He's really depressed-what do I do?

When your minister spouse suffers severe depression, how can you help?

Verjannia F. Carman writes from Alloway, New Jersey.

Christians—especially ministers—should never get depressed."

Even if we don't accept this fallacy, ministers and their spouses may-believe that being God's servants and possessing His Holy Spirit should make them immune. If depression descends, they experience guilt, fear, and even panic.

In my family's experience with depression I found that "in all things [even depression] God works for the good of those who love Him" (Rom. 8:28, NIV). It all began, for us, on Thanksgiving Day . . .

The seminary professor's warm welcome and the aroma of turkey enveloped us as he opened the door of his home. Through the bustle of helping my four small children out of their coats and boots he said, "When you called earlier, I forgot to ask you why John couldn't come. Did he have to work?"

"No, he's in the hospital," I replied. At his puzzled look, I explained further. "I thought you knew John is undergoing an emergency appendectomy. The doctor will call me here after the surgery."

Sympathy flowed freely, with reassurances that a healthy young man like John would recover quickly.

When classes resumed the next Tuesday my husband, moving cautiously, sat in his regular place in the classroom. He might have to stay home from his part-time job for a few days, but he couldn't afford to miss school. He was struggling with some of his second-year courses. And after coming nearly 2,000 miles to go to seminary, he had to make good!

Depression strikes

By pushing too hard, he set himself up for depression, and it descended with frightening speed. Within three weeks he entered the hospital, putting an end to his seminary studies. Then followed a frustrating road back to mental health, involving two periods of hospitalization over the next year and a half.

As John recovered, he began to recognize that despite his emotional difficulties, "God's gifts and His call are irrevocable" (Rom. 11:29, Amplified). A small church called him as their pastor, and our family of six moved into the parsonage. After nearly four years there, he accepted a call to another church.

After one year in this pastorate my husband needed major surgery twice in 10 days. He tried to resume his pastoral duties within a few days.

Physical weakness and postoperative blues are reasonable and to be expected, but he viewed them as failure. Once again he experienced that helpless slide into depression. Another hospitalization of several months followed, during which he resigned from the church. He was convinced that God could never again use him in the ministry.

Depression in God's servants is nothing new. Moses, Job, Jonah, Elijah, David, and Saul all experienced it. The Psalms abound with references to depression.

When you read about the spiritual giants of the faith, you find that many of them, including Martin Luther and John Wesley, fought battles with depression. C. H. Spurgeon wrote that he knew "by most painful experience what deep depression of spirit means..." Dr. Archibald Hart, in his excellent book Coping With Depression in the Ministry and Other Helping Professions, says, "Depression is no respecter of persons, and its presence does not deny the power of God or the earnestness of a pastor's commitment."

Ministers are especially prone to depression. The very nature of the profession attracts conscientious individuals with high ideals and a desire to help others. This sense of responsibility for others and the inevitable disappointments common to the ministry can be strong contributing factors to a minister's depression.

To a certain extent depression like pain is a normal part of life. We accept the fact that pain has a function: it alerts us to the presence or possibility of a situation dangerous to our health. But we fail to see that depression has a similar function. It alerts us to a problem that needs attention. Depression is no more evil than pain. In fact, it forces the stressed person to back off from the stressful situation and regain strength. It is a part of life, and no one entirely escapes it.

Causes of depression

A problem in body chemistry such as malfunctioning neurotransmitters or a hormonal imbalance brought on by menopause may trigger some depressions. Such depressions respond well to medication. Another physical cause can be the depressant side effects of certain drugs.

In addition to spiritual and physical causes, there are emotional or psychological causes. Loss, such as death, divorce, or estrangement, can bring on depression. Loss of a job or lack of self-esteem can also contribute.

Some people develop pathological thought patterns. These habits and pat terns are difficult to change. One may need professional help to recognize them and break their hold.

In Psalm 77:1-9, the psalmist Asaph expresses many of the symptoms of depression: refuses to be comforted (verse 2); feels faint (verse 3); suffers from insomnia, becomes withdrawn (verse 4); dwells on the past (verse 5); develops many spiritual questions and doubts (verses 7-9).

Perhaps you have noticed these and other symptoms in your spouse. Alarmed by his uncharacteristic behavior, you are wondering what you can or should do. The following suggestions are based on our family's experience.

Coping with depression

1. Get help from others. This is especially important if you are concerned about his mental state and even his safety. Call your family physician for advice. He may want to see your spouse himself, or he may refer you to a specialist. Since decision-making is often difficult for a depressed person, you might have to make the appointment for him. Try to be matter-of-fact about it; he may be relieved at having the decision made for him.

