Depression: It’s Real for Pastors, Too

Pastors are women and men who dedicate their lives to two main things: (1) proclaiming and teaching freedom through the power of God’s love and (2) caring for others through acts of compassion, justice and mercy. Yet pastors too often suffer in silence and isolation from common mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety.

It almost makes it worse that the very people who provide care for so many in their times of greatest need, are the very people who often cry out in a void, often feeling like there are few safe places to share their pain and get help.

Even if a pastor wanted to get help, they often do not have adequate health insurance to pay for mental health care, or access to mental health professionals and find it difficult, like many people, to financially prioritize expensive therapy appointments and or prescription medications.

Busy schedules, often filled with unexpected demands, leave pastors with little down time or a day off. There is still the expectation that pastors are available 24/7, so the brain of a pastor never truly rests, part of it is on high alert, even in the dead of night, for that text or call about a death in the church. This consistent lack of deep rest, combined with compassion fatigue from the relentless care of others, create hazardous conditions for pastors to maintain good mental health hygiene.

Even with the incredible toll pastoring takes, the great sacrifices one suffers, it is still a vocation many feel called to follow. There are many intangible rewards and inexplainable satisfactions that come with being a person who is a pastor. At the same time, we do not fully understand or acknowledge the significant toll of pastoring over time on a person’s mental health. More research needs to be done to get a full sense of the picture. Yet, from what I am hearing in the circles of pastors that I engage in, it does not matter if you are fresh out of seminary or have been pastoring for decades, depression and anxiety continue to be present in pastors lives and it’s as common as the liturgical calendar.

Worst is that we are still fearful to talk about it. Because: Shame. Stigma. Fear. There are so many unknowns: will I still be considered fit for ministry? Will I still be a good pastor? Will I lose my credentials? Will I lose my church? Will I lose the people’s respect? Will I get to be a pastor? Will I get better? Will I find my joy again?

Depression and anxiety already take away so much from life, it is painful to even consider what more it could take away. And for pastors, there is a real fear that a publicly known mental illness diagnosis, even one as common and treatable as depression, could either negatively effect or even end their vocation.

Part of the problem is us. We don’t know how to heal the healer. Our society doesn’t say it’s okay for the doctor to need a doctor. We have experts and people who are suppose to know everything, heal everyone, including themselves, never get sick and never get sad. It’s their job, we say, to heal and save us….so who is thinking about and working on healing and saving them?

Let’s be honest. We take our pastors for granted. We don’t appreciate the sacrifices they make on a daily basis. We don’t know what it’s like to carry the burdens they carry. We don’t do enough to ensure that all pastors have access to affordable, accessible and quality mental health care.

One of the simplest things we can do to help pastors is to recognize and accept the fact that they are human. And as humans in a highly and uniquely demanding vocation, they most likely are experiencing some level of anxiety and or depression on a fairly regular basis.

This anxiety and depression is most likely on a spectrum in terms of severity, and it could be mild most of the time with high levels of daily functioning. Yet, it’s always there right under the surface. And in holiday seasons, like Christmas and Easter, these anxieties and waves of depression often increase for pastors. There are tremendous highs and lows, fears and worries, so many impossible expectations and endless lists of things to do. It can be immobilizing.

And yet. There is also the pastor who has support from people who offer grace and permission, support and resources, for the pastor to have what I call small “mental health mercies.”

So here are five things you can do right now to help improve the mental health of the pastor you know and care about:

Mental Health Mercy #1: Share words of encouragement, it doesn’t have to be long. Send a text, email or card in the mail that says “thank you for all you do.” Make sure your pastor hears these words every day. Secret: Many pastors feel undervalued and unappreciated. Depression makes you feel worthless.

Mental Health Mercy #2: Encourage and reward the pastor for taking weekly time off, where she is not expected to be responsible for any pastoral duties, except emergencies. Remind the pastor how important it is for her to rest, to play, to enjoy life and how her days off make her a better pastor. Secret: Many pastors feel guilty for taking a day off. Anxiety makes it hard to let things go and difficult to stop the “monkey mind.”

Mental Health Mercy #3: Advocate for your pastor to be compensated fairly so she can afford quality mental health care. Create a special fund for the pastor’s wellbeing, to be used at the pastor’s discretion for activities that contribute to wellness. Secret: Many pastors cannot afford the fees to see a therapist or spiritual director. So instead of getting badly needed help, they grow more and more depressed.

Mental Health Mercy #4: Normalize the spectrum of mental health in your church by speaking out loud about it. Educate yourselves about brain health. Breaking the silence about mental illness is a powerful way to get people talking. Secret: It still feels too risky for many pastors to openly talk about mental illness. Other people in the church can begin the conversation, it doesn’t have to be the pastor who gets the conversation started.

Mental Health Mercy #5: Shower your pastor with reminders of God’s grace. Chances are good that she has had a bad day this week. What would it look like to shower her with God’s grace? A gift card? Cancel an extra meeting? Volunteer to help? Flowers? Chocolate? Take time to consider what brings hope and joy to your pastor. How can you share these small things in everyday ways that reminds your pastor that she, too, is a child of God. Secret: Many pastors feel unworthy and inadequate. Episodes of depression and anxiety only worsen the pastor’s self esteem.

Small mental health mercies can go a long way. Lord knows, our pastors need them. Lord knows how much we love our pastors. Let’s show them how much we care for them.

So many pastors struggle with depression and/or anxiety. Let them know that it is okay, they are not alone. God is with them and the church is, too.

God, Were You There When #MeToo?

God, were you there when she said no? Were you there when she looked away, pulled away, and then quickly tried to push away from her mind what just happened? 

