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Mental health and the Church: emerging from out of the darkness

11 May 2018

Before Mental Health Awareness Week, Mark Meynell reflects on depression

Alex Nedorez/Alamy

Cave Emine-Bair-Khosar, Crimea. Caves are “intimidating in their organic gloom”

Cave Emine-Bair-Khosar, Crimea. Caves are “intimidating in their organic gloom”

SUCH is the power of the brain that mental disturbances can have profound physical effects. But mental illness, by definition, makes little sense. It corrodes our equilibrium, our perceptions of reality.

This fact alone should immediately sound an implicit warning to those who prefer their problems neatly packaged and swiftly cured. Not even mental-health professionals (who spend whole lifetimes working at it) manage that. It will never simply be a matter of chancing upon the right word, or offering a nice day out, or giving a big hug. All I can say is, if that’s your approach, please stay away! Keep your glib Bible quotes and cheesy platitudes to yourself.

But this touches on one of the toughest aspects: coping with others. Depressive illness generates a gnawing fear that can make one cower at the sound of approaching footsteps. It is a curse that makes one withdraw in self-defence. Its endgame is solitary confinement, deceiving us into the thought that we are better off alone. That is, of course, nonsense. We desperately need other people . . . especially amid the darkness. We may also long for it. But what we crave, we dread. We are thus ensnared in the hell of depression’s cave.

THE great John Bunyan was himself chained up. He knew first hand what imprisonment meant. Yet it was during his incarceration that he began his masterpiece, The Pilgrim’s Progress. This narrates the allegorical journey of Christian, the pilgrim whose conversion prompts him to travel from his home in the City of Destruction to the Celestial City.

One of Christian’s most striking encounters is with Giant Despair. At this point, he is accompanied by Hopeful, but they get lost, just as a vicious, nocturnal thunderstorm begins. They have no option in the darkness but to try to sleep in the open fields.

The pilgrims discover in the morning that their sleeping spot has a terrifying owner. Giant Despair captures them for trespassing and flings them into his “very dark dungeon, nasty and stinking to the spirits of these two men”. There they suffer for four days, starved of food, light, and company.

Notice how Bunyan describes their predicament. They were without “any to ask how they did; they . . . were far from friends and acquaintances”. This then culminates in a brutal beating that leaves them almost senseless. Then, on the advice of his wife, Giant Despair decides to save himself the bother of killing them by trying to persuade them to take their own lives. It is a terrible scene.

Bunyan habitually littered his narrative with scripture references, to help readers discover the biblical inspiration for his imagination. So, which verse would best fit here? Sure enough, he points the reader to the last verse of Psalm 88. Christian and Hopeful experience the agony of darkness being their “closest friend”.

This is an uncannily accurate evocation of depression. Bunyan was clearly all too familiar with its pain. He knew its darkness, its chains, its isolation. He knew how closely related it can be to physical ailments like exhaustion and hunger. But he also connected it to the lostness that is so often a precursor to despair.

DESPITE that, the prison-cell imagery doesn’t quite nail it for me. I prefer the cave metaphor, even though its effects are almost identical. On the youth camps with which I used to help while at university, one of the most popular activities was caving. I braved it only once. That was easily enough for me. There were places where the only way forward was to crawl on one’s stomach through gaps that left only a centimetre or two of space above one’s head. What on earth is the fun in that?

Caves are more mysterious, dank, and intimidating in their organic gloom. They seem to extend endlessly into some vast labyrinth. No wonder they are the setting for nightmares and horror stories. But there’s a deeper reason for the usefulness of the imagery. Caves can function as vast echo chambers. Once trapped inside, the only voice we can hear clearly is our own. We might pray, calling out to God for connections when no one else seems to hear. But so often it feels futile.

