Several years ago, I was in a situation where I was on the operating table in the process of dying, but emergency surgery saved my life. I was told that it would take me six to twelve months to recover mentally, emotionally and physically. A few days later, a conversation with the consultant surprised me. Instead of persuading me to take antidepressants, which I was expecting, he said, and I quote, “Get out into nature. Feel the sun on your face and the wind in your hair. God didn’t make man to sit inside concrete buildings all day.”
I was reminded of this recently because our Prime Minister made a statement in the House of Commons about mental health. She had plans for “alternatives” to hospital treatment; she envisaged the power of government being able to better people’s lives by offering mental health first aid training in every secondary school. She acknowledged that “left unaddressed it destroys lives, separates people from each other and deepens the divisions within our society” and that to be able to change this goes right to the heart of humanity.
Mental health issues are a problem that can affect any family, and it is estimated that one in six people in England experienced a mental health problem in the past week. It is also estimated that different aspects of mental health problems, from depression to anxiety, cause over 40 million years of disability in 20 to 29-year-olds. That’s a lot of wasted years.
I asked someone who has a tendency to depressive thoughts what they found helpful when they knew they were entering a phase of depression. They said they had a strategy:
- I know God doesn’t want me to be depressed
- I keep saying to myself, “This is how I feel, nor what I believe”
- I ask Him for a verse to help pull me up out of the mire
- I hang on to that Word like a drowning man hangs on to a raft in a cold, dark, lonely ocean
- I know there is land there somewhere, but I just can’t see it yet. I know if I hang on to the raft I won’t drown and will get to land eventually
Believers aren’t immune from attacks of depression. Just as we aren’t immune from attacks of hay fever or migraine, and there are some of us who need medication due to some disruption or chemical imbalance in the brain through no fault of our own. In each type of biochemical illness there is medicine on offer to redress the balance, and even here there are things we are to learn about God and about ourselves from all times of ill health.
But there are also times when we could allow ourselves to be drawn down the path of depression and despondency through our thought processes; and we do have control over this. If we allow ourselves to become depressed in this way it skews the way we think; it robs us of joy in a way that nothing else can. And unless we find the life raft it can rob us of faith. The Psalms often capture the state of mind we can find ourselves in:
“My heart is severely pained within me, and the terrors of death have fallen upon me. Fearfulness and trembling have come upon me, and horror has overwhelmed me.” Psalm 55:4.
When we are tempted to low moods we don’t have to try and feel happy. We have to make a conscious decision in cold blood to believe God is still there even if we can’t see Him. He is the land, the Rock we will plant our feet on.
For me, I took my consultant’s advice and went out every day into the countryside and felt the sun on my face and the wind in my hair. But I also looked up into the clouds, and no matter how I felt I thanked God. I thanked Him for being alive, for the gospel, for my family, my friends, for enough food to eat, for a roof over my head … And I became focused on what was good for other people, not on my situation.
And my particular raft was this:
“Therefore strengthen the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be dislocated, but rather be healed.” Hebrews 12:12-13.
We are not blamed for being lame, but we can prevent ourselves from being dislocated. And the healing comes from absolute trust in God who created us, loves us, and called us to follow Jesus, and who will strengthen and support us whatever happens to us in life. If we are disciples, we have that as an absolute, cast-iron promise.
Five signposts out of low mood swings from the Psalms
- “From the end of the earth I will cry to You, when my heart is overwhelmed; lead me to the rock that is higher than I.” Psalm 61:2.
- “He also brought me up out of a horrible pit, out of the miry clay and set my feet upon a rock, and established my steps.” Psalm 40:2.
- “He only is my rock and my salvation; He is my defense; I shall not be moved.” Psalm 62:6.
- “Be my strong refuge, to which I may resort continually; You have given the commandment to save me, for You are my rock and my fortress.” Psalm 71:3.
- “Be of good courage, and He shall strengthen your heart, all you who hope in the Lord.” Psalm 31:24.