Words cut like scalpels in the surgery against depression, and vocabulary selection makes a difference. I choose not to say, “I’m depressed.” That centers things too internally and ontologically. It implies I am my emotional state. But we are far more than just our feelings. In fact, we are not our feelings. Our identity is grounded elsewhere. I also choose not to say (out loud or internally) “I struggle with depression.” That feels too even-handed, with the outcome too much in question. I am the victor in this battle or, at least, I need to be. How I see and express things tilts the scales either in my favor or against it. I advance in the battle with words carefully chosen. I don’t just struggle with depression; I push it back. I battle against it. I fight.
Not all Christian discourse about mental health is helpful, but this essay by Randy Newman is an exception.
If you’ve battled depression, wondered how to think about depression in light of Christian convictions, or have a friend you are trying to help as they face depression, read Newman for counsel.
Today I made the decision to log out of Facebook. I don’t know when I’ll log back in.
From time to time, someone in my network has posted an announcement to their feed saying, “I’m out!” This may be an act of courtesy. In some cases, the intent is to display sanctimoniousness. In other cases, the tone is apologetic: “I’m sorry everyone, but I just can’t take it any longer! I know you’ve enjoyed knowing that I may or may not be monitoring your feed, as Facebook’s hidden algorithm allows or disallows, I’m not really sure, but I can’t stay any longer. Your posts about [insert topic, controversial or benign] are driving me insane.”
About three years ago now, during the season of Lent, I chose to log out of Twitter and Facebook for the season. I deleted Instagram from my phone. I initially returned to Instagram once per month. Facebook was a daily check, usually to drop my notifications to nil and to make sure I did not have messages. I still have a Twitter account. My blog posts push there. But I have no intention of returning. I think I’ve been better off without those voices in my head.
The pandemic resulted in my return to Instagram, at least for a stretch. I reinstalled the app on my phone and kept it there. I’d post videos and I made it a habit to share one image a week that I captured with my phone. I still enjoy photography. But I eventually would get sucked into the “Explore” tab, where I’d see videos that maybe caught my interest, but mostly that were not edifying. At the midpoint of the summer, or around then, I deleted Instagram from my phone.
Why am I punting Facebook?
I check it more than once per day, and mindlessly flit there via my browser.
I’m starting to scroll. I don’t think that is good for me.
I’m concerned about taking part in social media ecosystems that foster addictions in others. My presence in these digital spaces fuels the desire of others to engage in those spaces as well. I’m worried participation in these digital environments may violate the command to love my neighbor as myself.
I think social media engagement increases mental noise and prevents me from focusing, thinking freely, and expending energy on other, more productive ventures, like writing, art, and building.
I have reservations about chronicling the life of my family, and particularly my children, on services that are sucking up information about them, too. Maybe my kids don’t want my online “friends” to know certain things about them.
The written word is disembodied and can be depersonalized. If you know me, you know how I would say this sentence. You factor my character. You might even hear my voice. I’m connected to people on social media that I don’t know, or who I don’t know as well as I used to. I think this changes how I read. I don’t think I’m as charitable as I would be if these readings were complemented by in person interactions.
I think Facebook’s website has gotten slower, clunkier, less aesthetically pleasing, less user friendly, more cluttered, and isn’t as fun to use as it once was.
I think our technological overlords are not honest or transparent about the ways they monitor us, how they use our data, and what their products are designed to do.
So why don’t I deactivate and delete my account altogether?
It’s strange. First, I think there is a gospel imperative to seek connection and then maintain connections with others, even if that connection is by means of an imperfect vehicle. My Facebook Page keeps me connected to some who want to read what I write. So does my Twitter feed. I’d prefer that everyone subscribe to my site via email. But some prefer to collate information via social media networks. Some comment there.
Second, I’m trending toward a digitally hermitic life, but I’m not there yet. I’ve given serious thought to writing primarily at this website, posting photography here, making art and building other things at home which I may or may not share online. I like the web. I like having my own space. But I don’t like the social media ecosystems.
Third, like everyone, I experience the human desire for connection. There are certain high school friends, and even some teenage friends, that I’m glad I have loose ties with. When I see posts from my boyhood next door neighbors, my heart is warmed by the knowledge they are doing well, that they have found success or have family they love.
Lastly, at some level, social media does help me keep my finger on the pulse of trends–at least the trends the algorithms want me to see. That’s the trick, really. My feed runs through a value-grid, one I do not determine. Facebook does. Twitter does. Certain speech is buried. Some content is elevated. And I never know exactly why, or which, or even if it has happened.
The work of a pastor can be tough. When you’re facing a global crisis, it gets tougher. Normal patterns are disrupted. Pressures increase, and as they do, cracks become more pronounced.
Reverend Jakob Topper, pastor of NorthHaven Baptist Church in Norman, Oklahoma, tells several disturbing and sad stories emerging as a result of the pressure of pastoring during a global pandemic in an opinion piece at Baptist News Global. Topper writes:
I was on a Zoom call recently with 10 pastors across three denominations, when one of the participants shared a struggle with suicidal thoughts in these challenging days. By the time the meeting concluded, four of the 10 had found the courage to admit their own suicidal ideations.
He goes on to chronicle the troubles. One congregation opened early and shortly thereafter a member died from COVID. Other pastors were threatened by congregants from each extreme, who said they’d leave or withhold their tithes if the church didn’t reopen/remain closed. Another pastor was fired because the church was unhappy with her leadership, one had to lay off half their staff, and another was a victim of assault by a congregant–who came to the building and kicked the pastor’s door off its hinges, attempting to provoke a fight in response to the previous Sunday’s sermon, which addressed the topic of race in America.