But then, remarkably, King David felt the same: “How long, Lord? Will you forget me for ever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?” (Psalm 13.1-2)

SO THERE we sit, in the bleak gloom of the depression cave, isolated and fearful. We re-run recent conversations, or even snippets of long-past conversations. Repeatedly. As if on a loop. Our memories are rarely reliable at the best of times, but the nature of depression is that it functions as a distortion filter. With great effectiveness, it weeds out any encouragements or positivity.

So effective is it, in fact, that it even seems to have a malice all its own. I suspect that this is one reason why Winston Churchill called his own bouts of depression the “black dog”. It feels at times like an outside force, a parasitical invader that saps energy and crushes spirits. It deludes us into thinking it is all-sufficient, that we don’t need others because they will only hurt us even more.

So the negative words ricochet off the cave walls, as we sit paralysed, trying to make sense of it all. The dog thrives on it all, like a dung beetle, while we wilt under the weight of failure and gloom, in some kind of psychological zero-sum game.

IT’S A vicious circle. I can’t risk getting too close to others, because they will discover what I’m really like. Then they will say the kinds of things I’ve heard all too often. Which will crush me even more. So I stay away. But by staying away, I have no means of countering the negativity echoing in my head, no means of making the connections with others that I so crave. I simply don’t believe that they have anything different to say.

This is how the dog likes it. It keeps us exactly where it can control us. Thus, the chains binding us to the cave of isolation seem unbreakable. It’s absurd. But it’s reality.

THERE is, however, another way that the dog isolates the depressed person in the cave. This is subtly different from depression’s isolating effect just mentioned, although it is perhaps a contributory factor. This is the loneliness that results from the affliction’s being one that others cannot possibly comprehend or relate to.

As I have already said, we need words to communicate what is going on inside our heads. So, when adequate words can’t be found, it is so frustrating. But this leads to a catch-22 situation. Because we are unable to find the words, our friends and loved ones cannot begin to grasp the problem. They may not recognise its seriousness, which is, of course, entirely understandable. They are therefore unable to support in the most appropriate way. This leads to frustration for the one depressed, and feelings of inadequacy for the ones who care.

But it goes beyond a lack of words. The person who has, thankfully, managed to avoid mental illness will never really be able to relate to the pain of it. He or she might sympathise — and certainly ought to — but will rarely be able to empathise. The experience is just too alien and inaccessible.

This shows itself in saying the wrong things — too glib or pat, or being frozen into saying nothing out of fear of saying the wrong thing. That might come across as insensitivity or lack of awareness. Even well-meant words might make matters worse. At best, they fail to connect with the pain, and thus the sense of isolation is ratcheted up. It’s as if the cave has made the words from those who haven’t experienced mental illness sound muffled. You can tell that someone “out there” is uttering words, perhaps — but they sound incoherent, meaningless even. They certainly do not connect or help. Sometimes, you even end up having to console the comforter for their frustrated failure to be comforting.

THIS is why it makes such a difference to meet someone else in a similar situation. What relief it is to meet a friend in the cave! C. S. Lewis was someone who deeply understood and appreciated friendship. His most famous insight on the subject is that “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, ‘What! You, too? I thought I was the only one.’”

This is never truer than when you discover others in the black-dog cave. Their cave experiences will never be identical, of course. But you will share a common awareness of cave life. That brings the chance, at last, of a genuine connection.

Getting to know others in a similar boat is almost liberating by itself. Sometimes, all it takes is comparing notes on which depression metaphors resonate most. Or it is the sense of an empathetic listener or fellow-traveller. But what is certain, again and again, is the sense that one degree of isolation has been removed. We are no longer alone.

That is why my favourite friendship definition is this one: “A friend is the first person who walks in when the whole world (or, dare I say it, even the church) walks out.” That, more than anything else, is what cave-dwellers yearn for.

This is an edited extract from When Darkness Seems My Closest Friend by Mark Meynell, to be published by IVP on 17 May at £9.99 (CT Bookshop £9). Reproduced with permission of SPCK, www.spck.org.uk.

Listen to Mark Meynell talk about the book 


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