Written by: Sheryl Yeo (Photo by: Ronald Lim)
Can faith and depression co-exist?
I was 11 years old when I had my first experience with depression, and it has been more than 12 years since I began struggling with darkness in my mind. While I have never been diagnosed with clinical depression or any particular mental illness, I have thrice-over fallen into deep depressive states of mind, accompanied by suicidal thoughts, countless panic attacks, and anxiety meltdowns. I was left helplessly lingering in a shroud of gloom I could not rid of.
Just before the first episode of depression and ruminations about suicide, I invited Christ into my life and became a Christian. Looking back, I still can’t put a finger on what really kept me from taking my life. One thing I know: If Christ was not living in me, the outcome would have been much different. However, becoming a Christian did not mean that I became free from life’s troubles. The cords of death strangled me again when I was in university, causing me to question and doubt if God is good, loving, and real. While at a worship conference, I begged God there and then to deliver me. For the first time in about two months, God enabled me to worship Him, freeing my heart to sing to the King. The darkness which stifled me became miraculously minute in God’s presence.
After this episode lifted, God impressed a question on my heart, “Do you still love Me?” I went silent as I struggled to give a wholehearted “yes” to the Lord. I could not understand why He, being a good Father, would allow such crippling darkness to haunt me again. I hated to admit it then, but I realised that God allowed depression in my life as a kiln to fireproof my faith and to reveal who He is to me. In that moment, I realised that I cannot do without Him — God is my lifeline in this darkness.
Now in my twenties, the taste of deliverance is becoming more familiar. Darkness does not invade my mind as often and I am able to experience more joy and peace in God. Ironically, it was through another meltdown and God’s intervention which caused me to see that I did not have to readily accept the lies that depression presented to me. Before, I was convinced that I will always be defeated by my mental health woes. This most recent meltdown convinced me to look for a professional Christian counsellor. My sessions with her, seasoned with God’s word, helped to weed out unhealthy patterns of thinking, paving the way toward my freedom.
Having taken my own journey through depression, I have learnt precious lessons which create and pave the way towards healing and breakthrough.
Being a Christian does not exempt us from mental issues
Nowhere in the Bible does it say that Christians will never struggle with or suffer from mental issues. Even the great prophet Elijah was depressed and suicidal! Upon learning about Jezebel’s murderous intent, Elijah fled for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he went a day’s journey into the desert, sat under a broom tree and prayed that he might die. Elijah said, “I have had enough, Lord. Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” (See 1 Kings 19:3–4.)
The friend who shared this passage with me said, “You see, even a prophet felt suicidal. God understands, Sheryl!” In that instant, the weight and lie of being an oddball lifted off me and I was comforted by God’s loving response to Elijah. He took gentle care of Elijah with much empathy, strengthening him without condemnation.
Having experienced depression, I have learnt to extend the same compassion to others with similar struggles. I believe it demonstrates the love that God illustrates for us through Scripture. In fact, it was through the valleys of hopelessness that Christ became more real to me. Healing was a process I could embrace because I came to terms that I was incapable of fixing myself; only Jesus can heal me and I can choose to place my hope in Him for my restoration.
God can heal through community
Ask anyone who has struggled with anxiety and depression and they will tell you that they could not have gotten better without help and support from others. Healing never comes by being alone. They could be family, close friends, a significant other, an understanding superior, or a trusted counsellor, but God can use people in your life to be the healing balm that you need.
During one of my depression episodes, I had a friend who set aside time weekly to find out how I was doing. She gave me time and space to share and cry freely without passing judgement on my thoughts or trying to soothe me with clichéd statements. She did not force me to make progress, but encouraged me to take the journey with and towards God by praying with me and gently pointing me to Christ.
Conversely, people can be pushed deeper into depression by tactless words. When I alluded to my depression issues to some people, my heart took several blows of insensitivity.
Why you always so emo? Just don’t be so emo la.
You must be joyful in the Lord! Have more faith!
Are you sure you are not thinking too much? Are you exaggerating?
This, in my opinion, explains the common refrain “people don’t understand” being pertinent for those struggling with mental issues. Without first-hand experience, there is no true understanding. However, by God’s grace and empowerment, I was able to release forgiveness to those who offered insensitive remarks.
Take it from one who has walked the path out of mental darkness: Don’t walk alone. Let Jesus and those around you to walk with you through your journey.
Depression does not disqualify one from fulfilling God’s destiny for their life
I used to think that my debilitating episodes, which seemed to have no predictable pattern, would stop me from reaching dreams that God has put in my heart. However, while talking to my counsellor one day, she reminded me that even before I sought help for my mental health, I had mustered the courage to go for a two-month overseas missions internship.
I recall hesitating when God first prompted me to sign up for the internship as I was well aware that it would be tough for me. Missions work is spiritual work that is inevitably accompanied by spiritual warfare. Surely this posed a huge challenge to my mental well-being! How could I survive being away from home and the trusted few who held me up? Nevertheless, I stepped out in faith and chose to go on the internship.
“Do you even realise that you did that? How did you even manage to step out?” my counsellor asked. At first, I could not give her an answer. But later, we realised that when I made the decision, I had inadvertently focused on the louder voice in my life, which was God’s graceful leading.
Today, though I am not certain that I will not experience another panic attack or meltdown, but I am managing well and actively pursuing my God-given dreams because what He thinks of me is far more important than what my past or present may be. It is amazing that despite my past and mental health issues, God eventually called me into full-time Christian ministry. I owe my life to Him and I am glad to be able to serve Him in this capacity.
The journey of recovery from depression or mental illness may be long and rough, and large doses of patience will be needed. However, stand firmly upon John 1:5 (ESV) which says, “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Through it all, the truth remains that God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life — no mental issue will ever be able to change this.
This article is dedicated to: My family, for being there through my vicissitudes of darkness and light; Jason, for holding my hand through my road of recovery; Jeanette, for delivering fish soup to my house when I was overcome with panic; Pamela, for being my patient counsellor who helped me to break through my ridiculous thought patterns; and my God, the One who never let me go.