Editor’s Note: As Mental Health Awareness Month comes to a close, we’re catching up with Gillian Marchenko to hear what she’s learned about ministering with depression. Whether or not you’ve experienced mental health issues, I know you’ll gain wisdom from her hard-won experiences. And if you do struggle, know there is hope. —Amy Jackson
Gillian Marchenko’s, second memoir, Still Life: Living Fully with Depression, recently debuted. Still Life is a stunningly honest and well-written reflection about her life—a life fraught with frequent bouts of Major Depressive Disorder, or clinical depression, in addition to Persistent Depressive Disorder, also known as Dysthymia.
In her memoir, Marchenko comes face to face with the severity of her depression and the toll it takes on her and her family. Her depression can be debilitating—at one point, she stayed in bed for weeks. In such instances, her husband Sergei, a pastor, functions as a single parent caring for her and their four girls (her youngest two have disabilities). Life becomes overwhelming.
Daily, Marchenko fights tooth and nail to keep her depression at bay and from ruling over her and her family. She will not let depression define her. No, she most certainly is not her depression—she is a child of God. So she clings to her identity as God’s child and all that a child-of-God identity entails. Love for her family, medication, therapy, healthy habits, and her faith in God—even when it is that of a mustard seed—keep her going. Even with chronic, and at times very severe depression, there’s still life (thus the title of her book). Ultimately, Marchenko’s book is a realistic and hope-filled account that doesn’t dish out easy answers. Her brutally honest self-examination coupled with her non-gratuitous exploration of how she and her family struggle to live well with her depression are what make this book stand out.
I recently caught up with Marchenko. She ministers on a local and national level in a variety of ways while actively battling a mental illness, and I wanted to ask her about depression as it relates to ministry.
Marlena Graves: In Still Life you come to terms with the reality of a lifelong battle against depression. How are you doing right now?
Gillian Marchenko: It depends on the day. Over all I think I am moving toward health, but major depressive disorder isn't something, at least in my experience, that goes away. Even with medication, therapy, a support system, and faith, depression comes and goes as he wants. The difference is he doesn't stay as long (as opposed to weeks or months at a time a few years ago). Sometimes I can kick him in the teeth to ward off an episode because of the tools I've acquired and the strength God provides.
You minister at home, church, and through writing and speaking. How has depression affected your ministry?
God provides through Jesus. I have nothing to offer in my own strength. I rely on the solid ground (to use an overused cliché). I have no other choice. If my life were up to me, I'd probably be dead. I don't worry so much now about trying to build my aspirations and desires for a life on my own because it just can't happen. Anything I try to build outside of Christ tumbles like a Jenga tower. So, in whatever ministry God leads me to, I lie on the cool, hard, pavement of Jesus and invite others to join me; to rest there and attempt stillness. I think people appreciate this ground level approach and (especially for my children) the reality that life is hard but God is there.
Also, God uses my illness. When someone approaches me saying that she has suffered silently with depression for over 30 years, I am reminded that nothing is wasted. The days I can't brush my teeth are not wasted. My depression is not wasted. It may not be the ministry I would have chosen for myself but I'm obviously not God. My mask has been ripped off because of Still Life and you know what? It's not so scary. Sharing our wounds and brokenness brings us from darkness to light. There is power in the light.
Is there ever a point at which depression disqualifies a person from ministry?
I'm not a professional in the field, but I think that if a person is at her lowest of lows, if she is battling serious plans of self-harm, or is unable to function on a basic level, she is better off taking a reprieve from ministry to focus on health.
Do I think people with mental illness should automatically be disqualified from ministry though? A resounding no! God has a plan and purpose for every one of his children to serve and be served in church.
What advice do you have for female leaders in the church who are depressed but are too ashamed or too scared to share about their depression?
Not all leaders experiencing depression have to share about their depression from the pulpit or in a public area of ministry. But they do need to reach out for help. Sometimes people think that if they ignore symptoms or pray harder or start exercising more, they will go away. Not so with depression. I usually tell people to start with a general doctor and make sure there aren't any medical issues that can mirror depressive symptoms such as a hormonal imbalance or a thyroid issue.
Then I recommend finding a therapist and a psychiatrist who can come up with a treatment plan. I also recommend that women find a couple of trusted individuals with whom they can talk to for support and prayer. Female leaders don't have to be stronger than anyone else. Mental illness isn't something to hide away out of shame. In fact, hiding and isolation can make the disease more severe. If a person breaks her arm, she goes to the doctor. Likewise, if a person is depressed, she needs to see a doctor. Depression is an illness. With time, God may prompt a leader to share her story publicly or he may not. It is up to him.
How might those of us in the church minister to Christian leaders who are depressed?
Don't count them out. Although they may need a sabbatical, they should not be disqualified. Assist leaders in finding help and continue to love and support them in the battle. Prayer is vital. Pointing them toward Christ is a must. But also, referrals to trusted therapists and psychiatrists is helpful. Organizations like Grace Alliance and Fresh Hope provide up-to-date information, support, and training for churches. Other ideas include asking about people's welfare, preaching from the pulpit against the stigma of depression and mental illness, and encouraging people who struggle to get more involved in church instead of isolating themselves. It's simple: don't give up on people.
How can we minister to the families of leaders who are depressed?
Depression is a family illness. Spouses, children, friends, and extended family all need support when a loved one is struggling. Homes are disrupted. There are no absolutes or secure daily routines. If the church is aware of a particularly difficult episode, bring meals. Offer to take the kids out for a Saturday afternoon, or help with basic things like drop off and pick up from school.
Here's a word of caution, though. Don't say, “Let us know what we can do to help.” Struggling families won't reach out. Instead, call and say, “If you don't have plans on Saturday, we’re taking the kids. We'll be there at 11:00 A.M.” Don't put the ball in a suffering person's court. Minister without invitation and before the family is desperately crying for help. And be on the lookout for caregiver burnout. If the family stops attending church, or appears weary and withdrawn, reach out. A lot of times when asked, a family says no to help. Help anyway.
I deeply appreciate Marchenko’s hard-won wisdom and the resulting insight she has. As the church, we could learn much from her and other children of God who battle mental illnesses. My hope is that we will put Marchenko’s advice into action and be more compassionate toward those who suffer depression. Still Life is an up-close and personal resource that shows the extent of depression’s grip on a life and a go-to resource for anyone struggling with depression or someone who is affected by depression.
—Marlena Graves is a writer, speaker, and the author of A Beautiful Disaster.