Addressing Depression and Suicide in the Church
By: Hannah Shewchuk
Submitted to: Prof. Allan Waine
GS1202 - Cross Cultural Studies
April 19, 2012
Despite the fact that depression and suicide affect a surprising number of people, both the church and the secular culture keep silent on it. When the church does speak up on it, there is often a misunderstanding of the causes, leading to solutions that do not help.
Depression is a problem that affects many Canadians. At least 1 in every 20 Canadians meet the criteria for major depression or bipolar 1 disorder (Government of Canada, 2006, p. 30). More than one in ten Canadians will experience major depression at some point during their lifetime (Health Canada, 2009). To emphasize this point and put it into perspective, a minister once opened a sermon on the topic this way:
Suppose I were to ask you to stand if ever in your life you considered about suicide, or thought about it seriously. (I won’t do that.) Suppose I asked you to stand if you ever attempted suicide, or attempted it more than once. I might call out for those whose lives have been affected by somebody else’s suicide. Maybe you’d be challenged to confront the “family secret” or to think more directly about the crash that everyone euphemistically calls “the accident.” I daresay most of us would be on our feet! This is a real issue we cannot deny, and it is inside as well as outside the faith community (Clemons, 1989, p. 121).
However, although many people’s lives have been touched by it, there is much stigma associated with depression and thoughts of suicide in today’s society. The majority of people struggling with depression and suicidal ideation feel embarrassed by it and face discrimination because of it (Government of Canada, 2006, p. 41). The consideration of suicide and the act itself, especially, is looked down upon in all areas of society. This causes silence on the subject and a reluctance of those who are struggling to get help (Government of Canada, 2006, p. 112-113).
Depression and suicide are rarely discussed in the church, either, and when they are, they are not presented accurately. One pastor pointed out that “in looking back a while ago over virtually a lifetime of preaching, I realized that not only had I never preached on the subject, I’d never heard anyone else do so” (Clemons, 1989, p. 64). In fact, many people believe that one cannot be a Christian and be depressed (Clemons, 1989, p. 105). One woman dealing with depression, after having tried almost everything, was told by a Christian counselor that she had “displeased God and he is punishing you by sending depression. Otherwise you are demon possessed” (Hart, 1987, p. 22). While this happened over 25 years ago, it is still not an unusual response from uninformed Christians today. Hart mentions hearing a prominent radio preacher say, “If you walk close to God, you’ll never be depressed” (1987, p. 23). Hart points out, though, that one of his friends - despite having a strong faith in God and being quite involved in the church – went through a period of significant depression (1987, p. 27). Even strong Christians are not immune to depression.
This stigma is a result of those who have not previously experienced depression and thoughts of suicide finding the thought process behind it very difficult to understand.
None of us sees the hurt through the sufferer’s eyes. None of us feels the embarrassment and shame of those who hold such heavy burdens on their souls. We cannot readily imagine the mental or physical burden that leads some people to this end (Clemons, 1989, p. 114).
We do not really know what they are going through, and because depression is such a serious topic, we are afraid to approach it. It seems all too easy to ask the wrong questions or say the wrong thing that will just make it worse (Clemons, 1989, p. 44-45). This fear of failure or aggravating the problem deters people and scares them away from even attempting to reach out.
Furthermore, many people simply do not understand the reasons why (Demy & Stewart, 1997, p. 430). It is difficult to comprehend the other person’s point of view, especially with it being such a secret struggle. In fact, the way that many people react to someone struggling with depression can be compared to interacting with someone from a different culture. In both situations, we must communicate with someone whose thinking is very different from our own and whose perception of the world around them is deeply affected by their depression (Moriarty, 2006, p. 16-18).
The fashion in which addressing depression and thoughts of suicide is approached and the way in which we respond to those who struggle with it is crucial. Principles for dealing with culture stress show that when we approach these differences in thinking with fear, suspicion, and prejudice, we set ourselves up for further difficulties. Furthermore, if we choose to criticize, rationalize, or withdraw as a result of the tension between these differences, the result is alienation of those we need to be reaching and isolation from those who struggle (Waine, 2012).
As Christians we have a responsibility to do what we can to help those who are battling depression and thoughts of suicide. “To extend the hand of human compassion, tenderness, and helpfulness: is this not the mission God gives us?” (Clemons, 1989, p. 106).
