By Judy E. Denby
This season is typically associated with feelings of peace and joy, and every where I go, people with broad smiles are wishing me “Happy Holidays”, or “ Have a nice Christmas!”. Not to make any attempt to destroy anyone’s happiness this season, but I tend to have a heart for those who suffer at this time of year, especially those who struggle with depression and mental illness. It’s a sad fact that more people are depressed in December than in any other month of the year, and statistics show that suicides peak dramatically around the holidays, too. For all its peace and joy, the holiday season also serves as a reminder to those who suffer that life is difficult. Often it’s just the fact of not having a loving family to share with. This point was brought home to me when, as a nurse, I began working almost every Christmas. My feeling was that people with families and small children should be free to enjoy Christmas with them, and I was alone and far from my family. Even if I went home for a few days, traveling around that time of year was such a hassle that I spent my time with my family dreading the return trip. It was easier to work than to celebrate Christmas by myself, but I still had a heavy heart when the shift was over and I went home to only my dog. Often I wouldn’t even put up a tree if I had no one to share it with. Then came the call from home; I welcomed the opportunity to talk to my parents and sisters, but I never told anyone how incredibly difficult it was for me to hear their voices and know that they were all together and having a wonderful time, while I was alone. Sometimes I identified with old Scrooge and his “Bah Humbug!” attitude.
This year will, of course, be different, because for the first time I will be sharing the holidays with my husband, and being 2000 miles from my family won’t be so bad. I’m still somewhat amazed at how one person can make such a miraculous change in my life! I only hope, however, that in my state of joy, I don’t forget about those who are less fortunate. I hope you don’t either. I became concerned not long ago when I listened to a sermon where the preacher said anyone who had emotional or mental problems did so because he was a sinner and not right with God. That statement put me on the defensive immediately, and to be quite honest, I don’t remember much of what was said in the rest of the message. I was too busy silently fuming in the pew, wondering how many people hearing this message would have a little less compassion for with such problems.
I will admit that the fall of man in the garden opened the door for all illnesses, including mental. And there is no doubt that people suffer because of the torment of Satan. Even Christians are not immune. Satan attempts to hurt and manipulate believers to keep them distanced from God. Sometimes it is even to the point where they are diagnosed with mental illness, because they hear voices and have strange or sinful compulsions. In the wake of the research over the past few years, however, I also have to agree that some mental illness is caused by problems with certain neurons and/or in the brain. In depression, for instance, scientists have found a link between it and the brain’s usage of two such agents, norepinephrine and Seratonin. While there are many apparent causes for depression (sometimes it can be related to hormones, as in PMS; sometimes it can be merely situational, caused by the particular circumstances in which the individual finds him or her self), a major part can be attributed to the way the brain is using the previously mentioned chemicals.
Among many people, unfortunately including Christians, there can be a misperception that mental illness is somehow related to a basic flaw in the person’s character. I’ve heard mentally ill people referred to as lazy. Society decides that these people just use their illness as a way to get out of responsibility for their lives, and make someone else support them (and I don’t doubt that there are persons for whom this is true!). But having worked with and known as friends many people with mental or emotional problems, I have seen that they need more than just motivation to make something of themselves. Quite the opposite, in fact. Many have constantly struggled to go on, to have a decent life, to keep working rather than permit social agencies to take care of them. They refuse to give in.
Christians also set poor examples by declaring that a person would not have these problems were he or she “right with God”. As if any of us is able to judge another’s personal relationship with the Lord. Obviously I begin to wonder about a brother or sister in Christ who is participating regularly in sinful behavior, without remorse. But it is far from Christ-like to label another person based on that which we do not understand. One idea which is often used comparatively is that we tend to reach out to and care for a person who is ill with something physical, such as cancer or diabetes… yet if mental illness is caused by something with basically no difference from that which causes diabetes (I.e. a chemical), why then do we not embrace those persons who are afflicted? Instead, we sometimes promote ourselves as untouchable. Christian friends of mine, who have been diagnosed with depression, have often spoken to me about their reluctance share their problem with other believers, fearing a “holier-than-thou” attitude and the judgment that depression means that they need to do some major work on their respective relationships with God. At a time when they need support and prayer more than ever, they keep quiet, dealing with the depression through the help of counselors and psychiatrists rather than through the family of God. I’ve been there too, when a few years ago a Christian counselor told me she thought I was showing symptoms of depression. I was rather shocked; I was working for a Christian ministry with people I truly loved and my relationship with God was as good as it had ever been. How could I possibly be depressed? Trusting her judgment, however, I started seeing her regularly, and saw a psychiatrist to get a prescription for an anti-depressant medication. In a few months I was feeling like a new woman; I was more content with life, had more energy, and was sleeping better. The whole time, however, I worried that people I worked with would somehow find out. Eventually I decided that I needed to speak out. No one suspected a thing, and I wanted my co-workers to know that if it could happen to me, it could happen to them. As I gradually started telling people, some were supportive, some didn’t say much, and two (who I thought showed some signs of depression themselves) gave me the “Well, that’s real nice for you but I don’t need to worry” speech. (It is interesting to note that years later, these same two individuals have numerous health problems and spend much of their time and money running to doctors with physical complaints. I have to wonder how differently they would cope if they were to see a Christian counselor.)
We have so much to be thankful for, and number one is that Jesus is in our lives. Following His example, in this special time of year, let us reach out to those who need comforting and understanding, and let them know that like Jesus, we care.