Faith, depression and stigma

Faith is like depression – it is very hard to understand or appreciate until you have experienced it for yourself.

Since having depression and counselling for it I have learned some very important lessons from Christianity that are a big help whether you believe in God or not:

1)   Accept what you can’t change, and, if you can change something, do it. Don’t dwell on it; don’t have imaginary arguments about it. This has been a tough lesson for me, and has taken months and years to get to grips with, but it is crucial. The Serenity Prayer puts this perfectly:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

2)   I am an expert worrier, so this verse (Matthew 6:27) calls out at me loud and clear. Worrying is normal, but excessive worrying hurts you – and achieves nothing.

Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

3)   Forgiveness – the Bible says a lot about forgiveness. The overall message for me is not to hold grudges. Forgive people and let go. Move on. I stayed angry for years at the kids who picked on me at school, but they didn’t know I was angry with them so what good was it doing me?

4)   If you’re someone who’s used to achieving and ‘going the extra mile’, give yourself a break from the stress and remember you don’t have to do it all at once – see Ecclesiastes 3:1.

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens

I have talked often and honestly about the reality of depression and how it is a very personal thing – different for each person who experiences it. Faith is the same. Just as people with mental health problems can be vilified and demonized, there is a special hatred and mistrust set aside in the public psyche for those who dare to believe in God.

And, as depression gets muddled up with feeling depressed – bad moods that you can snap out of – faith gets confused with religion. Faith is what you believe. Religion is a way of formalising what groups of people believe in. So actually, you can’t blame my faith for war, for intolerance, for individual cases of abuse or for brainwashing children, or any of the other things that I hear. I believe in forgiveness, love, humility and hope, not in judgement. If someone else with faith, or a group of people from a religion, does or thinks something disgusting or appalling, why come to the conclusion that everyone does or thinks that? I know my faith doesn’t make sense to everyone but to make sweeping generalisations about millions of people – that’s OK, is it?

Just as there is a stigma to depression, because there is so much cynicism and misunderstanding about it, I am wary of being open about my faith, because even people close to me pour scorn on what I believe. It’s fine to mock a Christian as much as you like, as openly as you like, as often as you like, and to stereotype and generalise who a Christian is, what he or she does, how he or she behaves and what he or she believes in. But talk about faith for a second and you are ‘ramming it down someone’s throat’.

I don’t want to provoke a discussion about faith, religion, atheism or whatever on this blog. I got into a Facebook spat about those subjects the weekend I plunged into my second bout of depression two years ago. It did me no good. I have not talked publicly about it since, apart from with supportive people who share my faith.

Just as I came out about my depression on this blog, I am now opening up about my faith. If you disagree with me, I am fine with that. We will not change each other’s minds so let’s not use this forum to try. If you get what I’m talking about, that’s great too.

As for how I came to faith, that is another story for another time. But there is another analogy to depression – I was a cynic until I had it myself, and it changed my life.

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25 Comments on “Faith, depression and stigma”

  1. Ruth Kirk says:

    Dear Paul, What a fab piece of writing! I’m a Christian as well, and write pieces that come out of my prayers almost every day (I want to start an interactive website to publish them). Anytime you need support, I’d be delighted to help. Would love to hear the story of your faith development. With love and much appreciation, from Ruth XXXXXX

  2. Mhairi says:

    I love that Serenity prayer… Understanding that and Matthew 6 has made such a difference to the way I live! Even if we are not, God is in control :)

  3. An excellent piece, so very true. Thanks for being brave and open about your faith and depression. Lots of people feel waryiness talking openly because of the closed-mindeness of a small few. It is important to share as it makes you realise you are not alone.

  4. Conflicted about religion myself in many ways. Absolutely believe in religious freedom but also believe in a secular state. I’m probably best described as a reluctant atheist. My head says no to God, but in my heart I would love to have faith. I dislike intolerance in all forms but also have to say I value practical human rights & freedoms above religious beliefs e.g. I do not accept discrimination that is justified by religious belief. To be fair I appreciate many people of faith hold similar views. I hate how some atheists are unable to accept it is perfectly possible to be both an advocate for science & have religious faith at the same time. I can’t see when stigmatisation is ever helpful. I do however hate being doorstepped by those wishing to convert me. Yep, definitely conflicted :-) You should feel comfortable writing about this though, it’s not as if you are forcing anyone to read it & if it helps with depression then that’s great.

