Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Dealing with depression

Another Methodist blogger, a minister, is suffering from depression. Like Winston Churchill he describes this attack as "Black Dog".

Sadly I'm concluding that a large proportion of Methodist Ministers in the UK suffer from varying kinds of depression. I don't have any statistical evidence but I have noticed since interacting with more ministers on the social media they seem to go AWOL for a few months and then return mentioning depression and stress for their absence. It does seem that  there are occupational health issues that need to be addressed. Perhaps something is wrong with our selection procedures or support systems. I don't know.

Just a couple of times in my life I have faced depression. I've never had it clinically defined but I've had periods of hopelessness, a loss of control, a complete lack of energy, and a profound feeling of disappointment. Both periods coincided with a time when I felt especially deprived of my faith
. The first period was when I was about thirteen, shortly after my parents split up and my father went to prison. It was a time of profound loneliness. There were other aspects to it which I don't feel able to discuss publicly. I questioned whether life was worth living.

One immediate outcome was that I rejected Christianity - not that at that time I had made a commitment -  so the resources of the church and congregation were not available. Though later I found out that I had been the focus of much prayer by our local Plymouth Brethren assembly. At that age it feels that I simply grew out of it. Being thirteen or fourteen in post-war London offered amazing opportunities, even if they sometimes lapped the fringes of criminality. My conversion was not a reaction to the earlier depression.

The other episode is more recent and follows the loss of a job, a great deal of humiliation and a period economic instability. Once again it isn't appropriate to go into details. However many of my closest friends were concerned at the sudden loss of the unbounded optimism that has always been an important aspect of my character. I found it difficult to feel the presence of God. This time I had the support of Christian friends and we were able to manage a way out of it with prayer, a retreat and starting a new creative project.

What struck me about both episodes is that much of the focus was on the "I" and the "me". This is immediately evident from the three paragraphs I have just written. During both periods, and one or two minor episodes, I felt the absence of God and found prayer difficult. My wife and I have written a paper "How to begin to pray" which acknowledges that prayer does not come easily to Christians, that we face super natural opposition and sometimes our prayers seem to "hit the ceiling".

Somewhere there is a line where depression ceases to be a condition that a Christian can handle using their own personal or church resources and needs medical definition and treatment. I never crossed that line, though know many who have. That doesn't mean that our faith ceases to have a part to play in the management of, and recovery from, depression. Far from it, a good church can help people immensely. That is the reason so many people with a tendency to depression and other mental health issues make their way to our doors. This does place pressure on us, but it is a sign of "success" which is often overlooked and undervalued.

So how do we approach "black dog"? I feel we have to turn to a very well known hymn, which I once heard  described as "sentimental treacle" by one of our liberal theologians, that actually deals very honestly with all aspects of depression. The hymn offers the best possible response for a Christian and one that must be part of any remedy.

Joseph Scriven was born in Dublin in 1820. In his twenties he fell in love.. The day before his wedding his fiance was drowned. He moved to Canada, again fell in love, and again his fiance died. He had every cause to be depressed. He was a poet and wrote some verses for his mother who was herself having difficulties. It was called "Pray without ceasing", a reference to the advice to be found in 1 Thessalonians 5, itself a letter to a depressed and fearful body of early Christians. The poem was set to music and is still sang in churches as "What a friend we have in Jesus".

In verse 1 Scriven laments our refusal to take our problems to Jesus and makes the point that we carry additional pain as a consequence.

What a Friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear! What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer! O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear, All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.

Verse 2 raises the consequence of deprression - trials, temptations and discouragement - all integral to bad depression. But we are reminded that Jesus already knows our weaknesses and the issues we face, so why not talk to Him in prayer?


Have we trials and temptations? Is there trouble anywhere? We should never be discouraged; take it to the Lord in prayer. Can we find a friend so faithful who will all our sorrows share? Jesus knows our every weakness; take it to the Lord in prayer.

In verse 3 Scriven describes the classical symptoms of depression - the loss of control, the anxieties, feelings of guilt. Tellingly, and bravely, he points out that at our lowest our friends are often nowhere to be seen and of little help, even despising the depressive. A reminder from Proverbs 58:24 “There is a Friend that sticketh closer than a brother."

Are we weak and heavy laden, cumbered with a load of care? Precious Savior, still our refuge, take it to the Lord in prayer. Do your friends despise, forsake you? Take it to the Lord in prayer! In His arms He’ll take and shield you; you will find a solace there.

Those three verses appear in the current Methodist hymnbook Hymns and Psalms (1983) as 559However Scriven's fourth unused verse points to the time of hope and rapture when there will be no need of prayer. Until that happens though we are urged to bring our burdens in earnest prayer.

Blessed Savior, Thou hast promised Thou wilt all our burdens bear May we ever, Lord, be bringing all to Thee in earnest prayer. Soon in glory bright unclouded there will be no need for prayer, Rapture, praise and endless worship will be our sweet portion there.

I have no counseling or medical  qualifications, and I would defer to those who have on the issue of depression. However I strongly believe that depression is a spiritual attack and one that should be resisted spiritually. Earnest prayer is a better response than alcohol and may be a better remedy than anti-depressants. The problem we have as a church in 21st century Britain is that we have lost the spiritual gifts which come from deep and sustained personal and corporate prayer.

3 comments:

Robert said...

I'm guessing, but I imagine most people enter ordained ministry hioping to achieve something. The reality is that they spend most of their time serving churches which are in a state of decline, that have very little power to do anything, and while a good minister can do a little, inconspicuous, good, a bad one can do a lot of damage. There are few new ideas, a lot of people who've been in office for donkey's years, who don't want anything to change, and the old ideas don't achieve very much. I can see the frustrations!

I concluded about twenty years ago that the way to get somewhere was to sit in one church for as long as it took to build it up. Nothing I've seen has ever made me change my mind; I think there is a role for itinerants, but it's very different to the traditional understanding of ordained ministry.

Anonymous said...

Glad to see you quoting my great-uncle Joseph's hymn, david.

Hugh Scriven

Anonymous said...

One of my interests is reading sociological and psychological perspectives of church life, and sad to say, many commentators seem to agree that although most clergy are deeply committed, loving and decent people, the institution of ordained ministry brings inherent problems with it.

By placing so many expectations and pressures on one person in a church, high stress levels are probably inevitable, sometimes leading to worse problems. And church decline only exacerbates the situation.

Most of the research is based on CofE priests, or else comes from the USA, but it's hard to imagine that British Methodists are much different.