Rev. Topper notes other factors that make church work tough right now. There is vast economic uncertainty, cultural anxiety, hyper-partisanship, a contentious and ongoing civil rights debate, and to make matters worse, it’s an election season.
We’ve got to get through this. And it will be much better if we’re able to get through this together. We’re bruised, battered, and beaten. Devouring one another from within won’t do us–or the world, or the kingdom of God–any good.
Rev. Topper offers advice to churches and congregants. For congregants, it is important to remember that the church and Christ are united, but not one and the same. Jesus is our Savior and Lord, and his goodness is not in doubt. But God has called together human beings who are still on the way, who are still in the process of being sanctified, who are yet to be glorified. We will fail one another, but Christ will not fail us. Rev. Topper also calls us to remember that pastors are undershepherds who serve the Good Shepherd, that we should pray for our pastors, to commit to being encouraging and faithful church members during a time of trial, and to advocate for your pastor’s mental health.
Rev. Topper then gives advice to pastors. He encourages pastors to see a counselor, talk to their primary care physician about their mental health, to slow down and reset expectations, to actively cultivate friendships via wise and available channels, and to lean on peers, other co-laborers in ministry. Excellent guidance, all.
The only thing strange about Rev. Topper’s framing of this crisis is his choice to draw upon the biblical story of Saul falling on his sword. He states, “There’s a story in the Old Testament about King Saul being defeated in battle. Instead of waiting on the opposing army to torture and ridicule him before killing him, he chooses to take his own life by falling on his sword.”
Rev. Topper writes that “pastors are already facing ridicule not just from their adversaries but from many of their own congregants. They’re being tortured by their own inability to lead their churches out of a pandemic, out of hyper-partisanship and out of racism. Falling on their swords is starting to look pretty attractive.” He adds, “this is a new level of hell that pastors are living.”
The problem is that Saul’s choice to fall on his sword is neither condemned nor praised in 1 Samuel 31. This particular text is silent on the subject of suicide. It most certainly is not an endorsement of this option, however. The arc of the Saul narrative offers us more of a picture of an example to avoid rather than one to follow.
Rev. Topper’s connection with Saul could be read as an out for ministers, one with biblical precedent. The overall thrust of his article argues that we do not want to see ministers choose this avenue even though some are considering it and that we can do a better job, together, of caring for one another. But the Saul example seems to suggest it is an available or at least an understandable avenue, even if it is not a preferable outcome.
I would think that better analogies could have been drawn from Jesus, Paul, Peter, John, or any of the other apostles. There are multitudes of New Testament examples of the early church facing immense suffering and trying times, and yet because of the gospel of Jesus Christ, these early disciples were able to both name the reality of the sufferings they faced while also praising God because of the reason for their hope: the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Some were glad to suffer for the name. Others recognized quite quickly that suffering is unpleasant, yes, but it also holds transformative potential, a signal that God, in some way, may yield something precious as the result of passing through the refiner’s fire.
The New Testament also gives us every reason to believe that the church consists of both enemies and friends, and that persecution and intense hostilities can arise from within the body as well as from without. That’s a sad reality, one that I’ve experienced firsthand. Pastoring is tough work. It always has been. Being the church is tough work. It always has been. The wheat grows up with the chaff.
Rev. Topper’s evidence is anecdotal–another sampling of pastors may reveal churches and leaders who are thriving. But there is no doubt that these are challenging times. We need to care for our pastors, and for one another. And we would all do well to tend to these troubling signs of the church’s spiritual health.
If our pastors–and our congregants–are responding to this crisis in ways that are destructive, then perhaps we are not as healthy as we thought we were before the pandemic. That’s a discipleship problem, one that can only be addressed if congregants and their pastors, together, commit to honest self-evaluation and renewed commitment to following Jesus wherever he leads. Whatever we were doing, this is the result. Changes may be in order. If so, make them.
I want every pastor to be mentally healthy, resilient, buoyed by hope, steadfast, and strengthened so that they can persevere. I do not want our churches to be places that crush their pastors. And for anyone who does have suicidal ideation, that can happen. Pastoring is tough. Get help. You are loved. There are people who will walk with you through the dark valley and help you see your way to the other side, who will do so as friends of God. You may not see them right now, but they are out there, maybe not in your context, but in the wider world and, hopefully, in the wider body of Christ.
This season has been tough on everyone. Times are tough. We’ll make it through. Let’s fix our eyes on Jesus. He went through worse–some might say he went through hell–and he did it for us, not only to inspire us, but to flood the world with his redeeming grace.
The Center for Disease Control has found that one quarter of young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 say they have considered suicide in the past month because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The report states: “Symptoms of anxiety disorder or depressive disorder, COVID-19–related TSRD, initiation of or increase in substance use to cope with COVID-19–associated stress, and serious suicidal ideation in the previous 30 days were most commonly reported by persons aged 18–24 years; prevalence decreased progressively with age.”
The youngest respondents express the highest level of hardship.
While 10.7 percent of respondents overall reported considering suicide in the previous 30 days, 25.5 percent of those between 18 to 24 reported doing so. Almost 31 percent of self-reported unpaid caregivers and 22 percent of essential workers also said they harbored such thoughts. Hispanic and Black respondents similarly were well above the average.
Roughly 30.9 percent of respondents said they had symptoms of anxiety or depression. Roughly 26.3 respondents reported trauma and stress-related disorder because of the pandemic.
Another 13.3 percent of respondents said they have turned to substance use, including alcohol and prescription or illicit drugs, to cope with stress from the pandemic.
More than half of respondents who identified as essential workers reported some kind of adverse mental health or behavioral health condition related to the Covid-19 emergency.
If you know a young adult, give them a call. Ask them how they’re doing. Likely, they’re fine. Either way, tell them you care about them.
And if you are a young adult and you’re struggling right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can also utilize the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.