David Gregson reflects on a recent book by Steve and Robyn Bloem
In 1985, American Steve Bloem was about to make a final visit ‘with a view’ to what seemed a very suitable and attractive church in Florida. He had a wife and a young family and had successfully passed through Bible seminary.
Up until then, Steve had been blessed with a joyful, stable personality and had coped well with the pressures of life. In 1985, however, he entered the dark tunnel of severe clinical depression – which took him and his wife Robyn by complete surprise.
Since then, Steve has endured further episodes of mental illness. He confesses readily that he is now a man of God ‘on pills’ and will be for the rest of his life.
Sadly, Steve and Robyn have had to contend with the tragic misconceptions about mental illness that are prevalent in evangelical circles, both in the USA and UK. That is why Steve and Robyn Bloem have jointly written a new book entitled Broken minds to try to dispel the myths that seriously hinder Christians who suffer from depression.
Can Christians get depressed?
The symptoms of Steve’s illness were gloomy mornings, endless walks around the neighbourhood, poor concentration, disordered sleep patterns, loss of appetite, stomach complaints, feelings of worthlessness, intense sadness and even suicidal thoughts.
When eventually Steve suspected that he might be suffering from depression, he fought against the very idea. He writes, ‘As a born-again believer and a trained theologian, I did not want to entrust myself to a system where I would be vulnerable to mistreatment or psychological brainwashing. A deeper reason was that I had been taught that depression was for wimps. Surely if Christians walked with God, they would not get depressed’.
Steve was further bemused when well-meaning people said that his condition was due to his inability to handle stress or the consequence of anger turned inwards. Even Robyn at first thought that her husband was showing uncharacteristic signs of weakness and self-centredness. She, however, came to see that she too had been the victim of evangelical ignorance and misunderstanding regarding mental illness.
After years of witnessing Steve’s struggles and supporting him through all his pain, she was able to write, ‘Diseases from the neck downward are acceptable, but start talking about the mind and the defences go up’. She realised that among Christians there was a real misunderstanding of depression and that a dreadful stigma had grown up around it. She had become convinced of the reality of mental illness, not so much by scientific studies as by her husband’s suffering.
It is generally accepted in the medical field that clinical depression is due to an imbalance in the chemistry of the brain. Neurotransmitters are chemical substances that carry electrical impulses from one nerve cell to another within the brain.
They are released from one cell (the sender) and travel to the next cell (the receiver), where it is either absorbed or returned to the sender. The best understanding of clinical depression is that there are not enough neurotransmitters to ferry these messages across all the gaps.
This deficiency leads to a change in the person’s mood, thinking and behaviour. Serotonin and noradrenaline are two neurotransmitters that increase brain activity and improve mood. Antidepressant drugs help the brain to retain more of these substances and so stabilise the mental condition.
At the present time, an estimated 121 million people suffer from serious depression throughout the world. It is one of the leading causes of disability and we should not be surprised to find Christians among the sufferers.
One noteworthy example was Charles Haddon Spurgeon. It is well known that he had gout but the authors of Broken minds suggest that he might also have been a victim of post-traumatic stress disorder (after a stampede in one of his services led to seven deaths) and seasonal affective disorder (SAD, due to a deficiency of light during the winter months).
He said in one of his sermons, ‘When the great wind blew at the time of the fall, a slate blew off everybody’s house; and some are more affected than others, so that they take the black view of all things’.
On another occasion he said, ‘The worst cloud of all, I think, is depression of spirit that is accompanied with the loss of the light of God’s countenance. Sickness, poverty, slander – none of these is comparable to depression’. He then quoted Proverbs 18:14: ‘The spirit of a man will sustain him in sickness but who can bear a broken spirit?’
Competent to counsel?
One extremely helpful chapter in Broken minds is entitled ‘Christian counselling, a treatment smorgasbord’, where Steve Bloem reviews the differing definitions of mental illness and treatment approaches advocated by various evangelical ‘camps’.
One of these is the ‘nouthetic’ counselling movement whose foundations were first laid in the writings of Jay Adams, in particular in Competent to counsel! Dr Adams based many of his conclusions on the experience he had acquired in two psychiatric institutions in America.
This led him to deny that mental illness even exists. He writes, ‘Apart from those who had organic problems like brain damage, the people I met in the two institutions in Illinois were there because of their own failure to meet life’s problems’.
Tragically, nouthetic counselling refuses to accept biological causes for clinical depression. One member of the National Association of Nouthetic Counsellors compares the idea that mental illness has an organic basis to belief in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. Depression is therefore a sinful condition which (say the nouthetics) calls for biblical confrontation and repentance.
Although I do not doubt the sincerity and integrity of Bible-believing Christians involved in the nouthetic counselling movement, I have to say that their principles have led to much misunderstanding and unnecessary pain. Steve Bloem concludes: ‘In the midst of my own depression, I found nouthetic counsellors degrading. I felt despicable – morally responsible for every problem in my life’.
By way of contrast, Steve also includes a chapter entitled ‘Reclaiming the Puritan care of souls’. Here he points out that the Puritans refused to see individual sin as the cause of every problem people face. They taught that God sometimes sends ‘dark providences’ to Christians.
The English and American Puritans of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were skilled at distinguishing between physical, psychological and spiritual problems. In fact, they were much more competent in this area than many of today’s spiritual guides.
They truly were physicians of the soul, as was Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones more recently. Evangelicals today need to develop greater skills and awareness in this area of pastoral theology and practice.
Pastor on pills
I have a personal interest in Steve and Robyn Bloem’s book because I too am a pastor ‘on pills’. My depression remained undiagnosed from the age of twenty until the age of fifty. That was largely because I put my cyclic low periods down to fatigue and refused to seek medical help.
I was greatly helped, however, by the elders and members of Little Hill Church near Leicester, where I was pastor for 15 years. They had the right ideas about clinical depression being organic in origin and eventually prevailed on me to seek appropriate help.
This was provided by my own GP, a consultant psychiatrist and also in particular two Christian GPs who are personal friends. As far as I know, the latter have never experienced depression themselves but have seen its ravages in many of their patients. I found in them a compassion and understanding for which I will always owe them a deep debt of gratitude.
My depression is now controlled by appropriate medication. I sometimes sink a little for a short period but that is nothing like the deep troughs I used to experience for three months at a time.
These spells I now recognise as being good for me, ‘thorns in the flesh’ keeping me from being over-elated or arrogant (2 Corinthians 12:7). I also find that my personal experience of clinical depression has brought me two other benefits as a pastor – it has taught me to rely more on the God who is able to raise the dead and has given me a great sympathy for, and understanding of, those who suffer from depression (2 Corinthians 1:3-11).
Broken minds by Steve and Robyn Bloem includes many autobiographical elements and it also contains insights and knowledge that both authors have acquired through their close contact with major depression.
There is much practical information in the book concerning treatment options and related topics like SAD, panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive disorder etc. and it has a biblical framework throughout. Broken minds is now the Christian book I would most readily offer to victims of depression and those who feel that they are ‘losing it’.
Broken minds by Steve & Robyn Bloem is published by Kregel Publishers at £9.50 (ISBN: 0-8254-2118-7)