Bre Strobel is a stay-at-home mom of two living in St. Paul, Minnesota. She was formally diagnosed with severe postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety in 2015. In 2019, Bre co-founded and wrote for Of Fig Trees and Mustard Seeds, an online devotional for those with mental illness. Most recently, Bre has moved on to fully embrace her life as homemaker and homeschooler, even as she continues her calling of writer, advocate and peacemaker within the body of Christ.
Facing This Present Trauma
How the Church can offer healing and hope to those with mental illness
This year, our nation and our world have experienced a truly unique time of facing trials together. Outside of the World Wars, I don’t know if any other time in history has captivated the entire world in common circumstances. Yet, while we have faced similar trials, we have also been separated and physically isolated due to COVID-19. During this time, the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and many others all coming to light in the matter of a month triggered a global movement to support the plight of Black Americans in the U.S. and abroad. Many of us are walking into the trauma the Black community has faced generationally and seeing it more clearly for the first time.
These dual traumas—what we have endured from living through a pandemic and that of our Black brothers and sisters—are at the forefront of our social landscape. And they’re not going away anytime soon. For those experiencing mental health problems, these issues have only amplified those effects. As the Church, this cultural moment presents an opportunity to lead our communities in healing and restoration that can only be found in looking closely and learning more, through empathy and compassionate care.
When my daughter was seven-months-old, I was diagnosed with postpartum depression. After months of sleep deprivation, the stress of my daughter being “failure-to-thrive” from undiagnosed acid reflux and living miles away from friends and family (we’d recently moved), my husband and I weren’t sure if my depression resulted from our circumstances or if I would’ve had it anyway. All we knew was that I wasn’t myself.
I lacked interest in life and the ability to do ordinary, daily tasks. My daughter’s clean laundry took up residence in the middle of our living room for several months, accumulating cyclically. I leaned on meal replacement shakes for breakfast just to eat something in the morning and cooked dinner only about two or three days a week. If it wasn’t for needing to care for my daughter each day, I rarely would have left bed at all. Without a community to lean on, my husband carried all of the leftover work of caring for our family on top of his graduate studies.
When we told our church small group of my diagnosis, they hadn’t known us yet for even half a year. When I did reach out for help in the following weeks, I received well wishes and prayer. They didn’t know us well enough to know how to help more practically—nor did they know enough about the nature of the problem—and there was no organized effort to ensure we received care.
We came to love our small group and the church, but that moment early on made it hard to feel connected or share authentically for some time. We saw the ways this group came together to bless moms with newborns through meals, gifts and coffee. We saw them pull together money and gift cards to buy a family a new fridge. We saw them bless families in grief. I knew they were so capable of organizing to love others, which made the absence of that care in my deepest moment of need sting long after the moment had passed. It called my attention to a need I wouldn't have recognized had I not faced it myself.
I had hope one day in church as one of our elders talked about his own experience with feelings of depression and anxiety. Finally, I thought, someone would tell us how God meets us in our afflictions. Maybe he’d give some helpful analogies or even some practical tips on what got him through that mental space. But then he simply said he realized he wasn’t trusting God with his situation and read from Matthew 6:
“And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?…Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (vs 27, 34, ESV).
I can’t remember much of the rest of the sermon except feeling that the balm I was expecting had been passed right by me.
Yes, Jesus said not to be anxious, but what about when your mind is sick and you have no real control over it? I could no more stop being anxious or depressed by remembering God was in control than I could stop vomiting when I had food poisoning. I knew God was in control, but what I was struggling with was to understand what my faith meant in the midst of clinical depression and anxiety. I left the church service feeling more lost, defensive and unseen than ever.
The collective trauma
In the first week of social distancing, I noticed myself going back to that old, dark place in my memory, and it caught me off guard. The isolation, separation from my help network and sudden lack of person-to-person contact outside of my own household reminded me of my early days as a mom. And now, amid this global pandemic, our whole society has been thrown into a starkly similar reality. In a time of uncertainty, many of us are left tangibly without our support networks and feeling isolated, shocked and confused. What we knew as normal is gone for the long-term, and life looks very different and unusual moving forward.
A multitude of helpful tools and infographics have filled social media in this season. I’ve seen articles that aptly call what many of us are experiencing, “grief.” Mental health practitioners from Instagram and Twitter are also delving into the more complex field of trauma—not only how we are collectively experiencing a trauma, but how past trauma can awaken and affect how we deal with our present, as well as offering practical coping tips. Moving forward, we can’t ignore the collective mental health crisis we are facing.
For me, the symptoms are always less obvious than the signs. Wanting to stay in bed all day, a lack of desire to meet my own basic needs—let alone those of my children— feeling desperately like I can’t handle a task as simple as walking to the kitchen and pouring a glass of water, self-isolating instead of engaging in contact outside of the home. These all tune me into what’s happening mentally and physiologically. I neglect basic care. My mind constantly races. I struggle to sleep, but sleep is all I want to do. I feel like crying all the time, and my anger boils quickly and unexpectedly.
I know these signs. This is depression.
If I didn’t know what I was dealing with, if I didn’t have the tools to address it, I would probably sink deeper into those patterns until I really wasn’t able to leave bed all day. Until my mind turned against me, looking for a way out, and I’m contemplating taking my own life. And I have been there.
These are the symptoms I faced as a new mom. These are deep trenches I’ve worked to reroute in my mind. And praise God, rerouting is possible.
The Church’s role in healing
Through counseling, I’ve learned that trauma and mental illness can’t simply go away on their own. They need to be addressed. Rewiring the broken circuits needs to be done intentionally. A church with leaders who understand the importance of counseling and compassionate care can speak directly into the struggle of depression from the pulpit. Churches can affirm to those who meet trials—even trials that involve mental illness—that our faith is proof of God’s love for us. That we don’t need to pray harder or have more faith if we haven’t yet received healing, but that the mustard seed of faith we have is valid. To encourage and believe in the growth of that tiny, steadfast faith (Matt 17:20; Luke 13:18-19; Luke 17:6).
The problem is not just cognitive, and it’s not just spiritual. In fact, many people dealing with mental illness can have strong faith, even if they struggle with it. I think the word "illness" is very helpful to keep in mind, because we’re not dealing with a simply unhealthy thought process—we’re dealing with an unhealthy brain.
Dr. Henry Cloud recently launched a series addressing mental health in the church called, “Become a Church That Heals.” Interested churches can purchase his course for their leadership. Dr. Alison Cook is also a strong guiding voice for mental health within the church, discussing the harms of spiritual bypassing and how to establish emotional health and boundaries, especially for women.
These resources can aid church leadership in understanding mental health issues, implementing a plan and finding the right language to use to be a place for healing for people struggling with mental health.
Christians have struggled with mental health for a long time, and this pandemic has exacerbated the issue for many. The Church, empowered by Christ, can love those experiencing mental health issues by learning to understand, by affirming the faith of those affected and by working toward a healthier discussion on the topic. When we are people who live with a compassionate understanding of our culture's biggest problems, we can join in God's work of fostering health in our communities.