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Defying the dark night of the soul

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STANDING IN a worship service, surrounded by people singing joyful songs to the Lord while feeling like you are in a pit
of despair is not an uncommon feeling amongst our congregation members.

For June Wood, and many others, it threw her faith and understanding of God into disarray.

Diagnosed with depression 20 years ago, Ms Wood’s long journey has taken many turns.

“It was extremely hard to sit through a worship service of happy words and songs when I was feeling so miserable and down,” she said.

“Church had always been food for the spirit for me.

I felt hurt, angry and cheated.

“When I prayed for healing and nothing seemed to change I doubted my faith in God.

“When it was suggested I pull my socks up, or was asked ‘where is my faith?’, or just told to get on with life, I doubted my very existence.”

Thanks to a friend Ms Wood eventually began to get better.

“I believe that friends are God’s gift to each of us.”

Ms Wood’s congregation knew of her depression.

Dealing with that was a painful learning curve for them also.

“I feel mental health is still an area that is not given equal measure with other medical conditions in church communities.”

For Lea (not her real name) her church community was, and mostly still are, unaware that she suffers from depression.

Church was a safe haven from a world she was not coping with.

“I kept doing all of the church activities, whereas a lot of other things outside the church I let go.

“It was a case of making the church activities a priority that I could cope with and trying to reduce them to a level where I felt
I was coping adequately,” she said.

The result of workplace stress, it was one of Lea’s colleagues who first suggested she tell her doctor about her symptoms.

“I told the doctor and she said that I had major clinical depression.

It was like pulling the carpet out from underneath my feet.

I didn’t think there was much wrong with me.”

“Then to be suddenly taken out of work, I thought, what will I do with myself?”

Once medicated Lea’s anxiety simmered down and she was able to start slowly rebuilding her life.

Lea’s faith continues to help her maintain her health.

“I was always conscious of Jesus being there beside me,” she said.

“He has always been a constant in my life.

I didn’t have any reason to think that he’d moved away.”

Both Lea and Ms Wood found solace in a Nouwen Network, a group of people, supported by Lifeline chaplains, with a
community-based approach to support those whose lives are affected by mental illness.

Through working with councillors, GPs, friends and fellow travellers both Lea and Ms Wood were able to get their lives
back, but depression can be an ongoing illness.

Lea said the stigma against people who need medication is unhelpful.

“There shouldn’t be a stigma attached to someone who has to have medication to get themselves pass that hump,” she said.

“They are working towards getting well again and you can say ‘good on you for recognising that you had a need, sought out help and accepted the help of councillors to become well again’.”

She said understanding and patience are the gifts congregations needed to help those in their midst with mental illness.

“Be empathetic.

Don’t exclude somebody because they are not as bright and happy as what you are, but do not steamroll over them,” she said.

“That person is just as valuable as the cheery person is.

“Depression is a lot more wide spread than people think.”

In Cairns in May the Australian Medical Association (AMA) launched See the Signs, a state-wide mental health public
awareness campaign.

AMA Queensland President, Dr Gino Pecoraro, said the initiative was in response to alarming research.

“A recent AMA Queensland survey of 400 Queenslanders found 24 per cent were very concerned about the mental health of family and friends and a further 11 per cent were extremely concerned following the natural disasters of the past six months," Dr Pecoraro said.

“23 per cent said if they felt they weren’t coping they’d battle on and keep it to themselves.

“This is the worst possible course of action a person with a mental illness can take.”

Ms Wood said the first step is to help church communities recognise mental health as a medical condition.

“Encourage people to include prayers for those dealing with mental health issues in each worship service.

“Create a safe space for people if they want to talk.

“Without being intrusive, keep contact with someone who is missing from church for a few weeks.

“You need to know that you have not been forgotten, or that you are not a failure.”

Ms Wood said it was important to be understanding in all aspects of congregational life.

“The most important support for me is a reminder every day that there is always hope.” 

For more information on depression or to speak to someone contact Lifeline on 13 11 14

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