How do people—especially church people—react to depression? The Bloems, both of whom have suffered from clinical depression, argue that the church has failed to minister properly to the mentally ill. One of the main reasons for this is the church’s refusal to view depression and other mental illnesses as anything other than a disease of the soul, a spiritual disorder, which modern medicine cannot help. Thus a stigma has developed around the mentally ill, such that physical disorders (kidney stones, arthritis, heart disease, cancer) are categorized in an altogether different manner from mental disorders (depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disease, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress, postnatal depression, etc.). The Bloems have suffered at the hands of—often well-meaning—Christians, who have stigmatized mental illness, and thus added to the burden of the depressed saint in the church. The attitude of many is that Christians are not supposed to get depressed, and if they do, there must be some sin, some hidden bitterness, in their life. Often Christians, argue the Bloems, are like Job’s comforters, who added to, rather than helped, his depression. For example, in a chapter entitled, “Depression and the Ekklesia of God,” Robyn Bloem writes:
Fellow Christians have ministered to us in a multitude of ways by both words and deeds. Some also have intensified our grief and frustration by thoughtless words that either came from attitudes of prejudice or the need to fill dead air when the person didn’t know what else to say. The general rule for approaching a friend or relative who is touched by mental illness is to listen much and speak little (233).
Earlier Steve writes,
To show Christ’s love, it is sometimes needful simply to weep with those who are weeping, rather than to give superficial advice or try to be cheery. Job’s friends were good comforters as long as they sat in silence. It was when they opened their mouths to preach long, superficial sermons that they were used of Satan to drive Job into deeper despair (206).
The Bloems speak from personal experience. Steve, a pastor, who is now the director of Heartfelt Counseling Ministries, Inc., has suffered from clinical depression for years, and his wife, Robyn, is no stranger to depression herself—both her own, and her husband’s. The Bloems describe (especially Steve’s) experiences—from indefinable feeling of unease, the persistent darkness, the sleeplessness, the crippling incapacitation, the different diagnoses and treatments, the (often unhelpful and even prejudiced) responses of family, friends, and church, and even the alluring song of suicide. Steve devotes a whole chapter to the subject of suicidal ideation and suicide.
The Bloems contend strongly that depression is an illness that can be treated (although not cured) with medical intervention, as well as by the comfort of the gospel. Why are Christians reluctant, they ask, to treat depression as a disease, and seek medical help, while they would frown upon someone who did not seek medical help for a physical disease such as a fractured bone, a tumor, or a blood clot? Why do Christians reject the findings of psychiatry and psychology out of hand, while they embrace the findings of cardiology, oncology, etc.? Writes Steve, “Because we have distanced ourselves from scientific inquiry, we have tended to offer little to the mentally ill—except condemnation” (113).
Steve Bloem writes this to illustrate the inadequacy of the nouthetic, “Christian-counseling” approach to the depressed, which he says he has often found “degrading” (187):
A typical Christian counselor’s response to a depressed person might sound like this:
“Brother, you have suppressed a deep resentment toward another. You have bitterness in your life that you are not dealing with. When this happens, your body does not know what to do with it, and you turn the anger inward on yourself to avoid dealing with the true issues. This in turn will deplete your neurotransmitters in the brain…. So put off your anger and you will put off the depression….”
This fictional counselor finishes the day’s sessions and heads home with a splitting headache. Would he try to get to the spiritual root of his headache? Or would he pop a couple of aspirins into his mouth? (190-191).
Elsewhere, Steve Bloem describes the “stigma about treatments from the neck down,” by relating the difference between E.C.T. (electroconvulsive therapy) and lithotripsy treatment (the blasting of kidney stones with sonar waves)—one is acceptable (although lithotripsy sounds very strange); the other is (supposedly) the stuff of horror movies! (127). He also relates how he is embarrassed (because of his friends’ reaction) to take his antidepressant medication in public, while no one would question someone taking beta blockers or some other medication prescribed by a doctor. The reason for this attitude, contend the Bloems, is prejudice and stigma.
This book is very helpful in understanding the causes of depression, the treatments available, and the ways in which we might minister to the depressed saint, carrying his or her burdens. It would appear from the Bloems’ book that we have much to learn and many prejudices to put off before we can effectively do this. Believers who suffer from depression, or whose loved ones suffer from depression, as well as pastors who minister to the depressed, would do well to study this book.