    • paulbrook76 says:

      Thanks very much Sue. I don’t like discrimination that’s supposedly justified by religion either. It doesn’t help anybody. Respecting each other’s views and differences is a far better way to go.

  5. I am not religious nor do I have a faith, but that doesn’t mean that I would look down upon or value less the opinions and views of someone who is/does. I respect your faith and your religion too, I also respect your willingness to open up about it to the world. I do however understand what you mean about stigma with both faith and mental illness, both are a blight unto our world and our society. Stigma surrounding things that are very real and very apparent aspects of life and society simply isn’t acceptable. There will always be people who believe in things different to the next person, just as there will always be mental illness. I understand that to some people both could be infinitely scary, but just because something scares you it doesn’t mean that it is necessarily bad and should be shunned away and ignored. I in fact believe that if something worries or scares you that you should face it head on, especially with mental illness as there isn’t a ‘certain type of person’ who is at risk of becoming affected by mental illness, everyone is at risk, absolutely everyone. So to ignore it and fail to make yourself familiar with it is idiotic when you think that one day, you or someone close to you could have to deal with the issue. It is a very real prospect that one day I could suffer with a mental illness, and so could the person next to me, or one of my family or friends, and if that day comes I will take pride in knowing that I understand to some degree what mental illness is all about, and that although yes, it is extremely scary for some, but it is as is faith and religion, an inevitable part of life. If it doesn’t affect you, it is likely to affect someone close to you like I say, so why not familiarise yourself with it? What have you got to lose? Nothing. But an awful lot to gain!

    This is a brilliant, eye opening and inspiring post. Please keep it coming. I will be reading for sure!

  6. Jan Wolfe says:

    Faith, to me, is a personal thing – a personal relationship with whatever god or deity you believe in, whether it be any of the “conventional” gods, or faeries, the earth, the sun or the moon. We are all different and all have different needs from our teachers at school or our parents or spouse, or friends; or see and think of them differently to one another. I think the same applies in our relationship with those people and with our gods. Your relationship with a spouse is very different to the one she/he has with a brother/sister – but both relationships are good and loving (well, hopefully!). My relationship with my “god(s)” is individual and personal to me as my needs from him/her/them is different to the needs of others. It isn’t something I generally like to share – but I do understand the power of collective worship our prayer.

    What I do not like is organised religion of any kind, where there are rules and structured beliefs, where there is no room for people to be individual in how they relate to their god. To me, this can be dictatorial – and this kind of situation will always attract power-hungry people into making positions of power that should not actually exist. And when people are forced to fight or believe it is right to fight for their beliefs – it just turns me cold

    I enjoy my spirituality as it has and is still evolving, but it is my journey – nobody else can take that journey all the way with me, nor should they dictate what direction my journey takes.

    The same is true of depression – it is individual to each of us. We share many aspects that are similar, but the journey is our own.

    Thought provoking post Paul – that got my brain going this morning!! Good to “read” you stronger and happier.

    • paulbrook76 says:

      Thank you very much, Jan. I agree about faith being a very individual thing. I tend to enjoy the worship set up by the young people from our church, as it’s more flexible, personal and enjoyable than the joyless routines so many people end up sitting through at church.

  7. marianne says:

    Hello Paul,
    It’s good to see you posting again.
    I have struggled with my faith and coping with my depression (it’s still hard to put “my” in front of depression)
    I’ve heard the saying that “if you feel away from God, then guess whose moved” infering that it’s my fault I haven’t felt God beside me recently, this has made me feel so guilty and actually made it harder :( I have doubted whether I still have any faith and then, eventually, look at creation and remember I believe in the creator so I must still have a faith somewhere. I feel guilty when I s/h for not being able to pray instead of hurting myself………
    I find I have to belive that God can use my (Muslim) GP, the medications, the psychologists to help me get betterer and I know I feel betterer than I have done…..
    I feel guilty I haven’t been able to cope with finding another church, where we can all feel comfortable, for not being able to be honest with how I feel inside when with a group of people who I don’t know well enough to share my real feelings.
    You have given my a pause for thought and I thank you for that and must get past my guilt and move forward to finding a church home.

