Dealing With the Shame of Depression
A Note from the Editors: Pastor Scott Sauls has said the following: “Studies indicate that when we suffer mental illness alone, the results can be tragic, even horrific. When we suffer inside a support system, however – when we bring our pain and sorry and stress into the light in the context of redemptive community – the chances of coping well become exponentially higher.” Far too often in recent months, Americans have experienced the tragic and horrific results of untreated mental illness even as we struggle with mental health challenges in our own hearts and homes. Mental illness isolates the sufferer and destroys community at every level, from friendship to family to church to city. Teenagers are at the forefront of this epidemic. At Rooted, we seek to be a small part of your support system, just as you seek to support and encourage the students in your care. This week, we will share articles that examine different facets of mental health, remembering that no matter the challenges we face, we have a living hope in Jesus Christ.
The very first time I experienced a prolonged season of depression was in 2015. I had been serving in Youth Ministry for six years without a break. I was emotionally exhausted from facing constant criticism, disappointment, and internal conflict. And I was physically exhausted from the toil of long evenings and weekends. I returned home that summer after two back-to-back mission trips and crashed into a season of depression that persisted without respite for the next eight months (and then off and on again for another year).
Throughout my nearly two-year battle with depression, I never explicitly shared with anyone what I was going through. My wife was the only one who had an idea of my mental/emotional state – but even to her, I couldn’t say the words “I’m depressed.” I had a caring small group; I had friends and community at my church; I had a healthy pastoral team; but I still couldn’t bring myself to honestly confess to anyone. I was even hesitant to post a public article charting the details of my depression a year and a half after it ended, almost all of this out of fear for what people would think of me. The shame of people knowing that everything was not okay terrified me and forced me into hiding.
Maybe I was still operating out of the aforementioned belief that Christians shouldn’t experience depression. Or maybe it was the shame-honor cultural paradigm I had grown up in (and was ministering within) as an Asian-American. Maybe it was the fact that I was a pastor who was supposed to have all the answers and I was completely out of them at the time. Whatever the reason, with my depression came an immense amount of shame that kept me from seeking help and working through it with another human being.
I suspect that the shame that accompanied my depression is likewise prevalent amongst my peers and teens today alike.
Gen Z and Depression
There is strong evidence to suggest that Generation Z (the generation born between 1999 and 2015) – and our society as a whole – is moving from a guilt-innocence paradigm to an honor-shame one.[i] Largely due to social media, teens today feel they must keep up a public persona, covering their shameful traits and parts of their lives with a digital façade. Teens ascribe worth to celebrities and social media personalities by honoring them with likes, and they aspire to be the same. Barna’s recently released research on Gen Z reports that teens must “create a personal brand by ‘manicuring’ their online presence, driven by the knowledge that they are constantly being watched.”[ii] Not surprisingly, this social media induced shame has also brought with it higher rates of depression and suicide in teens.[iii]
Despite our culture’s “you do you” ideology, there is still a great amount of shame that comes with admitting one’s battle with depression. There’s a reason the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why was such a draw for young people, as it brought to light the inner workings of teen depression, shame, and suicide that are so closely tied to social media for Gen Z. Social media leads us to believe everyone around us is living a perfect, glamorous life, so we must too. Depression wreaks havoc on our false security of looking put together and brings shame as we wonder why we can’t just be happy.
Helping teens deal with depression today also means helping them deal with the shame that closely follows. Instead of going into hiding, or solely facing it privately with a therapist, Scripture shows another way in dealing with depression.[iv]
Psalm 88 and Depression
As I recently reflected back on my own depression, I searched through the Psalms and came across Psalm 88. I had read this psalm before, but it wasn’t until I experienced depression for myself that I was able to see just how significant it was. Psalm 88 gave me words to process my depression where I previously had none. While there isn’t enough space to touch on every detail of this beautifully despondent psalm, there are a few things it teaches us about dealing with depression and shame.
First, Psalm 88 encourages us to lay aside shame and be publicly honest with our depression. The psalm is attributed to Heman, one of the Sons of Korah who were the appointed singers in Israel, known for their musical skill and duty of leading Israel in worship before the Temple (1 Chronicles 6:31-33). Heman was not only a worship leader, he was a visible spiritual leader amongst Israel. And the only psalm attached to his name is Psalm 88. It was his one-hit-wonder that he would forever be remembered for.
This may not strike us as significant, but we forget that Heman came from a group-oriented, honor-shame Jewish culture. In America, we often celebrate artistic expression, even if the content of that expression is dark and painful; but in most honor-shame cultures, one does not simply air his or her dirty laundry for the world to see. Heman would be forever marked as “the depressed Psalmist” in a culture where everyone knew it was also his duty to lead Israel in song and worship before God at the Temple. Penning this psalm was not merely Heman’s artistic expression; it was an honest, public confession – before God and Israel.
Dealing with depression often starts by laying off the shame of feeling like there’s something wrong with us when we face it. It starts by simply confessing there certainly is something wrong with us. We do not have to pretend we’re better off than we are; the Cross reminds us that we are far worse off than we thought. So any shame we may feel over our mental state is only a fraction of the shame we should feel over our spiritual state. Bringing this honest, raw confession before God is of course a good thing; but how often do we bring these confessions before others? If Heman, a leader in Israel, could be honest despite the accompanying shame over his depression, then so can we as leaders in our churches, and so can our students.