After making the appointment, the next hurdle you face is getting him there. He may strenuously resist going to a doc tor, out of fear ("Maybe I really am crazy") or embarrassment ("I'm a minister I'm not supposed to have emotional problems"). This may require firmness and creative planning (such as inviting a friend to ride along with you).

2. Consider church needs. Your church board should be informed of the problem if the depression proves to be serious. If their minister is incapacitated some temporary arrangement for filling the pulpit will be needed. Be open with them.

The depressed minister may feel that his responsibility to the church is an in tolerable burden, and may rationalize that he should resign. Try to keep him from making an important, irrevocable decision while he is depressed. I cannot stress this too strongly: Never make an irrevocable decision during depression.

Resigning may momentarily lift the cloud of responsibility, but in reality it is only a band-aid on a broken leg. If the time should come when resigning be comes necessary, be sure that it is a care fully considered decision, not one made by a depression-clouded mind.

3. Beware of depression dangers. Do not believe the adage, "anyone who talks about suicide will never attempt it." This is not true, as the families of many "successful" suicides can attest. But try not to fall apart if he does express suicidal thoughts. If he continues to consider it but keeps it to himself, that could be dangerous. Let him talk to you about it, and be sure to mention it to your doctor because your husband might not tell him.

4. Control your emotions. You cannot bring him back to "normal" behavior by venting your own seesawing emotions. Irritated as you might feel, don't tell him to snap out of it. If he could, he certainly would—the hopelessness of deep depression is too painful to ever be a voluntary state.

Never tell him, even tearfully, how difficult he is making it for you. This only makes him feel worse about something over which he has little control.

5. Reassure him. Intelligent though he may be, his reasoning processes are clouded now. Reassure him repeatedly that he will get better. He will, you know! And he needs this reassurance.

6. Communicate with your congregation. Be open but discreet with your congregation. Don't try to hide the problem. Both of you need their love, prayers, and emotional support. But you don't need to share details of his illness. Discretion is essential. You don't want to undermine his future usefulness to his congregation by broadcasting matters better kept private. If in the future you should contemplate moving to a new pastorate, be sure to be candid about this episode with them. They have a right to know.

7. Accept the support of others. Your church family will want to help you. Don't try to be superwoman. Accept offers to babysit, supply a meal, drive you to an appointment, or shovel the walk. People want to support you. Encourage their intercessory prayers.

Other sources of help fall into two categories: counselors and books. Every pas tor needs a pastor, a mentor. Your pastor-mentor might be in the hierarchy of your denomination, or an older pastor who has gained your respect for his wisdom, spirituality, and approachability. He and your doctor can be God-sent sources of guidance, strength, and comfort.

Read a book on depression; three are mentioned at the end of this article. Be ware of authors who consider all depression to be a purely spiritual problem. Al though we certainly can't rule out attacks by Satan, other factors can lead to depression as well.

Physical cause

In my husband's case, we eventually discovered that he had hypoglycemia and couldn't tolerate sugar. The shock of surgery depleted his physical reserves. Then all the "sympathy sweets" I baked for him while he was hospitalized complicated the problem. After a diet change to a low carbohydrate/high protein regime, with no sugar allowed, our whole family began to notice a great difference in how we felt!

To create John's "black night of the soul," the physical effects of surgery and hypoglycemia were compounded by his perfectionist temperament. His self-expectations, set unrealistically high, warred with a persistent tendency to underrate his accomplishments. His mind became the battleground.

Now, 15 years after that last bout of depression, we have just happily celebrated our fifth year in our present church. Another breakdown is not impossible. But now that we understand more about its causes, we no longer dread it as a lurking menace to our family and church.

We view these episodes of depression as a "school," teaching painful but valuable lessons. I am living proof of these Scriptures: God can and will supply all my needs spiritual, physical, emotional, and financial; the Lord carries my bur den when I give it to Him; and He gives peace in the midst of turmoil. (I must admit to hoping that He doesn't decide to give us a refresher course!)

My husband learned these lessons from the "school" of depression:

  • to appraise his accomplishments more realistically;
  • to recognize the danger in false humility;
  • to better understand the stress his body and mind can handle;
  •  to watch what he eats because nutrition influences emotional health.

"And," he says, "I learned that being depressed is not a sin!"

As a minister's spouse you play the major role in helping him when he becomes depressed. It is not hopeless. I know; I have been there!

Reference Books

Baker, Don, and Nester Emery, Depression: Finding Hope and Meaning in Life's Darkest Shadow. Portland, Oreg.: Multnomah Press, 1983.

Cammer, Leonard, Up From Depression. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1969.

Hart, Archibald, Coping With Depression in the Ministry and Other Helping Professions. Waco, Tex.: Word Books, Inc., 1984.

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Verjannia F. Carman writes from Alloway, New Jersey.

March 1988

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