Do's and don'ts when dealing with the downcast - Review

STOP THE PRESS! Go straight to the photocopying room with Mark Baddeley’s article “Dos and don’ts when dealing with the downcast”. Enlarge it 100%, photocopy it on A3 poster size paper and stick it on the front doors of all churches EVERYWHERE!

Reading this article was a huge relief for me. The author has captured precisely how I feel in church in the midst of a depressive relapse. I found myself underlining, highlighting and writing encouraging words in the margin like “YES! Finally! Brilliant! At last - thank you God! Thank you so helpful!”

Mark’s introductory paragraph grabbed my attention:-

“Recently, a long-term friend of mine surprised me. He’s a believer, who has had a harder-than-average road to walk. That, combined with some bad Christian teaching and an inherent susceptibility to depression, has finally created a perfect storm of mental ill health.”

What surprised Mark was that his friend had to avoid his Christian friends and family whilst in the process of recovering from a depressive/anxiety breakdown. Why? Because they call on him to “trust God” or “place yourself in God’s hands”. They exhort him. So what’s the problem with doing that? Mark explains in his friend’s world he is in darkness, overwhelmed with burdens, he is barely standing up under the weight of just being himself so if you add an exhortation to the load like “trust God” you give him one more thing to whip himself with as he judges himself to not be trusting God.

I understand what the author is saying - sometimes in the middle of a major depression relapse exhortations can make me feel worse. Mark continues:-

“The person can’t do it, but already thinks they should. So your exhortation adds to the litany of failures that is usually part of the ‘self-talk’ of someone who is overcome by anxiety or depression.”

As I have been writing my blogs over the past 4 weeks, I have been having a re-occurring dream – well more like a nightmare. I’m naked in Luna Park – hiding behind a pillar watching people in very formal black tie clothing on the rides as I desperately try and find something to cover up my nakedness.

I am feeling very exposed writing these blogs for a predominately Christian readership. I am writing primarily to help eliminate the stigma in churches attached to depression and other related mental illnesses and to be a voice for Christians with depression. As a consequence I am feeling extremely exposed, my emotions are very close to the surface. As I write and share I am remembering how I felt 8 years ago in hospital with post natal depression and all the pain and memories associated are re-surfacing. I’m also remembering things from my past which contributed to my illness in the first place. Just like Mark’s friend “who has had a harder-than-average road to walk .…and an inherent susceptibility to depression”.

All of these experiences of late contributed to a mild panic attack in my Bible Study Group last Tuesday morning. I wanted to run as far away as possible - out of the church building to endure my panic attack silently (which is normally what I do in the church toilet when I’ve missed the opportunity to curb the attack). It has been years since I’ve had one. Instead of running away, I decided to stay with my group and tried to articulate how I was feeling and why.

I’m not sure how many people in my bible study group has ever actually seen a public panic attack – but by the looks on their faces, probably not many! I recovered from this one quickly thanks to God and years of practice of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). Later that night, I was so embarrassed and worried that I may have offended my group by articulating how I was feeling. I actually swore in the middle of it! I was also concerned how they will treat me the next time they see me – there might be awkwardness. They might not know what to say or they might say the wrong thing or decide I’m just too hard to deal with because they don’t know what to do or say.

I could barely sleep that night. I hated myself for about 24 hours – completely full of self loathing. I’m not sure I would have felt these extreme feelings in front of my non-Christian friends. Because I know they’re not going to say to me later “don’t be anxious about anything but in everything, …..give all your concerns to God and you won’t have a panic attack!” Or “just trust God”. Although it is well meaning advice and all Scripture is indeed helpful – exhortations like these can make me feel worse. I know these scripture verses already by heart. I understand them intellectually but in the middle of my illness I just can’t do it so I feel like a failure.

I agree with Mark’s recommendation of what you can DO to help people with depression or anxiety and that is to carry others’ burdens, pray for them out loud and offer comforting scripture like “God will carry you”, “God loves you” etc. Mark explains:-

“So rather than encouraging them to pray, you pray for them, and as best as possible try and express their feelings and perspective to God, and hand the problem to God. Do that with them present. Acknowledge and give dignity to their downcast experience by articulating it in prayer.”

I am blessed to have a very special friend, Jenny who prays for me out loud all the time – even over the phone if I’m in a bad way. She just listens and prays for me based on what I’ve just vented to her. She then tells me how great God is, how much God loves me, how He is holding me, how I am His adopted daughter because of what Christ has done for me. She assures me I am pure without blemish because of the blood of Jesus. She doesn’t tell me what to do. She tells me what God does for me. Not only does she carry my burdens, she articulates my needs in prayer when I don’t have anything left in me to pray for myself. She reminds me how much God loves me and how He will carry me through this trial as he does every trial.

So after you’ve finished hanging up your A3 size photo-copy of the “Dos & don’ts when dealing with the downcast” on the front door of your church, go and sit next to your friend with depression and really listen to them so you can carry their burdens. DON’T judge them and tell them what to do. DO give them a big hug, pray for them out loud and remind them how great God’s love is.

Pour out your hearts to Him, for God is our refuge”. Psalm 62:8