  8. Shawn says:

    Faith (in a personal God) and (chronic) depression don’t seem to mix well. It is hard to reconcile self-loathing and a loving God, despair and hope, panic and the promise of peace. The faith to move mountains does not serve when you cannot even lift your head; hope can feel like poison and the tenants of faith-practice/spiritual-discipline = just another way to fail. Religion presents itself as an answer but leaves the desperate cowering before mystery. There is so much sloganeering and deployment of platitude that church feels like the cold capitalism of an advertising campaign and even in the context of community there are many who can’t make sense of the instruction manual, pushing them further into a place where the idea that God will not give you more than you can bear can only be responded to with sweating blood, vomit and cussing…
    And then deep calls to deep and the spirit responds with an intake of breath: a shooting star, a child’s laugh, a magnificent tree, a thoughtful kindness, a gentle touch, a wild beauty emerging from the fog. And this thought emerges and is sent out into that glimpse of infinity to somewhere, something: “that was awesome.” I hope the gratitude is heard.
    I am a failure at faith but I find grace in the unknowing.

    • paulbrook76 says:

      I agree it’s hard to keep the faith in the darkest times and sometimes it can make you feel worse, but there is always something to marvel at when you feel well enough to lift your head and look around.
      Thanks for such a thoughtful comment, Shawn.

  9. Martyn says:

    Wonderful post as always Paul. I’m glad you’re starting to open up about your faith – there will always be people who disagree or who take issue, just as there is (bizarrely) with people sharing their experience of mental illness. It’s an important part of who you are and by sharing who we are and our experiences we increase our common understanding.

    My faith has waxed and waned over the years, and a complete loss of it preceded my development of severe depression – I now see that this played a big part in it – bereavement and disenchantment played their part in my loss of faith.

    As I got better I started getting more interested in questions of faith and belief again and found myself visiting churches – it really helped. Just something simple like lighting a candle or saying a little prayer for myself or my family or for people who’d hurt me. I now have a tentative faith again and I feel very happy about it – I feel more human as a result, less hard on myself and others. I love attending Mass and just being part of that varied family of broken people all with their own stories, hopes and sorrows.

    Recovery from depression was (and is) for me all to do with faith – in myself, in recovery, in my fellow humans, in those who care for me and who I care for and also faith in that search for meaning that has been a part of human existence since the very beginning.

  10. Hi Paul, I think this is a fantastic post. One thing I’ve learned both with age and, more recently, since suffering from depression myself is that one should take comfort from wherever you can. I am from a Jewish background but have never really related to Judaism. It never really spoke to me. However, recently I’ve become much more interested in learning about Judaism as well as other, different faiths. I think that there are nuggets of wisdom everywhere and by tuning out whenever I heard the ‘G-word’ I have perhaps been limiting myself unnecessarily. For example, I had never realised that whilst Jews read the same portions of the Torah in the same order, year in and year out, they are encouraged to re-examine the lessons within them and to challenge the text, in order to see how you may have changed during the past year and how your interpretation may now differ. Just an example of something I’d never realised. I’d always thought of religious people as blind followers of strict rules and now know that this is not the case at all.

    This comment is much longer than I planned it to be! Looking forward to reading more from you.
    Rachel
    (www.mummykindness.com)

  11. Pam says:

    Thank you, Paul, for this and to all the others who have commented here. I suspect those of us who are ‘ministers’ have a lot to answer for in giving the impression that Jesus is only on the side of the strong, the sorted, the together people. Of course, he actually seeks out the broken and the struggling – that’s where the good news is to be found, because it includes all of us. The longer I go on, the more I become aware of the extraordinary tenderness of God and the deep wells of his compassion. It’s never easy to put it into words, though. Please pray for all of us who preach – the responsibility is huge.
    Pam


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