The Catholic Church should have declared a few weeks ago “World Depression Awareness Week.” After hearing the readings at Mass for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, I thought it would have been the perfect lead-in to such a week.
If only I had thought about it earlier, we could have had a huge campaign. Pope Francis could have issued something that looked important. Priests around the world could have addressed this particular mental illness. Every church could have had tables with volunteers distributing information about depression and possible treatment.
Why make this official in the Church? And why that week?
Most prominently because of that Sunday’s Old Testament reading during the Liturgy of the Word. The selection from the First Book of Kings relates a scene in the story of the prophet Elijah – my candidate to be considered the patron saint of depression.
That piece of scripture has been one of the most crucial in my life and should hold significance for all of us. Please allow me to share that particular passage:
Elijah went a day’s journey into the wilderness, until he came to a solitary broom tree and sat beneath it. He prayed for death: “Enough, LORD! Take my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” He lay down and fell asleep under the solitary broom tree, but suddenly a messenger touched him and said, “Get up and eat!” He looked and there at his head was a hearth cake and a jug of water. After he ate and drank, he lay down again, but the angel of the LORD came back a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat or the journey will be too much for you!” He got up, ate, and drank; then strengthened by that food, he walked forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God, Horeb.
(1 Kings 19:4-8)
Millions of people around the world today can recognize something of Elijah in themselves. Though I’m not a doctor, I can recognize the symptoms of depression.
More than 350 million people around the world were affected by some form of depression in 2012, the last time that statistic was compiled. According to the World Health Organization, unipolar depressive disorders ranked as the third leading cause of the global burden of disease in 2004 and will move into first place within the next 15 years. Almost one million people die by suicide annually; an estimated 20 million attempt suicide each year. Depression is the world’s leading cause of disability.
Granted, Elijah might have merely been despondent, or he might have been dealing with “situational depression,” which could have passed with some time.
But he wanted to die. He asked to die. Once he lay down, he had no motivation or energy to get out of what served as his bed. Elijah isolated himself from all other people and couldn’t summon the motivation or strength even to gather something to eat. I call that “passive suicide.” Elijah gave up on life and was willing to let it simply slip away.
This powerful, important man of God seemed to suffer from depression.
In the Letter of James from the Bible’s New Testament, James wrote that “Elijah was a human being like us.” In him we all can see ourselves, perhaps, or someone in our family, among our friends or co-workers, neighbors or fellow church-goers.
And in Elijah’s recovery we see how a person afflicted with depression can recover: Accept the help of angels. God sent an angel to Elijah to provide with two essential elements: sustenance (bread and water) and encouragement. Similarly for me, God has heard my prayers in moments of deep depression and despair when, at a time He decided was right, He sent angels to minister to me.
My sustenance has come in the form of medication, other medical treatment, vitamins, and food that is good for my health. I have been blessed with angels such as my psychiatrist, who has been steadfast in seeking the right combination of anti-depressants and sleep meds. And there has been Donna, my wife, who has often had to remind me to take my meds or in times when I was plagued by suicidal thoughts had to hold my meds and give them to me at the necessary time. She also has researched vitamin supplements that can assist in treating the illness as well as foods that can help and those that can complicate the life of someone with depression.
My encouragement has come in a variety of ways, from a variety of angels. Jean, my “best friend I’m not married to,” occasionally has said words similar to what Elijah heard: “Get up and eat!” I have had times when I couldn’t get out of bed. Occasionally, when she has sensed it could be effective, she has sternly told me in no uncertain terms that I should get my butt out of bed and get to work. She wouldn’t let me give up. She made me understand that she had faith in me.
There have been others who showed the same encouragement, whether it was in special words, offers to pray, invitations to lunch, hugs, offers to listen, compliments about my writing. Many of them were members of my family. My counselor never has stopped providing ideas to help move me out of bad places into those filled with hope. Friends Jim and Larry, Tarye and Holly, Kim, and so many others have called and texted support, prayed for me, spent time on retreats …
Encouragement also has come from friends who admit they don’t understand but believe in me, priests, even countless strangers who have read something I wrote and expressed hope for me.
Indeed, the journey has been long – almost 14 years since my initial diagnosis – and frankly seems never-ending. Without the sustenance, I would have died under the broom tree in the desert long ago. Without the encouragement, I would have given up hope. I have been blessed to benefit from the ministry of many angels. But it might only take one; God sent just one angel to Elijah.
If you are someone suffering from depression, ask God for an angel who can supply sustenance and encouragement. If you have a friend or family member with the illness, consider that you could be that angel for that person in their life. Give them the bread of prayer, the water of kindness and understanding, the encouragement of unconditional love. That could serve as strength for their journey.
And I’ll pay attention ahead of time for the next occasion we will hear this reading at Mass. Maybe we can create a concerted, worldwide effort to increase awareness of the mental illness and generate hope for millions who suffer. Goodness knows, there still will be plenty of people who could use the help.