A couple weeks ago I was on a zoom call with 10 pastors spread across the country and between 3 denominations. By the end of the call, 4 of the 10 pastors admitted to struggling with suicidal thoughts. The week after that, I wrote an article on suicidal ideation for one of our partners, Baptist News Global. I was shocked, heartbroken, and encouraged when the article was shared more than 125,000 times.
The problem is even bigger than I realized and obviously pastors aren’t the only ones experiencing a mental healt
h crisis right now. No one is immune to the intense difficulties this moment in history piled on us. Life is hard. Always has been, and this is the hardest it’s been in my lifetime.
Not everyone experiences depression in the same way, and symptoms can vary. Here’s a list of symptoms from healthline to help identify if you or a loved one is experiencing depression:
- seem sad or tearful
- appear more pessimistic than usual or hopeless about the future
- talk about feeling guilty, empty, or worthless
- seem less interested in spending time together or communicate less frequently than they normally would
- get upset easily or are unusually irritable
- confusion or memory problems
- have less energy, move slowly, or seem generally listless
- have less interest in their appearance than usual or neglect basic hygiene, such as showering and brushing their teeth
- have trouble sleeping or sleep much more than usual
- care less about their usual activities and interests
- seem forgetful or have trouble concentrating or deciding on things
- eat more or less than usual
- talk about death or suicide
If you know someone who is experiencing depression right now, here’s a simple list of ways you can help:
1. Listen to them. Don’t give advice and don’t try to show them how things
could be worse. Affirm their experience and let them know you are there for them.
2. Encourage them to seek professional help. Most of us aren’t professionals, and even if we are, we don’t need to be in that role with our friends and family. We can offer friendship and spiritual companionship for the road, but it’s important to point them toward professional resources.
3. Stay in touch. When someone is feeling depressed, reaching out can be difficult. So call and text your friend, but don’t get offended if they don’t answer or return the call. You’re trying to help, not add another burden or obligation to their plate.
Likewise, continue to invite them to things. Have coffee or lunch on the picnic table under the church pavilion. Remind them how much you enjoy having them at book club, at church worship, or on the Zoom Sunday school call. But be sure to leave them a way out if they aren’t feeling up to it.
4. Help with tasks. When depressed, small tasks can sometimes seem impossible. Offer to bring your friend groceries or take their mail to the post office for them. Helping in these small ways can make a big difference.
5. Take care of yourself. We are all in a pandemic. Don’t get so involved caring for others that you neglect to care for yourself. Neglecting our own needs is not a christian virtue, and is dangerous not only to ourselves and our families, but to the church. Like the airplane stewardess says, put your oxygen mask on first so that you can help others put theirs on also.
If you are experiencing depression, here’s a few things that might help:
First, a reminder that depression comes in many forms and degrees. Do not neglect to take appropriate action for your wellbeing just because you aren’t experiencing specific symptoms or because your symptoms aren’t as severe as they could be.
1. Confide in trusted allies. Reach out to your inner circle and be honest about how you are feeling. Tell them the truth without expecting them to fix it. They can’t, but they can walk beside you on the journey. And be careful to share only with those who can be trusted to walk with you. Sharing with someone who doesn’t have the emotional intelligence to be an ally for you can be more harmful than helpful.
2. Get professional help. I know plenty of people who only ever share with friends, but their journey stops after that. Sharing our burdens with competent companions does seem to lessen the load, and many people feel that initial
relief and talk themselves out of getting professional help. Don’t do that. Take the next step and share your experience of depression or anxiety with your Primary Care Physician (who is treating a lot of this right now) or your counselor. And if you don’t have a counselor. Find one. Your wellbeing may depend on it.
3. Reevaluate expectations. We’re in a pandemic, a hyper-partisan culture, an upcoming election, and a civil rights movement. We are not capable of fulfilling the same level of expectations as we were this time last year. No one is. So reexamine and reevaluate realistic exceptions for yourself and for others. Stop holding yourself and others accountable to impossible ideals. An old spiritual teacher used to say, “How do we know when an expectation is unrealistic? When it isn’t being met.”
4. Keep a gratitude journal. Writing down just three things for which we are grateful each day is scientifically proven to help rewire our brain. Spiritual teachers have taught on the importance of gratitude for centuries and now scientists are affirming their teaching.
5. Get outside for 30 minutes a day. Likewise, science can show that being outside helps improve mood and brain function. It isn’t an end all be all, but it’s a simple act that can help. So go for a walk, read in the backyard, or float in the community pool.
6. Meditate. Jesus went to the mountain to pray for hours on end and sometimes through the entire night. The early church fathers taught that this kind of prayer was centering or contemplative prayer. It’s not talking at God for hours on end, which can actually serve to increase our anxiety. But sitting in fellowship with God in the intimacy beyond words.
The science indicates that just 5-10 minutes of meditation or centering prayer can make a significant difference in our brain chemistry, bolstering resilience and and coping skills. I’ve used the Headspace app for years now and love it. There are plenty of apps out there both Christian and secular that can help lead a meditative/prayer journey.
7. Limit time spent on social media and watching the news. Social media is toxic right now, and surveys on wellness track a direct correlation between time spent watching the news and discontent with life. Resolving to only read your news from reliable sources can greatly improve mental health. I promise you will still know what’s going on in the world, and if you’re healthy, you’ll be better equipped to handle it and do something positive about it.
—Jakob Topper, Senior Pastor of NorthHaven Church, Norman, OK