Today (10 October) is World Mental Health Day.
According to the World Health Organisation:
‘World Mental Health Day raises public awareness about mental health issues. The day promotes open discussion of mental disorders, and investments in prevention, promotion and treatment services. This year the theme for the day is “Depression: A Global Crisis”.
‘Depression affects more than 350 million people of all ages, in all communities, and is a significant contributor to the global burden of disease. Although there are known effective treatments for depression, access to treatment is a problem in most countries and in some countries fewer than 10% of those who need it receive such treatment.’
I suffered from depression throughout my teens. In my first year at high school, I was relatively popular, equally so among boys and girls. On the eve of my twelfth birthday (first term of second year), I experienced an almost overwhelming sadness and had to physically fight against suicidal thoughts. I struggled with cycles of depression for years, which were particularly focused on the same time of year (my birthday is in November). I withdrew from friends – and was given the nickname Edd (Ever-Depressed Dowsett) – and lost confidence. And I spoke to nobody about what I was going through. Sometime around my seventeenth birthday, staying in a house in a forest with a group of friends (I did have some!), I had a suicidal breakdown. They listened, and took me back to Glasgow, not home but to the home of a psychiatrist we knew, who helped me to talk to my parents. Things hidden in darkness brought into the light can be addressed. My GP helped establish a platform on which I could find enough stability to stand – a platform that could in time be dismantled, and indeed that needed to be temporarily rebuilt at a much later date. There is no shame in taking appropriate medication for depression, any more than there is in taking appropriate medication to fight cancer.
Two years later, in my first term at university, I discovered something of how common it was for people to live with depression: I was not alone. But the help I had received enabled me to hold out hope and point to help for others.
On one occasion, I was sat on my bed. I was aware of myself – somehow outside of my body, or perhaps inside my body – curled in a foetal ball in a pitch dark room only just big enough to contain me. At some point I must have become ‘conscious’ that the walls had retreated – though I was still in darkness – and also become aware of the presence of Jesus sat next to me, in silence. After some time, he got up, held out his hand to me, and said, “Come on. Let’s walk away from here.” And we did. That, too, was a significant event in the process of healing. (And my name is not Edd: it is Andrew Christopher, the man who follows Christ...)
I was free of depression for many years. When I was put forward for selection for ordination, my mental health history came under scrutiny. I suggested that, as 80% of the population will personally experience some form of mental health issue (and 100% of the population will be touched by mental health issues), my experience – both of depression, and of the hope of life after depression – was a positive thing: indeed, God had already used it over and over to help others. Nonetheless, I was sent to The Priory in London for psychiatric assessment, where my fitness was endorsed in the strongest of terms. Ironically, this despite having to tell the psychiatrist that I was, at that time, back on anti-depressants to help deal with the fairly appalling manner in which representatives of the Church were treating me.
As it happens, I have not needed to be on medication since: though I may need to in the future; and while I have certainly continued to struggle with ‘low mood’ on a fairly regular basis (the appalling ways in which people in the Church treat other people at times is a large part of this; the lack of sunshine certainly doesn’t help; and I know that my own brokenness contributes). Other members of my family have needed to be on medication for depression and other mental health issues, for a variety of reasons.
Anyway, all this to say that I am grateful for all the ways through which God has moved to liberate me from depression (friendship, trained counsel, medication) and from any sense of shame or failure or disappointment with myself or judgement by others; and for the ways in which he has worked through me to bring a similar liberation to others. Depression is a word that intimidates us Not To Speak Its Name. There is a greater name – the name of Jesus. Depression will play its part in our death, whether directly or indirectly. But neither it nor death itself will have the final word.
For now, depression is indeed a global crisis. We don’t have to settle for that. We can stand up and be counted. We can speak out for those who cannot speak out for themselves. In so doing, we bring light to the darkness; and in so doing, others may be encouraged – literally, given the courage they need – to step into the light.