Christian—and Depressed

Why these words shouldn’t be surprising, and what we can do to help.

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.

29 Comments

Rev. Heidi Smith

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Rev. Heidi Smith commented…

Good article with regard to the fact that depression and anxiety are common, and that there are ways to help other than medication. That said, I think that our culture in general is WAY overmedicated, and that we tend to reach for the pill bottle as a first resort in treatment, rather than a last resort. While there are indeed some sufferers who need medication as a front-line treatment, too often we do not delve deeply enough into what are often far more fruitful approaches in the long term, such as exercise, diet, learning to identify our stressors, and so forth. Another aspect that we do not look at often enough (and should be one of the FIRST things we look at!) is drug interactions. I've seen this time and again, but also went through it up close and personal with my own father, who suffered most of his life from various degrees of depression and anxiety, but whose worst period with it came about due to a change in medication for something else. Additionally, I've seen too many people go on a very unproductive medication roller coaster that has often made symptoms worse--yet there are NO downsides to regular exercise, if gone about in a manner consistent with one's abilities, nor to going on a healthier diet!

Rhett Smith

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Rhett Smith replied to Rev. Heidi Smith's comment

Heidi,

Thanks for sharing part of your journey with us.

I agree that we tend to be a culture that is overly medicated at times. It's easier for many of us to pop a pill rather than do some deep work on the things in our life. My hope as a therapist is that I can take a multi-faceted approach to my work with clients. I usually begin by looking at self-care (physical, emotional, mental, spiritual). We start there and work on improving those things in our life. If we feel like something else is needed we look at other things. But at some point I may or may not introduce the idea of medication to a client. Just depends on the client and a lot of other factors. Sorry to hear about the journey with your father and what meds did to him.

Rhett

Elizabeth

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Elizabeth commented…

I have recently struggled with my community group at church because they responded so negatively and with great condescension when I opened up about having depression. Most of the time, I feel like giving up, keeping my struggles with depression a secret from all Christians everywhere....but this article gives me hope that there can be a paradigm shift in the Church regarding clinical depression and anxiety. Thanks.

Rhett Smith

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Rhett Smith replied to Elizabeth's comment

Elizabeth,

Sorry to hear about your experience with your community group. That is really unfortunate. You have a lot of courage for sharing and hopefully you can be the type of person that helps lead this paradigm shift. Thank you for your encouragement.

OBEHI JANICE

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OBEHI JANICE replied to Michelle Woods's comment

re: Sandy Hook. Same here, Michelle. Isn't it awesome to receive the right words at the right time?

Shannon Royce

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Shannon Royce commented…

Thank you, Rhett. You are speaking to an issue families normally endure in silence. I work with a ministry, Chosenfamilies.org that provides connection and encouragement to families living with these and other "hidden disabilities". I am grateful for your article.

Rhett Smith

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Rhett Smith replied to Shannon Royce's comment

Shannon,

Thanks for connecting. I appreciate you and the work you do. Are you familiar with the work of Dr. Grcevich and Key Ministry http://drgrcevich.wordpress.com/

They have a web summit they put on each year to help families/children with hidden/non-hidden disabilities. I just spoke at this year's web conference on anxiety. Definitely one of the many hidden disabilities that people silently suffer from. Thanks for your ministry.

Leigha Marzola-Duerden

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Leigha Marzola-Duerden commented…

Thank you so much for this article! As someone who struggles with anxiety, it's nice to see people finally paying attention. It's something that I am not comfortable sharing with people of my faith because I always get the same answers telling me to just pray about it and go read a verse. They don't understand the reality of those living with anxiety and depression. If it were as easy as just "getting over it", we would be over it, but it's not that simple. There is so much that goes on that no one will ever be able to comprehend unless they're the ones living with it. Anxiety and depression is a serious issue and shouldn't be swept under the rug.

Rhett Smith

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Rhett Smith replied to Leigha Marzola-Duerden's comment

Leigha,

Thanks for your encouragement and for your thoughts on this issue. You are so right about people often not understanding the reality of living with depression and anxiety. There are far too many Monday morning quarterbacks on this topic. We need more people to walk through it with us. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

Becky Ann

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Becky Ann commented…

I really enjoyed reading this article! Thank you

Rhett Smith

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Rhett Smith replied to Becky Ann 's comment

Becky,

Thanks for your encouragement.

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