By Chris Cunningham
Local Outreach Coordinator
When it first started, I was in my residence hall, about five years ago, looking out the window at a group of trees that had just been planted. Looking turned to staring, and then, all of the sudden, I wasn’t staring as much as I was just trying to keep from moving.
My whole body felt this dull nausea, like that moment when you know you’ve gotten the flu and you wish you would have listened to everyone who said to take Airborne or Emergen-C. But, you trusted your immune system and you didn’t have the money or the time to go to the store to buy some. Plus, Emergen-C is, like, $10 for a small package, and who wants to spend $10 on fizzy Kool-Aid?
It wasn’t the flu though, and I wish Walgreens sold something I could mix with water to get rid of it.
So, I did what I normally did at that time and called my dad.
Me: Hey, Dad.
Dad: Hey, son. How are you?
Me: I don’t know. I’ve felt weird lately.
Dad: What does that mean?
Me: I think I’m depressed, Dad.
Dad: Well. You gotta knock that off, son.
And so I knocked it off.
My dad’s advice about how to handle depression represents the lump sum of interactions I’ve had with Christians when it comes to the topic. To be fair, depression is complex, and science still hasn’t pinpointed one root cause to the disorder.
Over the past five years, I’ve wrestled, at times feeling smothered, finding it hard to explain how I’ve felt and even harder to put a spotlight on what exactly started this whole thing.
And I’m not alone.
As many as 30 percent of college-age students report feeling so depressed that it is difficult to continue with their daily routines. If GCU is similar to the average college campus, at any point in time, there are as many as 4,500 students on campus sharing similar struggles.
Sons. Daughters. Brothers. Sisters. Athletes. Friends. Neighbors. Suitemates.
A common experience that no one is talking about.
When I finally decided to open up, I began to learn that depression and mental illness run in my family. All of my immediate family members have had lifelong bouts with depression. My mom, who leads women’s Bible studies; my sister, who teaches at an elementary school; even my dad, an elder at a church. All remember extended seasons of hopelessness.
Neurologists and biologists generally agree that depression is, at least in part, a genetic issue. Add to this all of the trauma my family has endured over the years, and it becomes clear why things have gone the way they have.
Why does this matter?
It matters because, like the rest of the world, the church has handled this issue poorly, and this isn’t a topic we can afford to keep silent about.
“Is there something you feel guilty over? Unconfessed sin?”
“Don’t put too much emphasis on how you’re feeling. You know Satan wants to use your feelings to cause you to doubt God.”
“You just need to focus more on Jesus. You’re giving yourself too much space to think about things that aren’t encouraging or building up.”
All real things I’ve been told by church leaders and friends. No matter how well-intentioned these pieces of advice were or are, they lack any power to truly help, like offering Emergen-C to an amputee.
This is because depression in and of itself is not the cause, but the symptom, of a deeper root issue.
And, that root issue isn’t the same for every person.
Body image issues.
Depression could be the alarm, triggered to call attention to any one of these things. Calling someone to repent, focus on Jesus or stop being so emotional only serves to compound the problem.
Depression is a complex phenomenon that deserves to be addressed with care, compassion and respect. Anything less would be dehumanizing.
After His Resurrection, Jesus gathered His disciples together, offering them final words to hold onto during the days that lay ahead.
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)
On my worst days, seemingly simple tasks become nearly impossible, keeping me in my bed – a safe little island, free from the possibility of failure or pain. The more I stay in bed, the worse it gets until it begins to feel like it isn’t even worth it to try.
My life raft comes when my wife smiles at me and whispers, “It’s okay. I’m with you.”
A good friend speaks rescue plane words to me:
“You have what it takes.”
“You aren’t a failure.”
“No matter what, I’m not leaving you.”
And I can’t help but feel like, in some way, Jesus is speaking directly to me: “Chris, I am always with you, even when the world ends.”
So whoever you are, wherever you’re at, know this:
You are not alone.
This is not your fault.
You aren’t a mistake.
You aren’t unlovable.
You aren’t a failure.
And even though I can’t see you, I am with you… no matter what.
Please don’t stop telling your story, the world needs to hear about who you are and what you’re going through more than you know.
If you or a loved one may be experiencing symptoms of depression, you are not alone. The resources below offer more information and support services to help you during this time.
National Alliance on Mental Illness
National Institute of Mental Health
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Baker, Katie J.M. “How Colleges Flunk Mental Health.” Newsweek. 11 Feb. 2014. Retrieved from: newsweek.com/2014/02/14/how-colleges-flunk-mental-health-245492.html
Rettner, Rachael. “Half of Depressed Americans Get No Treatment. Live Science. 4 Jan. 2010. Retrieved from: livescience.com/5997-depressed-americans-treatment.html
“What Causes Depression?” Harvard Health. Retrieved from: health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/what-causes-depression