A woman hunches over a well-worn altar encircling the foremost part of her church’s small but elaborately decorated sanctuary. It, like the walls, has overheard too many emotive outbursts and pleas for mercy to count, and on this particular day, she adds hers to the litany, sprawling her upper body across its weathered wood and slapping it to punctuate her silent prayer.
A member of the ministerial staff walks up and stands quietly behind her for a moment before leaning down and whispering an offer to join her. The woman, too choked up by long-stifled heaves and sobs to speak, nods in agreement. As the minister bends beside her, she asks the dismayed parishioner if there’s anything specific she’d like to pray for or about.
The woman has a hard time finding words to explain the reason why she’s draped across the altar. She’s not even really sure herself. All she knows is, for the last six months or so, life has been unfolding in a most unpleasant and burdensome way: her relationship is on the fritz, her children are cutting up, her health has been challenged, her job is the source of routinely thankless days. In her personal history, she’s been able to solider through those kinds of vicissitudes, but lately she’s been in more than a rut. She’s suffering from depression. She just doesn’t realize it yet because she hasn’t been diagnosed.
The minister doesn’t realize it, either. But her kneejerk reaction is to recommend what she knows best: keep praying. The woman does just that. She prays in her car and prays in the shower and prays during her lunch break and prays before she goes to bed. And still, despite her chain of supplications, she feels an overwhelming sense of hopelessness and isolation, to the point that it’s affecting her daily functionality. So the cycle continues, unbroken by the one solution that will help her get better. And unbeknownst to either party involved, the answer isn’t just a little talk with Jesus.
I’m a firm believer in the power of prayer. I’ve seen not only the joy of receiving God’s answer — even if it didn’t show up the way the person doing the praying thought it would or should — but also the cathartic process of connecting with the Lord and hashing out the emotions that go along with those deep, sincere, pleading-for-a-change kind of invocations. I’m also a firm believer, however, in the anointed calling that God has placed on some people to be therapists, psychologists and licensed counselors to help heal others much like neurosurgeons and cardiologists do.
One out of every 20 adults experiences some form of depression in any given two-week period. Hypothetically, that means in your office, your sorority, even your congregation, at least one person is struggling right now with symptoms that may be too deeply rooted to just be prayed away. Depression is the leading cause of disability in the country, particularly for women in their 30s. To complicate the issue, as if it needed more complexity, somatization — which, in the language of everyman, is physical ailment that crops up because of mental health problems—shows up at a rate of 15 percent in our community compared to only 9 percent among White folks. There’s a trickle down affect that proves what goes on in our heads has a direct impact on the rest of our bodies. Since we already have a higher rate of just about every disease under the sun, that makes our holistic health that much more serious.
Sometimes the compassionate ear of a girlfriend or the impassioned petitioning of a man or woman of the cloth isn’t enough. There’s just no substituting the expertise of a licensed mental health professional, and that includes self-medicating with drugs, alcohol, gambling, shopping and sex. Insurance coverage for mental health care is sketchy because many companies unfortunately don’t recognize that head checks are just as important as heart checks. That’s a battle in and of itself. But we need the church to take mental health — and physical health, for that matter — as seriously as it takes pleading the blood of Jesus over our souls. Statistics don’t lie, and neither do the numbers of brothers and sisters suffering in the pews.
Do deep and spooky theological breakdowns and exegeses of the Bible if you must. And keep praying, because the spirit and medical worlds indeed go hand-in-hand to facilitate healing. But pray for good therapists for the folks who need them while you’re at it because we, as a body of believers, should be doing our part to shake off the stigma and let the Lord do his work through the people he’s chosen to keep the rest of us from going plum crazy.