Second, Psalm 88 shows us that there is no shame in not having answers. What is so striking about Heman’s confession is the very fact that he ends without resolution. Heman begins by crying out with a soul full of trouble (88:1-2) and ends with a spiteful accusation against God (88:18). Heman hardly seems like the Psalmist you’d point your friend to when they’re looking for answers in the midst of depression.
Part of the reason shame comes with depression is we feel we must have an answer to our problem. We may be able to confess our depression, but we feel the need to follow it up with a reassuring statement of our trust in God. “I’m depressed… but I know God is still good.” So we never fully divulge how we’re really doing. Or we wait until things are better, when we can talk about our issues in the past tense. Doing so keeps us from finding the present tense freedom the Gospel brings during darkness in our lives. But Heman encourages us to be publicly honest in the midst of our struggle and to be okay with not having clear answers in the meantime.
Lastly, Psalm 88 points us to our future salvation out of depression and shame. Throughout eighteen verses of despair, Heman seems to give no indication of future hope. However, despite lobbing a barrage of doubts and insults at God, even blaming Him for his state of depression (88:6-7), Heman continues to cry out to God “day and night”, “every day.” Three times Heman calls out to God by his covenant name, YHWH (88:1,9,13), reiterating that as he once revealed his salvation to Israel through the Exodus, he is still the “God of my salvation” (88:1). Despite the darkness Heman feels, he keeps coming to God as a sign of his faith in His goodness. Heman may not have been able to see or believe in God’s goodness in the moment, but he recalls God’s covenant faithfulness and salvation to Israel in the past as he continues to beg for God’s deliverance once again.
On this side of the Cross, we can now look back at Christ’s death and resurrection as a promise of God’s covenant to His people that He will eventually bring life out of death. Depression may feel like death; but there is future life for those who hope in Christ. We may feel shameful that things are not the way they should be, or the way we hope they should be; but Jesus covers our shame and reminds us that one day things will be the way they should be. Heman could continually come to YHWH with the hope that he would maintain His covenant faithfulness to His people. We can continually come to Jesus knowing that in Him God’s covenant faithfulness has been fulfilled, and from it we have a future hope awaiting us.
This future hope is secure in Jesus, the True and Better Heman, in the worst possible sense of the phrase. Heman felt as if the wrath of God overwhelmed him (88:7,16); Jesus was entirely overwhelmed with the full wrath of God. Heman felt as if God hid his face from him (88:14); God truly did hide his face from Jesus. Heman felt a continuous thrashing of the waves against him (88:7); Jesus felt the continuous thrashing of God’s wrath for sin against him. Heman said his life was touching the grave (88:3-5); Jesus literally entered the grave. Heman was counted as one in the pit of death (88:6); Jesus was counted as one in the pit of Hell. Heman felt hopeless in the face of death (88:10-12); Jesus brought hope by facing death–and conquering it.
Our students may not be able to see an end to their depression, or the circumstances that onset their depression; but they can look back to how God has proven Himself good and faithful through the Cross. Though we may not be able to see the end of our story as it relates to depression, Jesus has written the end of our story as it relates to eternity. Who knows how long we may have to struggle with our mental health; but we do know that joy is waiting for us on the other side of eternity.
This present freedom that the Gospel offers us also covers the shame we feel over our depression. God declares that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). We no longer have to sew our own fig leaves to cover our mental illnesses. Likewise, our students no longer need to cover their depression or anxiety by crafting a false online persona – or “finstagram.” We can run to Jesus, open, honest, and unashamed of our present mental state, resting assured that as he covers us with his loving arms, he also covers us with the honor and righteousness that was bought for us at the Cross.
[i] In Jayson Georges’ 3D Gospel, he discusses three cultural paradigms that are most prevalent around the world for categorizing sin, morality, and merit, and how the gospel speaks into each: guilt-innocence (most prevalent in Western cultures), honor-shame (most prevalent in Eastern cultures), and fear-power (most prevalent in the Global South). Georges draws from anthropologist Ruth Benedict, known for popularizing the terms in her book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946), and missionary Roland Muller’s Honor and Shame: Unlocking the Door (2001).
[ii] Barna Report, Gen Z, (Barna Group and Impact 360 Institute: 2018), 20.
[iii] Jean Twenge, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” The Atlantic, September 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/ magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/ (accessed November, 2018).
[iv] While I highly recommend seeking professional help through therapy or counseling for mental health issues such as depression, I believe much of our modern Western psychology is driven by an individualistic philosophy of dealing with mental health. Dealing with mental health purely from an individualistic perspective is not a wholistic way of dealing with things, especially for those who come from group-oriented/honor-shame cultures. Even Scripture seems to champion less of an individualistic method and more of a communal means of dealing with deep seeded issues, “bearing one another’s burdens” as the people of God minister to one another as they embody Christ collectively (cf. 1 John 4:12).