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

Tracy

1

Tracy commented…

Pastors need to stop saying such ignorant things as, "If you suffer from anxiety constantly, you may not be saved." Of all the things I needed to hear, that was not one of them.

Rhett Smith

35

Rhett Smith replied to Tracy's comment

Tracy,

So sorry to hear that that was said to you. That is such a travesty. Hopefully you are now in a community that allows you to be open and honest. Thank you for sharing.

Becky Alcantar

1

Becky Alcantar commented…

Thank you for tackling this much avoided topic in our churches. Those struggling need not only our prayers and biblical word to get through it daily but also our tangible and practical support.

#ofthe%

Rhett Smith

35

Rhett Smith replied to Becky Alcantar's comment

Becky,

Thank you. You are right. God's word combined with people truly living it out in a healthy community can transform people's lives and really enter into that anxiety and depression that people experience...and help them through it.

Alex Alexander

1

Alex Alexander commented…

As a Christ-follower and pastor who dealt with a 2-yr bout with anxiety and panic, I really appreciate your article. I know many others in my shoes as well and shedding light on the subject is a huge help. Thanks Rhett.

Natasha Noneya

1

Natasha Noneya commented…

This is one of the best articles i have read about anxiety and depression. I myself suffer from anxiety and depression and am often judge and told what i should and should not do instead of encouraged by the people i love and wished understood. Thanks for this article.

Dawn Matusz

10

Dawn Matusz commented…

Thank you for this article! I've recently come out of a very anxiety-filled time - and am still on medication as I get back to the activities of normal life. I have an eating disorder, and once my counselor and I addressed the underlying issues, what came out was a huge mess of depression, anxiety, fear and it became nearly impossible to function - I even found it hard to leave the house. The medication I was put on curbed the cravings, stopped the anxiety attacks, and has made the depression manageable. Now, just a few months later, I'm back to work full-time and getting back into a normal routine - my head is clear again, and anxiety attacks are no longer an issue. While there are still issues to work through, I no longer struggle.

I have been vocal about my problem to my friends and family. It came as no surprise to me, though, when the support I received came mostly from my non-Christian friends and family members. There is a horrible stigma within the Church regarding mental health, one I even subscribed to until this hit me. This needs to change! And it's only by talking about it that it CAN change!

So thank you for being a voice on the issue! :o)

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