Author Ryan Casey Waller believes that we are seeing a mental health crisis in America like never before. Exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, people are flat out struggling. Working and attending school from home, and not being around friends and extended family on a consistent basis has led to loneliness and isolation.
Waller points out the Church has a tremendous opportunity to lead the conversation in helping those afflicted and how to have that dialogue without shame.
In his latest book, Depression, Anxiety, and Other Things We Don’t Want to Talk About, Waller offers practical wisdom on how to become equipped to support loved ones with mental illness while promoting healthy self-care. Furthermore, he seeks to help people understand that our true self lies in our relationship with God.
I recently spoke with Waller, who is also an ordained pastor, about how the Church can effectively have conversations about depression and anxiety with its parishioners, how the coronavirus has affected our nation’s mental health, and some practical steps to help those who are battling this crippling condition.
How is the coronavirus pandemic affecting our mental health?
It’s affecting us negatively. We know that for sure. Coming into the pandemic, we were already in what a lot of researchers would describe as a mental health epidemic. The data shows that in recent years, one in four Americans will experience a mental health struggle within the course of a year. And what we also know about those numbers is that they’re widely underreported due to the great stigma that’s attached to mental health and mental illness. So, we’re starting with 25% of the population already struggling to the point where suicide has become the 10th leading cause of death for Americans. Amongst people ages 14 to 24, it’s the second leading cause of death. We were already in a situation where we’re seeing a deterioration of mental health. Then the pandemic comes along and primarily the way that people are affected is through creating isolation.
People are pulled back (from their normal lives). Many work at home. They can’t go to school. They can’t socialize in the ways that they typically can. And what we know with respect to mental health is one of the key factors. One of the key resources that we mental health professionals use when people are struggling are their support networks. An addiction psychiatrist once told me, and this is a guy who works with people who are severely ill, often in a life or death situations that are deep in the throes of hardcore addiction. He says, if I can get my patients plugged into a community where they can know someone and someone can know them, I’ve won half the battle.
I said, you’ve got to be kidding me? You are a Johns Hopkins (University) trained doctor. You have all the resources in the world. You’re telling me that if you can just get people to have a friend, then you’ve made it half the way there to getting healthy. And he said, “Yeah, absolutely.” And what I’ve since come to find out is he’s right. Human beings are not designed to be alone. This is something we discovered in the earliest pages of Genesis. God creates the world and we’re told there’s only one thing that wasn’t good and that’s that man was alone. And thus, He creates woman and the two come together. They partner and go out into the world. That’s how we’re designed. So, what we’ve seen with the pandemic is that heightened isolation and loneliness is a major factor in people experiencing relapses, not only with substances, but just with depression and anxiety.
What was the inspiration or catalyst for writing Depression, Anxiety, and Other Things We Don’t Want to Talk About?
I’m a licensed therapist and I’m also an ordained Episcopal priest. And I used to be a lawyer before that. Early in my career, I struggled myself with depression and anxiety. During my time working as a priest, it just really became apparent how stigmatized the topic was within Christian communities. What would often happen as a priest is people would come to me when things were really bad in their life. They had waited until a marriage was almost completely at its end or they were deep in the throes of battling with alcohol or another kind of drug. They’d been depressed for a long period of time before they would come to my office. I’m glad so they did.
And they would want me to pray with them. They would want me to listen which I was happy to do. But I got the sense that what they were looking for was sort of a Hail Mary pass. In other words, I don’t know what else to do so I’m going to come and ask the pastor and hope that he has some kind of access to God that I don’t. And he can make it all better. I would hear these things. And of course, I’d offer to do what I could do, but I would say, it sounds to me like you might be struggling with depression or, it sounds to me like you might have an issue with alcohol.
So, I ran up against a lot of stigma with that. It made me want to understand more about what was going on in the mental health community, because I thought, what if I go and learn more about it. Maybe I can be a conduit between these two communities. And the more I got into it, I realized, it’s not enough for me just to go learn about it. I don’t want to be a pastor that just talks about how important counseling is. I’m going to go ahead and go get the education myself. I’m going to become a mental health professional. And then that way maybe I can really begin to speak into both communities. What I discovered was that by doing so, I was able to translate a lot of what was going on in the therapeutic, psychological sciences to the Christian community in a way that encouraged people to get help.
I wrote this book because I want to normalize this conversation, provide some basic conversation starters to mental health and also share that this can happen to anyone.
Mental illness doesn’t discriminate. I can talk about these issues from my credentialing, as a pastor, and as a therapist. But I also talk about this as a co-sufferer. I’m not Moses up on the mountain top. I’m just an Israelite down in the valley. I know these pains. I experienced these pains. I have to deal with these pains.