Therefore, instead of approaching and responding negatively to depression and suicide, we can choose to react positively. When we approach these differences in thinking and perceiving the world with openness, acceptance, and trust, we will much more easily reach out to those who are hurting. When we choose to respond to their hurt by observing, listening, and inquiring, the end result is rapport and understanding (Waine, 2012).
Depression is a secret battle that is often fought alone. The problem with this is that battles are never fought alone. A lone soldier cannot expect to win a battle against an army; others must fight with him. In the same way, people struggling with depression and thoughts of suicide need people who will fight with them. An unconditionally loving community and supportive friends are invaluable to finding healing.
Community, especially that like the sort which ought to be found in the church, is an enormous factor in mental health. “A common denominator of recovery is the presence of people who believe in and stand by the person in need of recovery” (Government of Canada, 2006, p. 48). There needs to be a group of people behind them who absolutely will not give up on them. This is one of the most important elements in regaining mental wellness. “Seemingly universal in the recovery concept is the notion that critical to one’s recovery is a person or persons in whom one can trust to “be there” in times of need” (Government of Canada, 2006, p. 48).
Some people believe that they need special training to reach out to those with depression, but while professional help may be necessary, friendship and community have an enormous and extremely important impact. “The normal expressions of depression: sadness, grief, and discouragement will often yield to the expression of care from understanding friends and loved ones” (Hart, 1987, p. 17).
Furthermore, participation in the church is recognized as having the potential to bring healing because it brings a sense of belonging somewhere. “A sense of connectedness, an attachment to the community, networks within the community, and participation in a church or other community group are considered to be major positive factors in mental health” (Government of Canada, 2006, p. 19). The church, simply by including and accepting those who are hurting and lonely into its community can make an immense difference in their lives.
In his book, Hart additionally outlines three ways that anyone can help someone they know who is depressed: compassion, determination, and effective listening (Hart, 1987, p. 105-108). These are things that Christians ought to be doing anyways. We ought to be showing compassion, trying to understand people’s pain and finding ways to reduce that pain rather than ignoring them or condemning from afar (Colossians 3:12). We should not be unaffected by the pain of the people around us. We ought to have determination when coming alongside people (James 5:11). They need to know that we will never give up on them (Hart, 1987, p. 107). Finally, we ought to be listening to other people more, focussing less on ourselves and more on others. People should not have to pay someone just to listen to them so that they can finally be heard (Hart, 1987, p. 108). Listening should be the priority, hearing them out first and find out about what they are going through before offering up advice (Hart, 1987, p. 111). Simply listening shows that we care about them. Often all it takes to save a life is to listen to someone’s story, hear their problems out, and support and encourage them in any way that we can (Clemons, 1989, p. 84).
Lastly, the church cannot afford to avoid addressing depression and suicide any longer. Talking about suicide is the biggest deterrent (Clemons, 1989, p. 28), and speaking out about depression is necessary. It “may also be instrumental not only in encouraging people to seek care, but also in creating a supportive environment for the individual” (Government of Canada, 2006, p. 49). We need to make the church a safe place to talk about depression and suicide as well as a place where those who struggle with it will be loved and supported by the community of believers. The church has the potential to make a huge difference in the lives of those who battle depression and thoughts of suicide (Demy & Stewart, 1997, p. 447). It is time we do so.
Clemens, J. T. (Ed.). (1989). Sermons on Suicide. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press.
Demy, T. J. & Stewart, G. P. (Eds.). (1997). Suicide - A Christian Response: Crucial Considerations for Choosing Life. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications.
Government of Canada. (2006). The Human Face of Mental Health and Mental Illness in Canada. Ottawa, Ontario: Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada.
Hart, A. D. (1987). Counseling the Depressed. Dallas, Texas: Word Publishing.
Health Canada. (2009). It’s Your Health - Mental Health - Depression. Retrieved April 18, 2012 from http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/hl-vs/iyh-vsv/diseases-maladies/depression-eng.php
Moriarty, G. (2006). Pastoral Care of Depression: Helping Clients Heal Their Relationship With God. New York, New York: The Haworth Pastoral Press.
Waine, A. (2012). Cross Cultural Studies. [class handout]. School of World Discipleship. Vanguard College, Edmonton.