God, were you there when he insisted it was okay? Were you there when he did it, anyway?

God, were you there when it happened in the church? Were you there when the sacred space became unsafe? 

God, were you there when she cried because what he did hurt so bad? Were you there in those moments of shame, humiliation, self-blame and fear? 

God, were you there in the silence when she didn’t believe she could tell? Were you there in her worries about the next time and what she could do to avoid another violation of her sacred self? 

God, were you there to see and hear all of the cries of #MeToo? Do you weep with us who weep and mourn with us who mourn all the little deaths as our humanity continues to be harassed and assaulted? 

God, were you there when she typed the hashtag and the letters “m-e-t-o-o”? Were you there when another sister could not (for her own valid reasons)? Were you there in the testimony? Were you there in the truth?

God of Hagar and Tamar, we confess the Church’s role in systems that contribute to a culture of violence against women. We confess that too often religious leaders have abused their power and harmed women in the Church. We confess that the Church is in need of repair, reformation, and redemption. 

God of Resurrection, we trust in the power of your love. We ask that you would pour out your divine love into all who suffer from sexual harassment and assault. 

God, stir within those who have inflicted harm a deep sense of remorse and willingness to make amends. God, help us.

God, help make #MeToo to be a Pentecost moment for the Church. Help us to hear your truth in the many voices rising up. Let this truth reform us, remake us, and redeem us. 

God, if you were there…then you were inside each one of us as our heartbeats quickened from unholy terror and we breathed our way through each horrifying moment by moment. And you are with us now. You are in this movement. Breathe into us your Spirit of Love. Breathe into us healing fire. Amen. #MeToo

(Inspired by the many stories being publicly shared) 

10 Things We Know About Mental Illness 

It’s the third birthday of Blessed are the Crazy: Breaking the Silence About Mental Illness, Family and Church. To celebrate I am sharing 10 things I’ve learned along the way since the publication of the book on September 30, 2014. 

10. Mental Illness is stubborn.       It takes an average of 10 years for a person to seek professional help from the onset of symptoms and even then, only half of us who have symptoms seek professional help. Causes for this long delay in treatment (or lack of mental health treatment) range from denial to shame to fear to lack of awareness to lack of affordable healthcare to lack of mental health resources to lack of access to care. The truth is that mental illness as a brain disease can do a lot of damage before it is recognized and treated. It’s also true that we can be in recovery from mental illness and live full, abundant lives. 

9. Kids suffer from mental illness. This is the hard reality that I didn’t like hearing. At a conference a presenter who is an expert in pediatric psychology shared that symptoms of mental illness can be observed as young as age zero. Let that sink in. More and more children are expericing symptoms of mental illness. The fastest rate of growth for suicide is among young girls ages 8-11. There are not enough beds in pediatric psychiatric care centers. There are months long waiting lists to see therapists that work with kids.  

8. Anosognosia. I learned this word in a church basement in Columbus, Ohio. A mother and father shared their journey with their young adult son who lives with schizophrenia. He is unaware of his own mental illness–he has anosognosia–nd so he resists mental health treatment because he does not believe he has an illness, even though his symptoms are severe. Speaking from personal experience, it is terribly painful to love someone who has mental illness and their symptom prohibits them from self-awareness. My father died 10 years ago and he had anosognosia.I think that’s what killed him because he refused to get help.

7. People of Color. As a person with the multiple dimensions of privilege (white skin, cis-gender, graduate level education, and middle-class), I have built-in advantages when it comes to navigating the mental healthcare system.  For POC, because of systemic white supremacy, there are serious barriers to getting preventative mental healthcare, treatment and recovery. 

6. LGBTQ. We know that the highest rate of suicide is among trans teenagers, and among this group, those who are POC. Suicide is not the result of a person choosing to die. Suicide, as one survivor shared, is an attempt to “make the pain stop.” We are all responsible for creating communities that address the real pain felt and experienced by people who are LGBTQ, and as much as is in our power, to show nothing but love and respect. 

5. Most Churches are Silent. There remains a great need for communities of faith to break the silence about mental illness. When the church is silent about mental illness, a reality that directly impacts one out of every four people, the church fails to live the gospel. It is a sin to be silent. The devil loves our silence because that’s how he wins. Let love win. Break the silence. 

4. Blessed are the Crazy. I’ve spoken to why I chose this title many times and each time I say, yes, that’s what it’s called. It’s so true to me and my story. As a personal testimony it works for me. Now, if I were writing an essay for a professional medical journal, maybe not. However, for reaching the audience that I have had the tremendous pleasure and privilege to engage with these past three years, it’s been right.

3. Gratitude. I cannot thank you enough for joining me on this journey. For the thousands of conversations, questions, stories, tears, laughter, insights, and deep connections, I am filled with gratitude. I could not have ever imagined that breaking open my story would have brought us together in such beauty and love. Thank you, for in this holy sharing there is healing. The work continues.

2. Mental Illness is Real. Our bodies get sick and our physical organs can become diseased: the heart, the lungs, and the brain. Many types of mental illness, including the most severe are brain diseases. We would never say to a person with diabetes or heart disease to stop taking their medications. Mental illness is a physical illness and people who have it deserve respect, excellent healthcare and great compassion.

1. Hope is Real and Contagious. We can easily be overwhelmed with the suffering caused by mental illness. We know that a majority of people who live in the streets and who are incarcerated are people with untreated mental illness. The good news is that mental illness can be prevented (in many cases), treated and people can experience a life of recovery. We must not lose hope that abundant life is possible for all of us. We must not let go of hope. We must hold onto hope for one another.