I just saw a post on Facebook about a pastor who has committed suicide. I didn't know the man personally and I don't know if his struggle was a long term struggle with depression or if something had happened that led to this decision. But I know that depression is much more common than we acknowledge, as is other mental illness. More, the stigma around mental illnesses is so great that it is difficult for people, especially people in high profile and leadership positions, to share their struggles with it. They fear the judgments, they fear being discounted, they fear being misunderstood. And the reality is that all three of those are likely to happen to people who struggle with depression. But again, the particular misconception I want to focus on today has to do with the belief that those who struggle with depression are somehow weak.
Let me be very clear: I think that people who struggle with mental illness are often some of the strongest people I have ever met.
Imagine a life in which you struggle daily with chronic pain. By chronic pain, I mean the kind that makes it difficult to walk, difficult to get up, difficult to breathe. It weighs on you, is present in every cell of your body. There is no cure, no help for it. And you don't just struggle with this once in awhile, but every day, every hour, every minute. Now imagine that accompanying that pain is a constant voice following you around telling you you are no good, that you are worthless, that you are wrong about everything. Still, with that pain, and with this loud voice (that voice of depression) in your ear, you are expected to "be normal", "snap out of it", "be positive", to work, care for others, especially your children and your family. You are expected to put a smile on your face, to be positive and upbeat, to interact in a meaningful way with those around you. You are expected to behave as if nothing is wrong and to have ears to hear the pain and struggles of others, while that voice continually tells you you are unlovable and not worth the air you breathe, while the chronic pain eats at your cells and your mind.
That is a glimpse of what it can be like for people suffering from chronic depression. Every day that they get up, every day that they go to work, feed their kids, interact with others, offer a smile or an ear - every day that they do this, they are acting with an amazing strength, the kind of strength that people with chronic depression often show every single day. It is not a sign of weakness that some commit suicide. It is a sign of unimagined strength that more don't.
I have done quite a bit of pastoral care and counseling for people with depression. But there is one person's story I want to share in particular who is a very dear friend who struggles deeply with depression. It is incurable in her case, and not really even treatable, so she struggles. The fact that those around her knows she struggles with depression but have always seen it as a sign of weakness has only increased her sense of pain, isolation and alienation. My friend went through a huge family crisis, very different from my own, but of a similar magnitude. And those around her kept saying how strong she seemed, how amazing she was that she kept going. But her private response to me? "If I could get up every day with the kind of pain that I feel with the depression, then getting up every day during a crisis like this was not the challenge that many imagined it to be. It was just one more place of pain, like all the others, that had to be lived through, walked through, survived. I had to do it for my family. There wasn't a choice. People do what they have to do when they love their kids." Yes, she is a woman of amazing strength. But not just because of what she has survived, but because of how she lives every single day of her life.
Because the truth is that sometimes people can't do what is best for their families. And again, I don't see that as weakness. Sometimes that voice inside tells those with depression that the kids and family would be better off without them. Sometimes, no matter how much we think they should know better, they can become convinced by the voices of depression, by the strength of their own pain, by the chronic struggle every day that suicide is the only option, that the world really would be better off without them and/or that they simply cannot continue another moment with that kind of pain. When that happens we lose someone to suicide or addiction or in some other way. It is tragic.
But that tragedy would much more easily be avoided if people were not so judgmental about depression, if they realized it is not something someone can "snap out of", and it is not a choice that a person makes, if they realized the strength that it takes for folk with depression to live each day, and if they honored the experiences of those people for what they really are.
I will say again what I said at the beginning of this post. Many of the strongest people I know are those who live with depression and who carry on. They are among us, often hidden, often unseen. And they live, despite what our culture says, despite the misunderstandings and despite the battle they have to wage each and every day within themselves. If we want to be part of preventing more suicides like the pastor I read about this morning, we have to start by educating ourselves about the disease depression. We have to find compassion and understanding. And we have to understand that it is strength not weakness that enables people to walk through their lives despite the depression.