Truth, Damn Truth, and Statistics

So according to a 2008 study out of Duke University’s Clergy Health Initiative clergy are much more likely to suffer from depression than the general population. At least half again as much, if not twice as likely. The summary of their report can be found here.  

Is anyone really surprised?

The survey also found that clergy had a 13% chance of being anxious (7% of clergy were both depressed and anxious).

What really surprised me was how low the numbers were. 

87% of clergy interviewed were found not to be anxious?

90ish percent were found not to be depressed?  

I’m thinking the North Carolina Methodist clergy that were interviewed for the study must have found some magic elixir that they add to their morning coffee or started therapy the day that were ordained. If so, good for them.  At this point in my journey it is hard to imagine that many non-anxious and generally healthy and satisfied clergy. But that’s me.

Then there was this no-brainer: 

“…the study found that pastors’ sense of guilt about not doing enough at work was a top predictor of depression, and that doubt of their call to ministry was a top predictor of anxiety.” 

Perhaps there is some odd solace in the numbers being reported here.

“The likelihood is that one out of every four pastors is depressed,” said Matthew Stanford, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.”

OK. Final statistic. I promise.

 The article goes on to say that “Nearly two out of three depressed people don’t seek treatment, according to studies by the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. Counselors say even fewer depressed ministers get treated because of career fears, social stigma and spiritual taboo.”

I have probably danced around the edge of depression for a good chunk of my life. I tried to get better. I really did. My best effort included a handful of periods of weekly therapy over the past decade with a pastoral-therapist. The first lasting six months, after accumulating stress and anxiety turned inward and left me with a perpetually twitching eye, insomnia, and a lack of energy that made it difficult to leave the house. Days crashed one into the next into the darkness. There was the horrible reflux that I tried to cover as genuflecting before the altar, with my right hand grasping the hand-carved wooden cross around my neck and me in a deep bow just trying to make it through another service without collapsing from  the pain. There were further stressed-induced humiliations, too, including one that men are far less likely to talk about, even less then depression. Which means practically never. So there was that. 

The counseling helped. Like releasing some steam from a pressure cooker. After talking it out with my therapist all would be well. For awhile. Years at times. Or months. And I found myself returning to the therapist’s chair (no couch in sight) off and on over the years as the stresses of life as a parish pastor  (budget woes, declining membership, conflict) built up and sometimes overwhelmed me. and I would always bounce back. Until I didn’t.

At some point 18 months of sadness just adds up to more than the sum of its parts; takes it toll. It can invites one to question  one’s specific and vocational call, even one’s faith. It makes every decision complicated and every decision made becomes viewed through a lens of self-doubt.  So I woke up one day last month and decided to do the thing  that I had told myself I would never do:  I made an appointment with a psychiatrist. Ten years of talking about the stress and anxiety in my life had helped, but I was tired of the treadmill. I needed a different approach.



4 thoughts on “Truth, Damn Truth, and Statistics

  1. From the first couple of posts, this sounds like a difficult journey. And I agree that many clergy have struggled with depression (including myself) at times. May God’s healing be present in the journey. I look forward to reading more of your insights along the way.


  2. Indeed. As a Pastor, four years ago, I found myself at the bottom of a well I had no idea how I had gotten into nor had any idea how to get out of. Then came the night my wife announced that our marriage was over. After we went to bed, I got up, scrawled a note (“No church funeral.”) and wandered out into the snow wearing sandals and no coat to die. As I walked I saw my shadow, in my eyes a grotesque and misshapen mockery of a person.
    Six miles and an hour-and-a-half later, I stumbled into an all-night 7-11 (“Oh thank heaven” indeed!) and announced to the startled clerk that I needed him to call an ambulance. From there I found myself safely ensconced from myself in the local psych unit. It literally saved my life.
    Several people were openly offended that a Pastor could have done such a thing. One therapist– an Episcopalian– questioned whether I had a valid faith at all. In truth my Faith had not failed me. I had prayed the Lord’s Prayer and the “Hail Mary” (…pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death) throughout my walk. I had the good fortune (Grace) to be assigned a psychiatrist who actually knew how to deal with a Pastor. (She’s still my doctor…) I began a successful regimine on an anti-depressant. My Bishop intervened with my congregation and arranged a six-week sick-leave and I entered an intensive, daily out-patient group therapy program. My congregation wrapped their arms around me…even though some did not understand and all were hurt at my inability to communicate my despair to them…and worked with me through the divorce.
    I am in a different parish now. I told my new congregation about my Major Depression and General Anxiety at the start. I also told them my “pattern,” so they might see my descent if I could not. Not surprisingly when I share my story (not the whole necessarily) their stories come too… their own diagnoses, their loved ones who they struggled with and love, even former pastors who struggled with depression and despair but couldn’t name it or admit it.
    Be of good courage and peace. Like you note, you are not alone nor are you the first to walk this dark path. Indeed, Christ walks it ahead of you and along with you, for it is the Via Crucis…the way of the cross.


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