A Sermon of Truth About Depression

By Kathy Hurt | Jan. 23, 2018

 

As a church pastor, I prepare sermons every week that will (hopefully) help people live well and love fully. I have found that including stories from my own life experiences seems to resonate most with my listeners. They tell me that when I talk about myself, they feel as though “you were talking about me.” I always enjoy hearing such feedback—except when it is spoken in a low voice, almost a whisper, and comes with a knowing look or an especially strong hug.

That is the response I receive exclusively when I talk about my depression.

Twice in my life, I have fallen into an extended bout of depression, which has required hospitalization, medication, shock treatments, lots of therapy and time off work. My depression comes with persistent thoughts of suicide, and I have attempted suicide more than once. Recovery is never quick: My first depressive episode required a two-year stay in a psychiatric hospital for me to feel functional once again, while the second depression hung over me for nearly three years. With each occurrence, I believed I would never know joy again, would never be able to work and might so tire the patience of my family and friends that they would give up on me—not to mention the fact that I gave up on myself at least five times a day.

Yet I recovered—not just to a small degree, but fully. Today, I serve a large congregation and have recently published a memoir about my first depressive episode. My motivation for writing that story is the same motivation that inspires me to speak about depression in my sermons: I am committed to push back against the stigma that is still attached to mental illness.

Such a resolve—not only to not be cowed by stigma but to resist it—did not come easily to me. I often found myself believing some of the negative messages that accompany stigma—messages that told me I was not depressed but simply weak-willed or lazy, messages that shamed me for not being able to deal with the ordinary challenges of life that everyone around me seemed to navigate without getting depressed, messages that suggested I was not normal and never would be, messages that I would always have to work extra hard to look good, to be loved.

With all those messages reverberating around, I kept my mouth shut for a long time about my mental illness. The stigma felt especially daunting in the context of my profession: Pastors are supposed to be paradigms of perfection, to be endowed with the sort of faith that keeps them immune from something like mental illness. So, the notion of ever sharing my experiences with others was something I didn’t even consider.

 

Until one day. A couple in my congregation asked if I would consider going to see their college-age daughter, who had been placed on a 72-hour hold in the psychiatric unit of a local hospital. They were distressed by their inability to understand what was wrong or how they could help her. Because they remembered that she and I had formed a positive connection when she was in high school, they hoped that I might somehow get through to her.

I headed off to the hospital and was buzzed into the unit, my thoughts full of memories of times when I had been on the other side of that locked door. I found the young woman seated by herself near a window in the patient lounge. I pulled up a chair and explained that her parents had told me what happened. I tried various conversation openers, none of which got any response aside from a shrug, a polite smile, a vague answer.

Then almost without intending, I said: “You know, when I was in college, I had a breakdown, and I was so depressed I had to drop out and was hospitalized.” Now I had her full attention, as I told more of my story. Her eyes filled with tears, and her own story began to unfold.

The young woman’s parents subsequently told me that my visit had a remarkable impact: They saw their daughter shift and demonstrate a desire to be helped, to try and heal. They thought I had some sort of magic touch, yet the “magic” was not in anything I did; rather, it is the same magic that happens whenever someone risks being vulnerable and shares parts of their soul.

Our personal stories have the power to heal, if only we can set aside the stigmatizing messages that try to shame us into silence.

Mental Illness Is Not a Sin

Despite all the advances in treatment, despite all the ways in which our culture has become more enlightened and compassionate, somehow mental illness remains in a category of its own, regarded as some sort of peculiar affliction that is best dealt with by toughing it out, straightening up, putting one’s will into play and hiding any evidence of possible symptoms.

When my church members whisper that it felt like “you were talking about me,” I feel a deep sadness that this admission seems to come with a sense of shame, as though the individual were confessing some terrible sin or shortcoming. As a result, I feel like I have more work to do. We all do.

I am not a mental health counselor, but I do provide spiritual counseling in my pastoral work. Whenever someone comes to talk with me about mental health, I have some touchstones that I typically offer:

  • Be gentle with yourself. All of us are struggling and doing the best we can.
  • Be patient. Humans are incredibly complicated organisms, unpredictable even on our best days, and we will not always respond in the same way.
  • Be grateful. Many spiritual traditions urge cultivating a practice of gratitude, something as simple as finding three things each day, however small, to be thankful for. Gratitude can shift an entire world view toward greater trust, bit by bit.
  • Be vulnerable. We form our deepest connections with others not around our accomplishments or successes, but around our experiences of suffering. We bond when we share stories of those experiences with one another.
  • Be kind. When we notice someone else, even for just a moment in a shared glance or holding open a door, we are lifted out of our own loneliness and a bit closer into the human community.

I will keep telling and retelling stories of my personal struggles with depression and suicide, keeping alive the hope that one day any traces of stigma and shame associated with mental illness will vanish. We will all be so much stronger then.

 

If you have any interest in spreading mental health awareness to your faith community, please visit NAMI FaithNet.

 

Kathy Hurt is a Protestant pastor who has experienced periods of severe depression, yet has gone on to recover and enjoy a full and productive life of career and family. She regularly references her mental health struggles in her work and blogs about spirituality and mental health. Kathy recently published a memoir account of her two-year hospitalization for depression, The Dark Has Its Own Light (published under the pen name Sue Dowell).

