Evangelical Christians begin addressing depressioncomment (0)
October 21, 2004
Like her father, evangelist Billy Graham, Ruth Graham knows how to deliver an uplifting message.
After speaking to large crowds at Christian women’s conferences, lines form to the youngest daughter of the most famous preacher in American history. Many come to discuss a subject previously taboo in evangelical Christian circles, a subject that used to suggest weakness, or even a lack of faith, for those dragged down by its tentacles.
That subject is depression, a topic the younger Graham and other prominent evangelical women are addressing with increasing vulnerability and credibility. They have fallen into that black hole, only to be pulled back up with the help of counseling, Bible study and prayer.
For years, Graham suffered silently because of what she perceived as her sins — a bitter divorce from a husband who cheated and teenage children who rebelled and became pregnant and turned to drugs.
“I felt like the weak link in a long line of Christian leaders,” said Graham, author of “In Every Pew Sits a Broken Heart,” which, along with another book released this year by singer Sheila Walsh, addresses denial and ignorance about depression.
“We don’t need to make Jesus and God look good,” said Graham in a Religion News Service interview. “Our responsibility is to be honest and authentic.”
Walsh, a former television co-host of “The 700 Club” with Pat Robertson, has done that in her book, “The Heartache No One Sees,” which is as medical as it is spiritual. Taken together, along with the advance of Christian counseling and psychology in recent decades, the books illustrate a potential change in the way evangelicals are talking about depression.
“There is an attitude in the evangelical community that you can pray (your problem) away,” said Walsh, who in an interview talked frankly about the antidepressant medication she takes regularly for clinical depression. Walsh started taking an antidepressant during a stay in a psychiatric hospital.
For months, “I couldn’t concentrate or sleep or eat well,” displaying classic warning signs of clinical depression.
Before getting help, it was easy to ignore the obvious. “Christian ministry provided the perfect place for me to hide,” said Walsh.
She began her journey out of denial in 1992, when an on-air guest turned the tables and asked about her shortcomings. Walsh, then a co-host with Robertson, cried and fled to her dressing room. “I had no idea what was wrong with me. I thought I was losing my mind,” she said.
For some evangelicals, therapy can come straight out of the passages of the Bible, said psychiatrist Paul Meier, who heads Meier Clinics, which provides Christian psychological care at 26 clinics across the country. “Psychiatry is more biblical than churches,” said Meier, pointing to a verse in James 5:16 admonishing believers to “confess your sins one to another.”
Meier, who says that more than 3,000 women a week go to his clinics, estimates that about 20 percent of all evangelicals still think seeking help outside the church is wrong.
That’s a big drop from the 80 percent he observed in the 1970s. Not everyone in the evangelical community applauds such a shift.
Jim Pile, pastoral care pastor at Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, Calif., argues that the Bible is sufficient to address issues of the soul. He’s in line with his senior pastor, John MacArthur, whose book, “Our Sufficiency in Christ,” warned against therapeutic solutions.
“There are spiritual principles that can be applied to whatever the issue is,” said Pile.
But every remedy isn’t spiritual, argues Meier, citing the eating disorder bulimia as one example. “There are some disorders that take 10 or more years of training to recognize,” said Meier. He said in those situations “most pastors are not very well equipped to give the right advice.”
Depression might seem easy to recognize, given that 19 million Americans suffer from it every year, and women suffer twice as much as men, according to the federal government’s National Institute of Mental Health.
So if all churches haven’t clearly seen the problem, others in the evangelical Christian community are paying close attention.
Since 1999, membership in the American Association of Christian Counselors (AACC), based in Forest, Va., has more than tripled, from 15,000 to more than 50,000.
“Of course you need prayer and Bible study, but women need help,” said Tim Clinton, AACC’s president.
In 2000, the AACC began offering “Caring for People God’s Way,” a certificate program on mental health issues that Clinton said has trained 60,000 pastors, professional counselors and lay ministers. AACC also sponsors “Extraordinary Women” weekend conferences with “spiritual intimacy” the heading that discusses depression and related issues.
Ruth Graham’s appearance at a recent conference drew 7,000 women. By the end of the year, AACC expects up to 200,000 to attend a conference, an increase of more than 50 percent since 2003.
“Women of Faith,” owned and operated by publisher Thomas Nelson and featuring prominent Christian women as speakers, including Walsh, is expected to attract 365,000 women this year.
“A lot of pain and hurt has been swept under the rug,” said Clinton. “We know now there are physical issues for depression in women — thyroid, hormone fluctuations. If we really accept that the church is a spiritual hospital, we can’t deny these issues.”
“But we’re not for raw psychology,” said Clinton. “We’re trying to champion faith.”
“I think it’s fine that the church is skeptical of therapy, but there is a strong God component in Christian counseling today. Our goal is to see the counseling movement go squarely into the church, and for the church to become a healing community.”
With women like Walsh and Graham being so publicly transparent, more evangelical women are seeking the healing they have so often neglected or ignored.
“It’s all about connecting with one another and connecting with God,” said Walsh.
“In some churches, if I stood up and said I had a brain tumor, you’d pray for me. But if I talk about mental illness, that becomes a divisive issue.”
Graham also sees a need to address the body along with the soul.
“The emphasis of Christian ministry used to be on spiritual healing, and getting saved,” said Graham. “Now we’re looking at more of the whole person.” (RNS)