EDITOR’S NOTE: This is Part 2 of a two-part series on mental illness. If you are in a dark time and need immediate help, call 911 or the national suicide hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
In Part 1, I shared my own experience with depression and the ways in which the normal blues are different from mental illness. Here, I share of the hope God offers those who live with depression and mental illness.
A songwriter for dark times
Psalm 88 is a song of lamentation—a passionate crying out, a wailing and weeping filled with despairing thoughts and anxiety.
The writer, Heman the Ezrahite, may have been one of the wise men, prophets or counselors surrounding King David and, later, his son King Solomon. He also may have been one of the chief singers among the Levites.
Heman’s name means “faithful.” He was a prayer warrior who believed in and was obedient to the God of Israel. According to Matthew Henry, Heman may have been “an instructor and comforter of others.”
Despite all of that, Heman was experiencing the same sort of darkness I and many others have experienced. Heman was drowning in pain, grief, sorrow and anger at God.
In the midst of this darkness, though, Heman maintained a small flame of hope: “O LORD, the God who saves me.”
Anguish in Heman’s song
Heman was in deep crisis, maybe nearing the end of his life and feeling as though God wasn’t answering his prayers. He was depressed. Did he have a mental illness? I can’t say. But he sure was feeling low. Consider his words:
- My soul is full of trouble (88:3).
- My life draws near the grave (88:4).
- A man without strength (88:4).
- I’m in the lowest pit, the darkest depths (88:6).
- Overwhelmed by your waves (88:7).
- Confined and cannot escape (88:8).
- My eyes are dim with grief (88:9).
- I have suffered your terrors, and I’m in despair (88:15).
- Isolated from all my friends, and I’m counted as one going to the grave and pit (88:18).
- All friends and neighbors are gone. Darkness is my only friend. (88:18).
Heman sounds angry with God for not answering his prayers, or at least he was deeply frustrated and could not understand why God didn’t answer.
The depths of depression
Heman writes that he was “counted among those who go down to the pit,” like a “dead man walking,” like someone who carries a death sentence (88:4).
Many of those with severe depression feel like they should take their lives, thinking it would end the pain and that others would be better off without them. Ultimately, that kind of thinking is selfish. That kind of thinking doesn’t consider the ramifications on others when a loved one takes his or her life.
Yet the pain and thought that “others would be better off” are very real. At this point, loss of hope and the “deceitfulness of sin” has settled in.
Hope in Heman’s song
Heman expressed his hope by writing a song in which he talked honestly about his struggle.
Notice a sign of his hopeful faith: “O LORD, the God who saves me,” or “the God who delivers me” (88:1).
Heman later repeats the same idea: “I call out to you, hear my cry” (88:2, 9, 13).
Even though he feels at the end of his rope and is about to lose his grip to despair, he keeps coming back to God.
We who walk in faith can encounter times of darkness when we struggle to keep walking forward. Like Heman, we can keep coming back to God the Father. Let us keep expressing that hopeful expectation.
Heman took his struggle to God in prayer. We should, too. Paul taught us to pray in all circumstances and bring all our petitions to God with prayer and thanksgiving. Heman persisted in seeking God, even though he wasn’t getting the answer he was looking for.
Hope in Heman’s honesty
Heman was honest about what he was experiencing, acknowledging what he felt and thought. This is an encouragement to us.
People often feel ashamed and fearful to say anything about a mental illness. Keeping it secret often has been the way we deal with it, but that only bottles up the struggle until the pressure explodes.
Our minds and bodies were not designed to keep secrets bottled up. When we have a deep struggle, we find help and relief when we speak of our deep ache and torment.
Find a few trusted and caring people with whom you can open up, and sing the lament you are feeling.
Connecting with others to battle depression
When someone’s talk and actions raise flags, it is time to be proactive, step up and intervene.
Heman writes that his friends, companions and loved ones were taken from him, that he was repulsive to them (88:8, 18).
A typical coping mechanism of depression and anxiety is isolating oneself from everyone around you. Also, people tend to avoid those with mental illness. Both actions are the opposite of what is needed for comfort, acceptance and healing.
Paul taught us to “carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). Paul also taught that God comforts us “in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2 Corinthians 1:4).
Things I learn from Heman
I don’t know if Heman’s prayers were answered. I haven’t really received an answer to my own “why me” question. But I learn important things from Heman.
From Heman, I learn to pray and trust the Father persistently. God promises his presence. Psalm 139:10-12 teaches me that even if everything is dark and we can’t see the end of our noses, God sees us. He sees through the darkness like it is noonday bright, and he is holding on to us.
I learn that being honest about having and dealing with mental illness is the best course of action. Honesty requires talking. Talk about what you are dealing with. Listen if you are a loved one, and help to carry the burden. It’s what we do when a friend is laid up in the hospital or rehab, isn’t it?
I also learn not to isolate myself because of shame or fear. We are designed and made by God to be in relationship with each other and him. It is through relationship that healing comes.
We must learn not to avoid those who experience the burden of mental illness. We don’t avoid those who have cancer or diabetes or heart disease, do we?
Hope in unlikely circumstances
In Part 1, I told about a young Christian man at Virginia Tech who was in great distress. What happened to him?
His distress met my distress. I was still in my black pit at the time but was able to listen to and identify with what he was feeling and thinking.
What appeared in him to be a dying ember began to glow redder, and a small flame began to rise.
I learned that day God can comfort a hurting person using even someone who is in the dark pit themselves.
Hope in Christ
Remember: Our hope—our living hope—is Christ Jesus. We have a living hope that one day we will be redeemed fully. That means no more sickness, disorder or illness because we shall see him as he is and will be like him.
In the meantime, we live out our hope in Christ Jesus through faith and in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Don’t hide the hurt
If you, a family member or friend is experiencing an inability to accomplish daily tasks, troubled thoughts, conflicted relationships, sapped energy or energy with no bounds that leaves you feeling and acting out of control, and if these conditions have been going on for weeks, then seek help.
Don’t hide. Speak out. Ask for help.
Fear, shame and confusion often make us hide our awful thoughts and troubled feelings. Instead of trying to hide the shame and fear, seek a trusted person, such as a pastor, friend, spouse, family member or doctor.
Begin to give voice to the pain and trouble.
If you are the trusted individual, listen. Pray. If you don’t have an answer—which you probably won’t—offer to walk with troubled persons as they seek the help they need.
Today, successful treatment of most mental illness is common. Being able to have a productive, full and rich life is possible.
John Hereford is the pastoral ministry associate at The Woodlands First Baptist Church in The Woodlands, Texas. The Woodlands First provides several mental health resources. If you are in a dark time and need immediate help, call 911 or the national suicide hotline at 1-800-273-8255.