A few weeks back I had the opportunity to speak to a group of teenagers about mental health and to share my own story about experiencing depression and anxiety. After speaking for a few minutes, I opened the floor to questions. I expected an awkward silence and maybe some prompted questions from the leaders but was encouraged by the response because:
- There were lots of questions
- They were thoughtful ones
- Proportionately the boys were asking as many, if not more, questions than the girls. This is significant because we tend to work on the presumption that boys and men find it harder to talk about their emotional well-being.
I thought I’d just highlight a few of the questions here and a little response to each.
How did your family and friends react when you shared that you were suffering from depression? What are helpful/unhelpful ways to respond?
Generally speaking, the response I had from family, friends and church members was fantastic. They listened to what I was saying. They didn’t presume or judge. They made it clear that they wanted to love and support us. The best and most helpful responses were those that indicated people were also concerned about Sarah. We can easily overlook the needs of spouses, parents and children of those suffering with depression and anxiety.
As I said, this was true in the vast majority of cases. I’m aware though that there were a couple of people who didn’t react like that. They were thankfully in the minority but I know that there were some who doubted my diagnosis and that ranged from questioning whether there was anything medically wrong at all to speculating about other possible alternatives to the diagnosis. All of course without seeing me or hearing from me.
Additionally, people had their own opinions about how and when I should return to the workplace. Some of these, although well intentioned disagreed with what my doctor was saying and how I was feeling. If someone was returning to work from a physical injury then we’d pay attention both to what they said would be helpful for returning and what the doctor/occupational therapist had to say. This should be true with mental health too.
Did it affect your work/ ministry longer term?
Specifically, I was asked whether I was still a pastor but I wanted to talk a bit more about the question behind the question. The answer is that yes I’m still a pastor. This is important because of two reasons. First, there is sometimes the assumption that pastors cannot have depression, or rather, people with depression cannot be pastors. This is one reason why we set up Grace in the Depths and wrote The pastor with a thorn in his side. We wanted to highlight the stories of pastors who have continued to serve even though afflicted in this way.
So, I want to emphasise that depression shouldn’t carry a stigma and shouldn’t be a barrier to Gospel ministry. I say “shouldn’t” but it can be an obstacle. When we were looking at potential next steps following our time at Bearwood I was aware of two interviews where questions about my mental health -and in one of the cases additionally about my wife’s food allergies – seemed to dominate. In one case, for a variety of reasons, we decided that it wasn’t right to pursue, the other one came to a sudden halt and I was left wondering if this was because I’d disclosed too much about suffering depression.
I also want to add a qualification here. Whilst mental health issues should be no more a barrier to pastoral ministry than other physical health issues (i.e. they should not be), we do need to take into account how work impacts on our mental health and vice versa. So, it may be that you decide that at this time, pastoral ministry isn’t the best way for you to serve the body. Further, the nature of my work has changed dramatically and I’m now involved in self supported work where I’m not the sole pastor of a church. Now, in my case, that wasn’t specifically because of depression and I think I would have happily continued in that type of work but my illness was part of a series of events and conversations that prompted us to look at “something new”. I would also say that the work I’m involved in now is better suited to who I am and where I am at present.
Read the stories of the men in the book and on the website mentioned and you’ll find a variety of example, from those who have continued as sole pastors to those who have become involved in alternative forms of ministry.
The question and questions behind it are also important because I think people have questions about the world of work more generally. You’ve just been given the sick note and you wonder if depression will make you unemployable. This is especially true at the point when the last thing you want to do is go back to the workplace.
So, the same principles should be true. Depression should not be a barrier to work. In fact your employer and any potential employer are duty bound by law not to discriminate against you on the basis of mental health. Further, they have a duty of care to make reasonable adjustments in the workplace.
Again, this doesn’t mean that every job will be right for you and you do need to look carefully at how your mental health is affected by and affects your work and workplace relationships.
Are there specific changes that you’ve made to your daily/weekly routine that have been helpful to your mental health?
This was a fantastic question. I would encourage people coming through an episode of depression to take a careful look at all aspects of their life. There may well be habits and routines we’ve allowed to develop that are unhelpful. As yourself
- Have I got work, rest and leisure in balance?
- What impact does my physical health including diet and exercise have on my mental health?
- Who are the dominant voices I’m listening to? What messages do they convey?
With the last point I’m thinking not just about the company I keep in terms of other people but the books I read, the music I listen to, the TV programmes, film, theatre etc I watch. This is not just about getting rid of unhelpful voices but changing the narrative so that what I hear and see includes more of what is helpful.
In my case, it meant getting back to protecting a day of rest. As with a lot of pastors, I’d not been careful enough about that. Specifically, it meant that leaders’ meetings and the resulting fall out often happened on my designated day off. We agreed to change that. It also meant setting aside more time for exercise. I now try to walk for between 40 minutes and an hour every day. I’ve addressed my diet to reduce junk food and snacks whilst increasing fruit and vegetables. The result is that I’m physically healthier having lost a couple of stone in weight. I’ve also focused on setting aside specific time to go for a walk and talk with Sarah.
I hope you found thinking through these questions helpful. I’d love to hear any further questions you might have. Please drop me a line through the contact page.