Mental Health and Ministry

By Dr. Mark Poindexter

At the recent Regional Assembly of the Christian Church in Virginia, there was an Interest Group titled “No, I’m Not Crazy!” Affirming Those with Mental Health Issues.  It was the Interest Group I decided to attend.  Not because I thought I needed to learn how to affirm others, but because I wanted to feel affirmed.  Throughout my adult life, I have waged a battle with depression.  I know the struggle that comes with feeling thoroughly overwhelmed in mind, body and soul by what seems like nearly insurmountable sadness.  I understand what it is like to be nearly paralyzed by the weight of the darkness that engulfs someone suffering from severe depression.  My battle with this form of mental illness has been costly in my life.  I believe it was a contributing factor to the end of my first marriage.  In addition, some colleagues could not understand the depth of my depression and thought I just needed to “snap out of it.”  When I couldn’t do that, they decided I was not someone they should have in their life.  The words I heard was that “I bring them down.”  Also, at one point, I had to take a year away from ministry.  The depression had reached a point that I lost my voice to preach; my own sense of being spiritually lost made it very difficult to lead others in the journey of faith.

                After the workshop, I went up to our Regional Minister, Lee Parker, and told him I was grateful for the church’s willingness to address this important matter.  I also shared with him about my own personal battle with depression, along with a couple of articles I had written about my experience.  He called the next day, after having read the articles, and asked if I would write something for the Virginia Christian about ministry with those who have mental illness.  The question for me became, do I write about my own journey or do I give some practical advice about how to be present with others who are going through this painful experience.  I decided that sharing about my own personal struggle with depression was of primary importance because it would help to pull back the stigma and cover of secrecy that all too often accompanies mental illness.   Out of fear of being judged by others, those suffering from mental illness often try to hide their struggles which can lead to an even deeper private pain and a further sense of isolation.  In my life I have become keenly aware that if I am to overcome this illness I have to be willing to address it head on and I need the support of friends and family who are willing to walk with me.

These are a few things I have learned in my journey.  Though there will always be some people “who just don’t get it” there are others who will have an understanding and compassionate response - some of them precisely because it is their battle as well.   I need to surround myself with such people when the darkness is deep.  In my last period of a depressed state, it was the companionship of some former church members, a couple of friends from my seminary days, the presence of my children, and the tenacious love of my sister that brought light to me.  Though loneliness was a struggle during that time, I was never completely alone.  They walked with me and in their presence I felt the presence of God.  For that I am grateful.  I have also learned that with my form of depression the complex relationship between genetics and environment is not clear.  Both play a role in my illness.  So both medicines and talk therapy are vitally important in helping me maintain a sense of well-being.  In addition, one reason I am able to face my illness directly, is because I will not allow it to become the defining characteristic of who I am.  Though my depression has gripped me fiercely at times, I live an abundantly fulfilled life.  I love to laugh and spend time with my children.  I enjoy exercise and running road races.  I love the work I do as pastor.  Congregational leadership has again become life giving to me.  Reading the book, Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled his Greatness, allowed me to see that my own battle with depression does not by any means disqualify me from leadership.  In fact, for my life as a pastor, it has helped me to become a more compassionate and understanding person.   And though I lost some relationships because of my struggles, the door has opened for other relationships to begin.  Again, I am grateful.

I will not live in fear and silence when it comes to the fact that I have a form of mental illness.  As some people’s journey consists of diabetes or Crohn’s disease or cancer and they must undergo medical treatment and receive various kinds of support, so does my illness require the same. I also hope that my willingness to share openly about my situation will help to show others who have similar battles that they are not alone.  They need not fear what others might think or believe that they should not ask for help.  The journey toward wholeness and well-being is a journey all human beings are on.  It can, at times, be a difficult journey, but it is one that can lead to a full life if embraced with a courageous and honest spirit, an abiding faith and a community of support.