Mark Meynell is director for Langham Preaching (part of the Langham Partnership). He is the author of various books, including A Wilderness of Mirrors. A Jesus Creed interview with Mark on that book can be found here:
The following interview revolves around Mark’s latest book, When Darkness Seems My Closest Friend.
David George Moore conducted the interview. Some of Dave’s teaching videos and interviews can be found at www.mooreengaging.com
Moore: This was a risky book to write, especially because you are vulnerable about your own struggles with depression. How did you determine what to share?
Meynell: It originated when my psychologist recognized that I tend to process things on paper and so he suggested writing an account, for my own sake if nothing else. It was also helpful for my family to read because I could put down things I was otherwise unable to articulate. Then I started sharing sections with friends who had been through similar things and that’s what clinched it! They found them helpful. One of the few things that can give any of this meaning is if it gives pastoral insight for helping others. In my better moments, that is enough for me!
Moore: The causes of depression are multifaceted. How can we wisely assess what those causes are, and so offer responsible care?
Meynell: You’re right – there are so many factors: genetics, environment, childhood, traumas, stress points, chemicals, you name it in fact! I would say that it is essential for friends and family to avoid trying to play psychiatrist, using what little pop-psychology they’ve picked up. It is not their place to do that. It has taken me years, and several different therapeutic approaches, to get some clarity and even vocabulary for my issues. That has usually required professional expertise.
This is not to say friends and family have no role. Of course they’re crucial. But it is more about being present, being open, and being patient. Some questions are helpful (especially if open-ended)—not to probe root causes, but to aid sharing and communication. But often the most needed thing is a hug and the commitment to stick around.
Moore: With respect to the previous question, would you comment on how to navigate pharmaceutical options versus non-drug options?
Meynell: I’m not a scientific expert, only a pastor! But it seems clear to me that because of depression’s very nature, there cannot be a one-size-fits-all response. So I’m nervous when someone claims that this or that therapy or medication must or must not be used. That is dangerous. By all means get different opinions; and someone may have personal reasons for avoiding something. But be wary of blanket bans.
Having said that, I was reluctant to start medication for a while—and would get myself into real knots when trying to discern the ‘real me’ if my resilience and personality were so dependent on a bunch of chemicals squished into little white pills. But if a pharmaceutical response does make a difference, then what is the ultimate difference between someone with anemia taking iron tablets or a diabetic taking insulin?
Moore: How do we distinguish between sinful causes for depression and those that are part of living with broken bodies (and souls) in a broken world?
Meynell: It’s always difficult and sometimes impossible. There can be no doubt that our own sinfulness will always be a factor of sorts, simply because it impacts every aspect of our being. Depression cannot be an excuse, but it might be an explanation. The one thing we must be very careful to avoid is laying on more layers of self-loathing and wretchedness, since depression creates far too much of that already.
One of the hardest things about mental illness is that it creates a distorting effect—even of gospel truths and hopes. So this is yet another reason why a friend’s job is not to probe and diagnose, but to love and uphold.
Moore: What are some things our local churches could do to better minister to those struggling with depression?
Meynell: Firstly, avoid facile simplification and reductionism, either to diagnose or to minimize the pain. Secondly, never presume you know what it’s like (even, actually, if people have had some form of mental illness themselves)—we’re all different. Take time to listen and be alongside, rather than pontificating or generalizing from the front. Thirdly, recognize that some will improve in a short time, others might take years, others will never improve. Resist accusations of lack of faith or being cursed or being a sub-par Christian. Fourth, recognize that we are all weak and broken—and that God invariably uses the weak, and not the strong, to do extraordinary things. If you don’t believe me, meditate on the final chapters of II Corinthians!
Moore: What are two or three things you hope readers take away from your book?
Meynell: For those with mental health challenges (or, as I put it in the book, those who live in the cave of depression), I long for them to know from reading this that they’re not alone in the cave, that there is solace and hope even from that.
For those outside the cave, I would hope there is a much greater willingness to appreciate the mysteries of this pain and therefore to be patient and gentle with those inside it, above by being careful about the things we say.
For all, though, I would hope that it is clear that God will be at work, even in that cave. That is ultimately what makes it even remotely sustainable.