The suicide deaths of Robin Williams and last year that of Rick Warren’s son has triggered quite a discussion in many Christian circles about depression.
Some have been highly critical of Christians who suffer from depression, while others have called for greater understanding and more discussion in churches about the illness.
I fall in the latter camp because I have also battled depression in my own life.
My first encounter was in the mid-1980s. I was working full-time in a factory, serving as a bivocational pastor, attending a Bible college about an hour from my home and trying to be a husband and father.
For four years I attended classes, and each class required about a 200-mile round-trip drive from my house to work to school and back home. A few months after graduating, I began to have problems.
My doctor and a Christian counselor both diagnosed me with clinical depression. For much of the next year, I was in weekly counseling and on medication. I continued to work and pastor the church, but it was a struggle.
The struggle was made worse because no one knew of my condition except my wife and our children. I shared it with no one. There were Sundays it took everything I could do to preach.
That summer, I had planned to preach through the book of Daniel—not something I would now recommend anyone doing who is already depressed.
I still remember the Sunday I was preaching on “Faith for the Fiery Furnace.” It took all I could do to not run out of the church that morning.
During the special music, the thought kept going through my head that I had to be the biggest hypocrite in the world.
I was about to preach on faith for the fiery furnace, and I didn’t have enough faith to blow out a match.
When I had recovered, I shared with our congregation what I had been going through and apologized for not telling them sooner.
I admitted I should have told them sooner and asked them to pray for me and walk with me through my healing.
My healing took much of a year, and I consider that a year of my life that was lost. However, there was much good that came from that experience.
For one, I have had many opportunities to minister to persons struggling with depression.
Because I have been where they are, they are willing to trust me. I have also been able to recommend persons to see their doctors when I have suspected depression in their lives.
I learned a lot about depression during that year. For example, that it is an illness just like any other illness.
No one would hesitate going to a doctor if they had pneumonia so why should they hesitate to see one if they are depressed?
I learned also that it is very treatable, and the quicker the treatment begins the quicker a person can often recover.
An important part of my education was about how to avoid future depressions. Mine was caused from a lack of sufficient rest and living too much on adrenaline. Because I failed to take care of myself, my body shut itself down to protect itself.
I learned that self-care is not selfishness; it is stewardship. It is stewardship of a very important treasure God has given you: you.
It is essential that we take time out to enjoy life, get sufficient rest and eat well if we want to stay emotionally healthy.
I also learned how to recognize if I am drifting toward depression. Due to some unusual stresses a few years ago, I found myself starting down that dark road again.
However, this time I was able to avoid it by talking to people, praying and taking steps to avoid becoming depressed.
Thanks to the grace of God and the lessons I learned from the earlier struggle, I was able to avoid depression that time.
Although I refused to talk about it when I was going through it, I have been quite open about it since my recovery.
We might be surprised to find how many people in our churches are struggling with depression and are afraid to say anything for fear of being judged.
I want people to know there is no shame in being depressed. Again, it’s an illness. It’s not a sign of spiritual immaturity, a sign of little faith or demon possession.
It’s an illness that can be treated, and part of that treatment should come from the church as we love people and pray for them as they battle this illness.
The biggest mistake I made during my depression was not sharing my situation with our congregation. They would have loved me, prayed for me and protected me. My healing may have been much quicker.
Here are four important guidelines I would offer to those struggling with depression:
First, if you are a minister I encourage you to share that with your church.
If your church would not understand or would think that there is something spiritually wrong with you, then you are probably in the wrong church.
For everyone else, share your struggle with trusted friends, family and your pastor.
The second thing you need to do is to slow down.
Give yourself permission to rest. Let some things slide for a few months while you recover. Let others do some things you normally would have done.
Third, seek the help of a trained Christian counselor.
I met with a pastoral counselor once a week and saw a Christian psychologist once a month, which was required by my insurance company for the medicine I was taking.
These people understood what I was going through, and my healing was quicker because of their help.
Fourth, know that you will get better.
There were times I wondered if my depression would ever end, and one of the things that gave me hope was the constant reminder by those caring for me that I would get better.
Dennis Bickers served as the bivocational pastor of Hebron Baptist Church near Madison, Indiana, for 20 years before accepting his current position as a resource minister with the American Baptist Churches of Indiana and Kentucky. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, Bivocational Ministry, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @DennisBickers.
Dennis Bickers is a church consultant and author. He served previously as the bivocational pastor of Hebron Baptist Church near Madison, Indiana, for 20 years followed by a 14-year ministry as a resource minister with the American Baptist Churches of Indiana and Kentucky.