Not long ago, a pastor of a large church committed suicide. Over the years, he spoke openly about his struggle with depression. He was a powerful advocate for those with mental illness. He brought hope and inspiration to an incalculable amount of people, which might naturally raise a few questions about his suicide. If a pastor and preacher of God's Word, beloved and influential, decided he could not endure another breath, how are the rest of us supposed to cope? What does talking about depression even accomplish?
I did not know the pastor personally, nor would I have the hubris to comment on any aspect of his inner life. But these questions are particularly personal, given that I speak about my journey with depression and anxiety at women’s retreats, conferences, and events. I even wrote a book about it. I believe my story has served to offer comfort and acceptance to others who deal with similar issues. Talking about depression has been crucial to shedding light on a topic that too often hides in the shadows. And yet, my public transparency about this aspect of my life has limitations. Namely, it doesn’t do much when depression hits.
When the darkness descends in my life, I’m not inspiring. I’m not insightful. I’m not clear or rational. Sometimes I’m not even faithful. When I’m hurting, I’m helpless to speak my own words back to me. I need others to do that.
Every day, we are being transformed by the renewing of our minds through the love and grace of God. He offers us His redemption, forgiveness, and healing. And yet, for all His power, the Lord often employs human beings to bring us comfort. Moreover, this comfort is most effective in personal relationships; meaning that when the darkness hits, I don’t need a bunch of people listening to me from a stage--I need one person sitting next to me who knows how undone I can be and likes me anyway.
This arrangement feels terribly vulnerable and messy. It feels risky. I might be misunderstood or abandoned. And Lord knows another human being could say one wrong word and make me feel even worse.
Just because a person talks about their struggles publicly doesn’t mean they know how to talk about them privately. Unfortunately, even if they do, sometimes the burden is too much to bear, and they still make heartbreaking decisions. No one is immune to despair. But I do know this: we live in a culture in desperate need of deep connection. Not pithy tweets, quick posts, or even inspiring talks; but the hard, scary, rewarding work of knowing and being known. For deep soul comfort, we must be transparent with the few, not the many.
Even if we’re open about our lives on social media, it cannot replace the power of deep relationships. In his book, The Soul of Shame, Dr. Curt Thompson writes, “Our struggle against shame is not begun by ourselves, but in the company of trustworthy friends, family members and spiritual mentors.” That makes a lot of sense. I've found that when I am loved well by another person, I understand God’s love just a little more. Intimate human connection is a living manifestation of the truest light there is: Jesus Christ.
Like me, some of us may never be completely free of the effects of depression. But I've found that in the presence of God and the care of sweet relationships, I can have steady contentment and buoyant hope--even when there is not complete healing.
To admit to mental illness – or just being in a hard place – is a brave thing to do. Whether it's a social media post or a quick text to a friend, openness is admirable and effective. But just because someone knows about you doesn’t mean you are known. Platforms are pale substitutes for people. To penetrate the black of depression, we need the God who loves us entirely and knows us intimately. And we need face-to-face, transparent, messy, yet real relationships with His people.