What Pastors Need to Know About Postpartum Depression
I sat on the arm of my couch, staring out of our apartment window, crying hysterically. My son crawled up next to me, put his hands on my thigh, looked up at me with his big brown eyes and asked, “Why are you crying, Mom?”. And I could barely whisper the words, “I don’t know. I don’t know.”
My third baby was three months old, we had just moved across the country and were at a new church where my husband had just been hired as the youth pastor. I didn’t know anybody. Even if I did, I wouldn’t have known how to reach out for help. When people at church asked me how I was, I’d say, “I’m ok” because I didn’t know how to say, “Everything is dark and gray and I can barely get up in the morning and I don’t know why!”. My husband didn’t understand, I felt like my entire church couldn't see me, my friends chalked it up to “baby blues” or “transition pains”. I was deep in postpartum depression, but I didn’t realize it until I started daydreaming about throwing myself down the stairs. On a particularly hard day, when my three month old, two year old, and four year old, were giving me no rest, I thought to myself, “I would be so relieved if one of them died.”
It was the worst moment of my life, and not because I had the thought, but because I didn’t feel bad about thinking it. I needed help. I needed help in the worst kind of way, but I didn’t know where to go. I knew if I asked the church, they would pray for me, but I’d also be labeled. Depressed. No one would come near me with a ten foot pole.
The church doesn’t know what to do with sad people.
We are uncomfortable with sadness. Somewhere along the line, we accepted and perpetuated the idea that being a follower of Christ equals being a happy person. We don’t know how to reconcile a King who breaks chains and conquers death with a child of God who is chronically sad. We believe in a God who sometimes heals and sometimes doesn’t. Most of the time, when he chooses not to heal, that person will pass away and we comfort each other by saying, “He is fully healed now.” But what do we do when God doesn’t heal the depressed Christian and that person continues to live with crippling sadness?
If you are a pastor, a church leader, or have a young mother in your life, I hope you will hear what I have to say. There are women in your church or in your lives that are in a life or death battle with depression. You can be their lifeline. These are the things everyone needs to understand about women with postpartum depression.
Depression lies to her all day long. It never stops. It tells her that she’s not good enough, that her family is better off without her. It tells her she’s a burden to her family and that her children would be better off with a different mother. It tells her the most loving thing she can do for her family is to kill herself. It tells her that she is worthless, that nobody cares about her, and that everyone thinks she's a joke. All day long, she battles lies. She has a hard time believing there was ever a time when she wasn’t this way. Everyone in her life will see that she is different, that she wasn’t always so sad, but she may not believe that. In her mind, she has always been sad and will always be sad. She has a hard time separating truth from lies. This is the biggest hurdle in ministering to the PPD sufferer. Keep speaking truth to her, even if she doesn’t believe it.
Depression is sadness, but it’s more than sadness. She isn’t just feeling down, she exists in a state of sadness and it exhausts her. She is so, so, tired. It’s not just the baby. It’s not just the toddler. It’s not her husband’s long hours. She is mentally, physically, and emotionally drained. The sadness isn’t “baby blues”, it’s heavy. It feels like a grown man is sitting on her chest all day long. If you ask her why she’s sad, she probably won’t be able to tell you, and if she does, it probably won’t make sense to you. Listen and comfort. That may be the best thing you can do for her.
Changing her circumstances will not fix the problem. Getting her out of the house, bringing food over, sending her on a mini vacation ... those things will help, but they won’t solve her problems. She is on a journey, the length of which is yet to be determined. Don’t try to simply remove her from her situation, walk beside her and be present in her sadness.
Don’t cliche it away. “God will make a way where there is no way.” “He does not give us a spirit of fear.” “He has a plan in this.” “He doesn’t give us more than we can handle” “If he brings you to it, he’ll bring you through it” I’ve heard every single one. People. These do not help at all. Just stop. Please. The most encouraging thing you can do for her is let her know you’re praying for her. Lay hands on her and pray for her right then and there, but for goodness sake, do not explain her problems away with a scripture or cliche. It makes her feel like she is beyond God’s help because the cliches haven’t cured her yet.
She needs to know that she’s loved in her brokenness. Try not to say things pointing to the future (“When you get past this.”, “When God heals you…”, “When you’re feeling more like yourself..”) She doesn’t believe that day will ever come. She believes she will never be happy again. Talking about the future does not give her hope, it makes her think that she will only be accepted and loved again once she’s better. In her mind, she will never be better and that your love and acceptance is conditional upon her healing. She needs to know that she is loved and accepted exactly how she is, in her brokenness. She needs to know that she doesn’t need to be healed before she can be a part of the church community. Welcome her with open arms just like anyone else. Not in spite of her depression, but because she is a person that is deeply loved by Jesus.
Offer to help her in practical ways. She might say no, but help her anyway. Drop off a meal, invite her to a movie, pass a starbucks giftcard her way. Each woman will have different needs and the best way to find out what kind of help she needs is to get to know her. If there’s a young mom or a mom to be in your church, strike up a conversation with her. You don’t have to wait until there’s a need to meet it, get one step ahead and be a friend now.
Bearing her burden will weigh heavily on you. Bear it anyway. Depression affects everyone around her. Her children feel it, her husband feels it, her friends feel it, her family feels it. Those who don’t understand her struggle may walk away from her, thinking she needs time to adjust. Most don’t know how, or aren’t willing, to hold her hand and be with her while she tries to get her head above water. It’s uncomfortable and frustrating and can leave them feeling helpless and often, mistreated. Stay with her. Stick it out. Continue to bear her burden even when it’s heavy.
Be present, be available, be inclusive, and most of all, be sensitive. Depression is a vile, lying, beast and can intimidate even the fiercest saint. My hope is that this article will inspire you to reach out and try to understand this complicated illness. We've lost too many wives and mothers and it's time for the church to start changing the conversation.
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