Candace sat in my office with tear-stained eyes relaying how deep her depression has become , a scary thing for her since she’s used to being the one others look to during their time of need. She felt so out of sorts that important things were slipping. Work projects were being delayed because she couldn’t focus at her normal capacity. Dishes were piling up at home, she was skipping more of her child’s little league games (which led to fights with her spouse), avoiding messages from friends, barely sneaking through the back door at church so as not to be seen in her current state, and a once vibrant prayer life was becoming lackluster. “How did I get here?” she asked with trembling voice, turtling behind the scarf around her neck. “I can’t look anyone in the eye anymore; all I want to do is shut the world out and go to sleep, and I can’t seem to shake it.”
Candace felt far from others and far from God during the worst episode of depression she ever faced. She was tormented by chronic thoughts of death and worthlessness, not to mention intense guilt for feeling this way. “I can’t bring myself to tell my husband or pastor that this is what it is coming to. I feel like the most horrible wife and mom despite the smile I try to put on every day. No one will want to be around me if they really know.” Images of friends shaking their heads and walking away flooded her head. Worst of all, she felt she had disappointed God and could not bring herself to come to Him. The overwhelm of it all began to crush her and she melted into a pile of tears on the couch.
A Common Problem
Sound familiar to you or someone you know? Social isolation is a common sign of someone facing a mental health crisis, so much so that it is often tagged onto the end of about any mental health diagnosis as a functional impairment. Like Candace, many people facing mental illness find themselves so out of sorts that they almost feel strange to themselves, and with that, do not often want to be around anyone.
While this is understandable, if I would have left Candace to her own defenses and not challenged her thought process concerning staying away from her support system, she would’ve likely continued to spiral downward in her depression and never got the help she needed from all sides. She needed to see that depression was likely skewing her thought process and tricking her into believing–hook, line, and sinker–that she was going to be a burden to others, that no one would care enough to walk alongside and see her through this, that others would change their perception of her to the worst if they saw the real her, and that God was not close to her anymore because she felt so distant from Him.
Because Candace felt so badly, depression led her to develop an overly negative view of herself, others, the world, and God, views she would normally not buy into during periods of mood stability. She mistakenly believed that because her depression felt so intense, it would last forever. She saw it as a part of her identity instead of for what it was—episodic illness that was merely impairing her brain’s ability to function normally. This also clouded her ability to see herself as still worthy to be around. The first hurtle she had to face was destigmatizing her experience of herself so that she was not plagued with unnecessary shame, and unable to reach out to others.
While it is true that those facing mental health issues still have the same worth and human dignity as others, a common objection I hear as a practitioner is that not everyone is safe to open up to. This is true. Not everyone understands mental illness and some will prove to be only fair-weather friends. It’s important to exercise a healthy level of discernment in choosing who to reach out to. At the end of the day, it will still require vulnerability to let others know you’ve been struggling. Even though some may walk away, others may surprisingly open up about similar struggles you had no idea about until you said something. Still, others may be well-meaning, but not always sure what to say or how to help, so it is important to kindly give them an idea of what you need, such as prayer, a hug, the companionship of a silent walk, or a non-judgmental listening ear. A healthy support system can offer a helpful perspective that is not clouded by mental illness. They can offer encouragement to keep going and can even help fight your battles when you are running out of strength.
Combatting a Culture of Isolation
In America and particularly the Northwest, we live in a culture that prizes independence and self-reliance. While this can-do attitude is what helped make America its entrepreneurial, thriving self, it is not necessarily a recipe for relational health. God designed us to live in relationship with each other, and the truth is, we don’t do well outside the pack, no matter how much we like to think otherwise. Proverbs 18:1 says, “Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment.” This is a strong statement to ponder that runs completely counter-culture.
First Corinthians 12 likens the church to a body with many parts working together and calls us to cultivate a spirit of unity. Starting in verse 21, Paul argues,
“The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.”
Did you catch that? Paul makes an intentional point to discuss the importance of handling members of the body who are struggling with greater care, precisely because they are just as important and worthy to be part of the group.
The Example of King David
So many stories in Scripture describe in living color this idea of helping one another in times of need, but one in particular comes to mind: the story of king David. Before he became king, he had faced severe opposition from king Saul who was on the hunt to kill him. As an appointed military commander, David brought Israel great success, which led to a popular following among the people, enraging Saul. Now, as a hunted man, David often had to flee from Saul and spent many nights in the wilderness, hiding in caves with a rag-tag bunch of complaining men, facing peril and sword on all sides that seemed to never end. Quite frankly, David slipped into periods of deep depression under the weight of it all (see Psalm 6, 13, 22, 31, 42, 55).
