The recent death of Robin Williams saddens me deeply, and reminds me again of the importance of knowing and utilizing the resources that are available for those who are deeply depressed.
Depression is not a failure of faith.
And depression is not just feeling sad. It is not caused or cured by external events: an event – such as the death of a loved one or the loss of a job – may trigger depression, but it does not cause it; and, as Robin Williams’ death makes clear, all of the wealth and success in the world will not make depression go away.
In the US, more than 30% of people will experience at least one episode of Major Depression during their lifetime. A smaller percentage experience Recurring Depression. Approximately 6 million people live with Bi-polar Disorder, and experience its depressive symptoms. 54% of people believe that depression is a personal weakness, and so it is no surprise that an estimated 80% of people with depression are not receiving treatment.
That last statistic is the one that frightens and saddens me most.
If you suspect that someone you work with or a member of your congregation may be depressed, ask them. Ask them about their energy level. Ask them about their level of interest and involvement in activities. Ask them how much they are enjoying life. Ask them about their support system, and the relationships in their lives. And then, if you are still thinking they might be depressed, ask them if they think sometimes about harming themselves. You will not plant the idea in their minds, and talking about it will not encourage them to act; talking about it is the very thing that can relieve them of the pressure to act.
If someone indicates to you that they do think about suicide, ask them if they have a plan. If they do have a plan, find out if they have access to the means to carry it out. If their plan is clear, lethal, and available, then do not leave them but accompany them to the nearest hospital emergency room – immediately.
As pastors, working with depressed people can be frustrating – we keep trying to “cheer them up” and get them to look at things differently, and we feel like we have failed if they don’t “snap out of it”. But while positive thinking can be helpful with preventing depression (a practice of gratitude and positive thinking can make us more depression-resistant) a superficial approach can actually deepen a clinical depression that has already taken hold: once I am depressed, all of the efforts of others to cheer me up just reinforce my sense that I am alone, misunderstood, weak, and I’m letting others down.
People who are deeply depressed do not need platitudes. They need people; people who will stand with them through this terribly painful and trying time in their lives; people who will remind them that they are loved by God, even when God seems far from them; people who will embody that love, by getting them the help they need. It truly takes a community. Sometimes it takes medication. Sometimes it takes professional therapy. Sometimes it takes hospitalization.
And take care of yourself. As a healer/helper/leader…be aware of your own highs and lows. And reach for the help you need. The resources are there for you too.
As always, I welcome feedback and conversation.