Depression, Justice, and Liberation

This is my 8th post in a Lenten series on depression and Monica A. Coleman’s book Not Alone.

Perhaps because I’ve tried to hide my depression for so many years, I have never thought of depression and mental illness as a justice issue.  This is even more surprising to me because one of the ways I began to battle depression early in my adulthood was becoming an activist.  Peace, economic justice, environmental issues, and human rights topped my list.  Activism wasn’t only something that reflected my politics and my religious beliefs, it was also a type of therapy.

I’m grateful to Monica A. Coleman for pointing out that people suffering from depression are an oppressed and marginalized in our culture. She says:

“People who live with depressive conditions experience a level of marginalization in today’s society. We’re called crazy. We’re hard pressed to get health insurance that actually meets our needs. We’re subject to sermons that suggest that greater faith would cure our depression (something I’ve never heard anyone say about diabetes or heart disease). We’re negatively judged in most workplaces. We’re told that a more positive outlook on life should make us happy inside and out.

Okay. It’s not war. It’s not torture. There are far worse things to be experienced— especially in developing and war-torn countries. Nevertheless, marginalization is still part of the daily experience of people who live with depressive conditions. And far too infrequently are we reminded that God loves us just as we are. And until we can feel that, someone else will stand with us and walk with us.”

Coleman, Monica A. (2012-08-24). Not Alone: Reflections on Faith and Depression (p. 81). Inner Prizes, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Amen.  During the past year I was obviously depressed and like depression can do, it certainly affected not only my performance but my attitude and appearance.  I was told on more than one occasion by a supervisor that “leaders should always smile.”. Bullshit.  Leaders sometimes cry and get angry and have no  clue what to do next.  Leaders should always be authentic.  Leaders should create shame free zones.  Leaders should make it OK to struggle.  Don’t get me wrong, I understand the need for leaders , especially ministers and other helpers to not present a front of doom and gloom and catastrophic foreboding. There’s a need to be able to carry on and encourage others.  But there has to be room for the leader to be down, need help, and be honest about it.

I’ve been a student of liberation theology for over 20 years now and have tried to live my life through a lens of liberation, believing  God takes sides: the side of the weak vs. the strong, the side of the powerless against the powerful, and the oppressed against the oppressor.  I know that our existence is complicated and we can be both oppressors in one sense and oppressed ourselves in another sense at the same time.  I also know and believe that any spiritual way of life is also a political one. Not in the sense of voting for a particular party (although that is influenced as well), but of working for justice and freedom and fairness through the political process and taking the sides of people and groups who do against those who do not.  Working for mental health awareness and advocating for those with depression is a religious and political act. Coleman says:

“It’s a political act to stand with people who are suffering. It’s a political act to hold the hand of someone you may not understand— while they are irritable, morose, negative, and weeping for no apparent reason. It’s a political act to advocate for the things that would actually improve the lives of people with depressive conditions: universal health care, sufficient paid leaves from work, health coverage for preventative and non-pharmaceutical care. It’s a political act to speak out against one’s leaders and employers when they make prejudiced comments. It’s a political act to question the parts of oneself that say and do things that trivialize the realities of people who live with mental health challenges. Liberation theology says that these are political acts, but they are also deeply religious ones.

Coleman, Monica A. (2012-08-24). Not Alone: Reflections on Faith and Depression (p. 81). Inner Prizes, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

What are some ways we can stand together in solidarity around depression and mental illness? Coleman offers the following:

  • Participate in your local NAMI Walks.
  • Give the resources of Mental Health Ministries to your local faith leader.
  • Preach about mental health during Mental Health Awareness Week  (the first week in October).
  • Financially support NAMI, DBSA, or NMHA.
  • Challenge your religious leaders when they suggest that depression results from a lack of faith.
  • Stand by your friends who live with depression even when they don’t call back, haven’t smiled in awhile, and can only think of what’s wrong in the world.
  • Make phone calls to health insurance agencies and doctors on behalf of a friend caught in an unhelpful medical system.

Reflection questions from Not Alone:

How does pain change you?  

When the pain of depression hits me I become a recluse and I become anxious and scared.  I no longer trust myself or the world. I become convinced that I am worthless, that I can’t handle life, that in a very real sense I have failed as a human being. It’s a little like this: What kind of person can’t get out of bed and what kind of person hasn’t established a successful career, and what kind of person is this lonely and has so few friends.  I know not all of this true, but that’s the roller coaster. I don’t have a train of though, I have a roller coaster of thought when I am depressed and it makes it worse.

Who can walk with you when you don’t recognize yourself?

When I get depressed it’s not so much a question of who can walk with me, but who I allow to walk with me. When I need help the most is the time I usually feel most ashamed for actually needing help and this has prevented me from asking for help and it has prevented me from allowing others who notice something is wrong to help.

When I am able to let people help, I turn to a team.  I am almost always regularly seeing a therapist.  I remember being dumbfounded a couple of years ago when a therapist I was seeing told me he didn’t think I needed to come regularly any more.  I had worked through a difficult work situation, had come to have a great understanding of my anger and my responses in difficult systems at work and in my family.  I couldn’t believe it. I have for so long considered myself to need therapy in order to function. I have depression, I am mentally ill, I must see a therapist. It’s a requirement or something.  No, it isn’t.  That was a wonderful to lesson to learn.

I usually see a spiritual director.  In fact, I credit the work I did with my spiritual director while training to be a spiritual director myself with most of the breakthroughs I have had in claiming and naming and actually liking myself more just the way I am, depression and all.  I am fortunate that I have a number of close friends who I can and do tell everything, even the depression  and its ugliness.  They are a good group and different ones will at times to congratulate me for bravery, encourage me to keep going, just listen while I talk and cry,  As an example, when I started this series of blog posts, one of my oldest and dearest friends from my college days, saw the initial posting and got a hold of me.  He told me to hang in there, and invited me to dinner and a Bruins game.    I have another friend who checks in with me once or twice a week via video chat and we hold each other accountable to our prayer practices and listen to each other talk about whatever difficulties or joys life has brought since last time and where God is in it all, even if God is absent.  Another good friend and I get dinner once or twice a month and check in by phone regularly.  I have started to call these friends and other “my people” and there are more of them than I admit to in the depths of depression.  The reality is I have more than my share of people who hold me up and keep me going and I am beyond grateful for the blessing that is each one of them.  Together, they’ve walked many, many miles with me and have enabled me to continue walking through their support and encouragement.

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