And if I can help a couple of people, know that it’s okay to raise their hand and say, “I love Jesus with all my heart, but the reality is I also need to go talk to somebody. I need to go to a group, or I might need medication. I want them to know that’s okay. That’s not turning your back on God. God has given us all these resources for healing. And taking advantage of those resources is actually a very brave and a right thing to do. It’s not a betrayal of your faith in God.
As you have mentioned, even today, there seems to be a stigma surrounding mental health and the Church. The commonly held stereotype is that if you are a Christian you should be able to easily overcome stress, anxiety, and depression because God is “on your side”. It is not a matter of insufficient faith. How can the Church effectively have conversations about mental health instead of burying it under the carpet?
One of the best ways we know is that data shows when a person struggles with their mental health, the first two people that they tell, are their primary care physician and their pastor. This means the pastors have a really important role here. Here’s what can help. People listen to what comes out of the pulpit. So, what pastors can do to help tremendously is simply talk about this. Include it in the conversation. This can be done in very practical ways. We’ve all heard sermons where a pastor gets to point and list the maladies of life. Maybe a person is going through depression. Some are going through a divorce. Or, some people just feel spiritually dry. We’ve got to start including in that, depression, anxiety, mental illness or addiction. Talking about it and simply saying from the front, mental illness struggles with your mental health.
It is a part of the suffering of this world. It’s not some special category that’s been set aside for those who’ve been cursed by God or whatever it might be. It is a part of the spectrum of suffering. That’s got to be something that comes from the lips of pastors. What I think people don’t realize is just the mere mentioning of it can be liberating for human beings. I got started on this path years and years ago. I did not even intend to do this. I had a throwaway line in a sermon. I randomly mentioned that I’ve struggled with anxiety my entire life. I don’t even know if I really meant to say it. And my email inbox was flooded the next day. People said, “I’ve never heard a pastor say that. So, just talking about it, …
Allowing yourself to say it can go a long way. And then the other thing people can do is pastors and others can encourage people to check in on one another. Here’s the trouble. I think that a big reason that we haven’t been great about this in the Church is not because we actually believe anymore that this is something that needs to be hidden. Most Christians that I know really love God, they love their neighbor. They want to help. They’re open people, all of that. Mental illness scares them in the sense that they’re worried that if they ask someone, “Are you depressed?” Or if they ask, “Are you thinking about harming yourself?” They’re scared that the person is actually going to say yes, and then they don’t know what to do.
So, they don’t ask the question because they’re afraid of getting themselves in that situation. What churches can communicate is, “Look, we’ve got to check on each other. You’ve got to ask one another.’ And so I tell people, let me take the pressure off of you. If you ask someone if they’re depressed, or if you ask someone if they’re suicidal, part of the fear is that you think you’re going to put that idea in their mind or that you’re going to offend them. You’re going to make it worse. I can almost guarantee that’s not going to happen. If you take the time to ask your fellow brother or sister whether or not they’re struggling, what they’re most likely going to feel is, “Wow, this person noticed me. This person cared enough to ask me. Depression feels so isolating and lonely.
And because the pain is not visible, it can feel as though nobody knows. I’m just going to suffer alone forever. And again, that voice it’s never going to go away. So, they’re going to feel like they’ve been seen. Here’s the next thing. They’re not expecting you to solve it. They’re not expecting you to all of a sudden have a magic answer, a magic prayer, or a particular verse of Scripture that’s going to take away their depression. So you don’t have to have the pressure to do that. Here’s all you have to do. Listen to them non-judgmentally. Don’t offer an opinion. Don’t start telling them what they need to do. Don’t tell them anecdotally, what happened to your aunt. Just listen. Whatever comes up, just listen. Be that voice. Just be there, be that presence, just like Jesus.
Final question, after people have read Depression, Anxiety, and Other Things We Don’t Want to Talk About, what would you like your readers to take away from the experience? What is your greatest hope for the book?
For those who are suffering, if they haven’t taken action, if they felt like they would be marked as a depressive or an alcoholic, that they’re too afraid to seek help … I would hope that by reading the book, they can understand that their deepest identity is to belong as a child of God and any struggle they have with their health is just an aspect to their identity. It is not their (entire) identity. I hope that they would be moved, encouraged, and inspired to go get the help that they need. And then for the people who love people who struggle, I would hope that they come away from the book with a greater empathy for those who struggle, and that they would pick up some practical tools to help in how they can talk to their friends and family and how they might encourage them.