At one point he got so discouraged from not seeing God’s promise of him becoming king happen that he became hopeless and believed he would be found and killed soon. As he resigned himself to escape to foreign territory, 1 Chronicles 12 states that many men of valor came to his aid time and again and helped him win many victories until he was able to finally take the throne: “For from day to day men came to David to help him, until there was a great army, like an army of God” (v 22). Yet just because David was now finally king, his battles weren’t over. Even at the end of his reign, we see in 2 Samuel 21 that he went out to war against the Philistines and began to grow weary. Once again, a few select men of his loyal military friends came to his aid to protect him and defeat enemy giants who were too strong for him.
The contrasting meaning of the names of these enemy giants vs. David’s helpers in this passage are profound: Ishbi-benob (destroy and take captive) was killed by Abishai (father of a gift); Saph (gatekeeper of the line between storm and safety) was stuck down by Sibbecai (the Lord intervenes); Goliath (warrior eater) was destroyed by Elhanan (whom God graciously gave); lastly, a nameless giant with six fingers and toes on each hand and foot was defeated by Jonathan (God has given), all to preserve the life and lineage of king David, whose name aptly means beloved.
There will be times during the battle with mental health crisis when you or someone you know might face similar giants threatening destruction, captivity, ravages of a storm, threats of being eaten alive, and even things you can’t quite put your finger on that are happening on the inside, which can be the scariest of all giants. Yet like with David, God desires to intervene through helpers who are truly gifts to come to your aid if you will only let them. Find simple ways to reach out and continue some sort of social momentum, such as going to a church small group, texting friends back, and even initiating a coffee date. You never know if one small connection could turn into a life-saving interaction.
Getting Re-Connected with God
In the same way, God wants to come to your aid during crisis. During difficult circumstances it can be easy to espouse mistaken beliefs about Him, such as questioning whether He is good or cares because of the reality of life’s hardships, believing He is distant because He feels far away, or that He is disappointed when we are unable to perform as well as we previously were able to. However, as stated above, in a state of mental duress thoughts tend to become easily skewed, and theological assumptions are no exception.
The truth is, God’s character never changes (James 1:17), even if we or our circumstances do. Ephesians 2 provides great encouragement to draw near:
“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near” (v 13-17).
God has made every way for us to draw near to Him if we are willing, and it is not based on performance, but the goodness and love of the cross.
The times when David was unable to rely on others, he strengthened himself in God (1 Samuel 30:6) and penned this truth in Psalm 34:18: “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” Sometimes it is the deepest of pits we find ourselves in that God reveals His love and help the most, simply because He’s now got our full attention. If you are unsure where to start, start by offering up to God your pain, your sin, and even your honest feelings and thoughts about Him and your situation. He’s big enough to handle it and would rather us be real with Him than put on a religious front.
The song “Sails” by Pat Barrett beautifully confronts the shields of armor we tend to put up between others and God and invites us to go deeper:
“Falling is easy, staying in love is hard
Hard to be honest, keep our hearts open
Be who we truly are
Without the excuses, without the façade
There’s no pretending
Here in Your love
Oh, Lord, set me free (repeats)
I’m finally seeing You were here all along
Your love wasn’t absent, no
It doesn’t come or go
The image I’ve had is starting to fail
You’re patient with me
You’re lifting the veil
Oh Lord set me free (repeats)
I let out the sails of my heart
Here I am, here You are (repeats)”
The imagery of letting out the sails of our heart challenges us to open up to God and let Him in, all the way, which then translates to more open relationships with others. After all, just like He desires us as a body of believers to be united together, He too, desires to be united to us (John 15:4). Because of what Jesus has done, this is possible. So, let Him into the middle of your crisis; you just might find that His peace that passes all understanding will overshadow you.
This is what eventually happened to Candace as she allowed herself to be vulnerable before the Lord, which then led the way for her to open up to others. In tandem, she was able to get the healing she needed to overcome depression. Wherever you are at in your struggle, I hope you can find the same solace in drawing near to God and others, too.
 Names and stories have been changed to protect confidentiality.
 All biblical references are taken from the English Standard Version of the Bible.
 Name meanings derived from www.biblehub.com.
 Barrett, P. (2018). “Sails.” Capitol Christian Music Group. Listen to the song here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rC7mNAsx7Vw