Reflection for World Mental Health Day (October 10)
Williamstown Uniting Church
9th of October 2016
I’m not going to preach a sermon today, even though preaching is one of the things that I’ve missed over the past three months. Yesterday was the beginning of Mental Health Week here in Australia, and tomorrow is World Mental Health Day, and since I’ve just spent three months on sick leave because of a mental illness I want to acknowledge that useful coincidence.
I’m going to talk about depression and suicide, which is often difficult for people, so now could be a good time to go and have a cup of tea if what I say is going to be too painful.
Way back in 1995, when I was twenty-two, I had what one of my history professors called ‘a nervous breakdown’. (She said that that happened to all of the history department’s best students, which suggested to me that academia was a very unhealthy environment.) I was diagnosed with severe clinical depression; I was prescribed anti-depressants; I had psychotherapy; I took a year off university; and I spent three months of that year travelling. Years later, when I applied to be a candidate for the ministry, I let the Church know that I had a mental illness which was managed with medication and the occasional visit to a psychologist. When I met with the JNC for this placement I explained that again; that I have depression, but that it’s managed. Unfortunately, this year the depression stopped being managed and went back to being acute.
Having depression is as common as muck. According to the World Health Organisation, at least 350 million people live with depression and it’s the leading cause of disability worldwide. One million people in Australia experience depression each year, and one in six Australians will experience depression over their lifetime. I’ve sometimes heard people say that depression is a rich person’s problem and that poor people are too busy trying to survive to have it, but, again according to the WHO, depression is as prevalent in low-income countries as it is in wealthy countries like ours. Women are more likely to suffer from it than men. Throughout the world almost one million people die from suicide every year; in Australia it’s around 2,500 people every year.
So depression is a common illness, and a life-threatening one, but there’s still some stigma around talking about it. This is because it’s an illness that’s literally all in our heads. Some people believe that those of us with depression just need to pull ourselves together. I can’t blame anyone else for thinking that, because when I’m depressed it’s what I believe too. I was brought up to believe that I could do anything I set my mind on, but while that worked when it came to writing a PhD it doesn’t work with a mental illness. No matter how hard I try I can’t just will myself well. When depression becomes acute I need an enormous amount of help in order to survive. I need what I have: family and friends that support me and love me; a workplace that allows me to take paid time off; a doctor who works with me to find the right dosage of the right medication; a psychologist who enables me to find ways to cope with anxiety and stress. Without all of these things, I would not survive. With them, I’m currently on my way back to the depression being ‘managed’ and something that I can live with.
Depression causes a variety of bizarre symptoms. It causes sleep disorders, and in my case that means hypersomnia rather than insomnia. When I am at my most depressed I sleep for sixteen hours a day, which seems to me to be a little ridiculous. Another thing that strikes me as ridiculous is my inability to have a shower. Normally I love showering; I’m one of those people who have to be constantly reminded not to waste water. But when I’m depressed I cannot summon the will to wash. The reason I’ve come back from sick leave with short hair is because having less hair to wash made the prospect of showering less intimidating.
But the most horrible symptom of depression that I experience is my feeling that I am useless and worthless and that the people who love me would be better off without me. When I’m well I know how ludicrous that is, but when I’m sick it feels absolutely plausible. After someone dies from suicide the people who love them often blame themselves, feeling that they should have made their love more obvious. Or they feel angry: didn’t the person who died know how much their death would hurt? My experience is that in depression our brains are so messed up that even when we know we’re loved we can’t feel it, and we honestly believe that we are ruining the lives of the people who love us by making them take care of us.
Worst of all for me is that when I’m depressed I cannot believe that God loves me, I can’t sense God’s presence, and I can’t pray. That for me is the biggest difference between depression and grief. Whenever someone I love has died I’ve been acutely aware of God being with me as I mourned. When three of the students at Janet Clarke Hall were killed in a car accident when I was a tutor I had a strong sense of Jesus standing just behind me with his hands on my shoulders as I organised a memorial service and helped care for the college community. But when I’m depressed God feels completely absent. After my first experience of severe depression in 1995 people sometimes asked me whether I had felt that God was with me through it, and I suspected that they wanted me to say ‘yes’ to confirm their own faith. But that’s not what it feels like. In the midst of depression it feels as though I am alone.
This is when I need the Christian community most. When I can’t pray, I desperately need to know that other people are praying for me. When there’s a God-shaped hole in my life, I need the faith of the church to fill it. When I’m well I love casual, friendly, informal worship services in which we all get to chat to each other and to God, but when I’m sick I can’t worship like that. In the first month of sick leave I went to a Uniting Church that used a very formal liturgy because at that worship it didn’t matter how I felt. What mattered was what the whole church believed. All I needed to do was listen and recite words that Christians have been using for centuries. When I repeated the Apostles Creed with the rest of the congregation it didn’t matter that those weren’t my words. I was held by the belief of Christians throughout all of space and time who have said those words. When all I could sense was the absence of God, I had to rely on the church telling me that God was still present even when I felt alone.
In this month’s Crosslight the Moderator, Sharon Hollis, writes about her husband Michael’s anxiety and depression and death by suicide. It’s very good and I encourage you to read it. She writes: ‘Mental illness can shake faith, make it hard to believe in the goodness of God and to participate fully in the life of a congregation’. I’d like us to be a congregation in which people feel welcome when their faith is shaken and they can’t believe in God’s goodness. I want people to be able to come here knowing that they’ll be welcomed without judgement; that no one will tell them to just pull themselves together or that their faith is faulty; that they can stay for as much or as little of the service as they can cope with. The psychologist I’m seeing has told me that in her experience church congregations can be divided roughly into those that judge and those that love. I told her that this is a congregation that loves. I’m going to be relying on your love as I recover, and I hope that we can share that love with other people who are living with mental illnesses and with their families and friends.
And, thank you. This congregation is an important part of my recovery. You’re awesome, and I’m really glad I’m back.