in working with couples and men and is the author of The Anxious Christian and What it Means to be a Man. He lives in McKinney, Texas with his wife Heather and their two children. You can read more about Rhett and connect with him at rhettsmith.com.
When blogger and Christian worship artist Carlos Whittaker posted a photo of himself holding a prescription bottle of Paroxetine last summer, I was surprised. Paroxetine is a psychiatric medication often used in the treatment of depression and anxiety. But I was also thankful Carlos didn’t hold back what was really going on with him.
“Anxiety and depression is one of the church's dirty little secrets,” he wrote. “I’m here to tell you that my Paxil a day has kept the doctor away.”
It’s tragic that one of the reasons people end up in my counseling office is because they didn’t feel the freedom to talk about their anxiety and depression to people in the Church. Or they might have tried to talk about it and realized it was an unsafe subject, filled with judgment and condemnation. One of the main reasons I wrote The Anxious Christian: Can God Use Your Anxiety for Good? was because no matter how many times a well-meaning person in the Church quoted Philippians 4:6 to someone with anxiety, they inevitably ended up in my office. “If the Bible says don’t be anxious, then why am I still filled with so much anxiety?” one client said to me.
“If the Bible says don’t be anxious, then why am I still filled with so much anxiety?”
Research statistics tell us that in America, somewhere around 18 percent of our population suffers from anxiety disorders, and 10 percent from clinical depression. These numbers don’t even take into account all the people who experience anxiety and depression yet never get any professional help for it.
To help put this issue into perspective for you—and bring it closer to home—let’s imagine for a moment that you attend a church of 500 people. In a church that size, there would be, on average, 140 people suffering from clinical anxiety and/or depression. Though some of these statistical numbers might include the same person experiencing both anxiety and depression, the point is that these numbers are staggering.
And the secrecy and shame aren't helping. Anxiety and depression are very real issues in the Christian community, and it’s time we learn to talk more openly about them—and how to care for those who suffer from them. In fact, I’ve been greatly encouraged by Christian leaders, such as Anne Jackson, DJ Chuang and Perry Noble, just to name a few, who have been open about their struggle with anxiety and depression.
Though I am not a psychiatrist or doctor—and there are a million arguments and angles that I don’t have the space to discuss in this short article—there are a couple ways I want to encourage us, as a Christian community, to more thoughtfully wrestle with this issue.
1. Don't judge.
Until we have struggled with anxiety and depression ourselves (or observed a friend or family member walk through such a season), then the reality is often far removed from our true understanding of how serious it can be. Let us not judge.
Experiencing anxiety and depression does not make you a bad Christian.
2. Know that this struggle doesn't make someone a bad Christian.
Great figures of the faith, including C.S. Lewis, Martin Luther, Charles Spurgeon and the prophet Elijah, struggled with anxiety and/or depression. Spurgeon, in a sermon titled "When the Preacher Is Downcast," said:
“Fits of depression come over the most of us. Cheerful as we may be, we must at intervals be cast down. The strong are not always vigorous, the wise not always ready, the brave not always courageous, and the joyous not always happy.”
3. Allow for help to be found in several ways.
Depression is complex in nature and therefore needs a team approach. When a client comes to see me for anxiety and depression, we explore a variety of possibilities. I want as many eyes on the person’s anxiety and depression as possible. That can include therapy, medication, pastoral counseling, community engagement, exercise, diet, prayer and more. It often includes all of these. Medication is one tool in the tool belt, but it’s not the only one. I have seen people’s lives become radically healed through the right dosage of medication, and I have also seen people have bad experiences with medication.
4. Counter the stigma.
You can be a voice that cries out against the stigma that so many people in the Christian community experience because of their anxiety and depression. We don’t need to add to this stigma by shaming them over the use of medications that give them a better life.
Will you be that voice that speaks out against the stigma? Can you be that Christian who enters into that “dark night of the soul” with others and walks that journey with them?
Though medications can greatly help, I think many see that as the only resort—and that's because we, as a Christian community, have often abandoned people who are in the depths of anxiety and depression. In order to avoid the messiness of it, we throw a Bible verse their way, expecting that to cure everything. In reality, we just don’t want to give the time to be present with people in the parts of their lives that don’t have an easy and quick solution.
In His teaching on the vine and the branches in John 15, Jesus says: "My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command."
It’s hard for us to judge others on their use of psychiatric medications when we are loving them and laying down our lives for them as Jesus commanded. My hope and prayer for us today is that, as a Christian community, we can learn to come alongside those suffering from anxiety and depression. And instead of standing in judgment over the variety of ways God has gifted people in treating these issues, we can instead be an advocate in their journey out of them.