 

Note: This piece is a reprint from the Spring 2017 Advocate

Comments
Jenny
Thank you for finding your voice and sharing it with others, so that we too can see the beauty of hope and light.
2/6/2018 8:30:09 PM

Shawna
Thank you
2/1/2018 6:27:07 PM

Todd Young
I have yet to find someone who understands me. I lost my life long ambition, then my Wife. Later my children. Now dealing with the loss of my family I was born into. Nothing can touch the depression of loss. No they are not dead. They do not understand mental illness. The latest round of hate to me because I refuse to see people that belittle me for wanting to stay away from Negative people. My life is alone. No people. No Family. No friends. I used to love seeing family. But? Really pisses me off that everybody is friends on social media. But will not include ME!? I ended all social internet pages & sites. If they will not talk to me in life? Why wait for something that will never happen? My Dad refuses to see that he is the root of family problems. Reminds me of Sgt. Schultz on Hogan's Heroes. "I know NOTHING!" His head in the sand is brutal to me. It sure would be nice to talk to someone? I get human contact when I go grocery shopping or out to eat. But is not enough. I thought about making a tragedy to get some attention? Nope don't want to hear. "Just doing anything to get attention, CRY BABY" I heard that last May. Hope that some get the help needed for mental illness. Me? WHO CARES. I am in morning for over 20 years. Healing has not happened. :(
2/1/2018 5:28:02 PM

DEBORAH BOUDREAU
This is wonderful for you to share with your congregation and those following you. We are a small rural community and have in the past had a NAMI chapter but they have become inactive. How does a church (I teach special needs adults) establish a NAMI Faithnet program? Thank you for being you and letting others know the real you.
2/1/2018 2:42:39 PM

Judy
Thank you for sharing this. I have registered to take an Adult Mental Health First Aid class with another member of my congregation. Our goal is to have the training at our church. This is such an important conversation we should be having. Education is key to stopping the stigma and ignorance about mental health. Thank you for sharing your story.
2/1/2018 1:26:53 PM

Lela
How do I print out your articles? They do not seem to come in a printable version, yet it would be very beneficial to have a hard copy to be able to refer back to and reread.

Thank you.
2/1/2018 12:37:32 PM

A G Maxwell
We are strong when we share our infirmities, vulnerabilities. There is no deeper sharing than 'striking a chord'.
1/31/2018 11:27:15 PM

Tammy
Dear Kathy: your story is such an inspiration, thank you for sharing. I volunteer for NAMI (national alliance for mental illness) there are many of us who facilitate peer support groups and or are peer recovery specialists. The support of someone who has experienced mental illness themselves has many benefits. I find it very rewarding from both sides of the table because I too go to the groups for my own self care. Thanks again great blog
God bless
1/31/2018 10:55:58 PM

John Butler
I actually did find contemplation, meditation, prayer and gathering and drinking my own rain-water tremendously helpful too. Best of luck!
1/31/2018 9:15:42 PM

Wayne Norman Cochran
"Our personal stories have the power to heal, if only we can set aside the stigmatizing messages that try to shame us into silence."

Well-said!

I wish other people who have "succeeded" in this society would be able to share their darker times like you have. Because I chose to share parts of those times and to be in an organization of fellow mental health consumers, after I had a very responsible job in life and my life looked great, some of the people I volunteered along side, felt inspired. My example seemed inspiring, but I hope, more so, the way I treated everyone was honoring of their spirit.
1/31/2018 8:57:35 PM

Teresa
Thank you so much for sharing your story. I agree there is too much stigma associated with mental illness and depression. When I was 19 years old I was involuntarily committed and struggled for years with what I consider a disability. I'm middle aged now and still find it hard to talk about this part of my life. Your openness is helping individuals and families realize feel less shame.
1/31/2018 8:45:31 PM

lashan d stephens
Very good article. This article lets us know that we all have problems. It lets us know that if we share our stories and testimonies with others that we have the power to help others overcome things their trials. This article also showed me that depression can happen to anyone.
1/30/2018 2:04:02 PM

Roger Olson
It is encouraging to hear your story. Our efforts locally to introduce NAMI Faithnet have been met an interesting indifference. "This is really good, but not for my congregation"
One pastor even confessed to using the same medication as my son but would not consider anxiety as an illness, let alone a mental illness.
1/25/2018 11:16:27 PM

Mary
Wow! Thank you for your transparency in sharing your story and your ministry. I found it inspiring and relevant. I believe God doesn't waste our pain.
1/25/2018 7:08:29 PM

Peggi Chase
Thank you, thank you, thank you, Pastor Hurt! I suffered a severe bout of depression a few years ago, seemingly out of nowhere. My nephew is currently undergoing diagnosis/treatment and I have been struggling with feeling helpless, not knowing whether/how I could be of assistance to him and his family. I think sharing my struggles may just be the best way to do that.
I am continuing the battle in my world to make mental illness a talking point whenever I find the opportunity. Thanks for the reminder.
1/25/2018 11:35:17 AM

Alexandra
Very inspirational article. Thank you for being vulnerable to share your life experiences with depression and how that helps others to open up.
1/25/2018 10:53:35 AM

Janet
Thank you for your courage and love. Speaking to a congregation can be difficult...I know...I've shared my own story. Continue your love and the grace our Savior has gifted you - you will make such an impact in others' lives.
1/24/2018 9:56:40 PM

Charles David Rihm
Such a wonderful story. Keep spreading the word of love and acceptance.
1/24/2018 3:01:59 PM

Olivia
Thank you for this. Reading your story really impacted me. In my sophomore year of college, I dropped out for a semester to get treatment for my eating disorder. What I thought would be a month stay turned into 6 months of being in a hospitalized rehabilitation center. Now, 2 years later I am back to finish my senior year of college. However, I am still struggling with depression despite being in recovery from ED. Hearing that you are now a pastor and went through a similar thing as me is very inspiring and has given me hope. I pray that God will use you to continue making a difference in other's lives. Thank you.
1/24/2018 1:01:20 AM

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