The Truth About Missionaries and Depression

April 05, 2016

missionaries depression

On a particular Monday in Uganda, I didn’t want to get out of bed. I wanted to throw a shoe at the rooster’s head. I wondered if people would notice if the metal workshop worker who was clanging across the street suddenly went missing. I wanted to buy a box of Franzia wine, watch re-runs of The Sopranos, and eat day old pasta. I didn’t want to wage war with the mice in my kitchen anymore. I just wanted to stay indoors with the fan running a little while longer. I didn’t want to face the heat or the endless sea of haunted faces I knew were probably waiting for me at the office.

It felt like the stark landscape of winter, snow blanketing the spindling trees, everything, dry and bare.

Depression is a winter of the soul, everything muted. 

I felt bad and I felt guilty for feeling bad. What would people think of me if they knew there were days/weeks even where I felt depressed?

For a long time in our Christian circles, the reality of depression has been avoided like some kind of 19th century Scarlett letter. Christians are supposed to plaster that happy, fake smile to their face all the time, aren’t they? We’re not supposed to get overwhelmed by life or struggle with mental illness. And yet I was. But I thought it was my fate to suffer in silence.

What would people say if they knew I wasn’t super human?

It seems ridiculous to me now, but that’s how I really felt. I know how enticing it can be to submerge under the covers of isolation.

Depression can be a result of a difficult season, transition, or loss, or a biochemical imbalance. It can be a result of numbing our feelings to survive over time, or suppressing grief that needed to be expressed.

But regardless, depression is not a sin and it’s not your fault.

It’s high time we stopped letting stigma prevent us from thriving and faced the truth about missionaries and depression.

The September/October 2000 edition of Physician magazine reported that 80 percent of pastors and 84 percent of their spouses are discouraged or dealing with depression.

Even though I couldn’t find much specific statistical information on missionaries, given the fact that pastors and missionaries share analogous vocational callings, it’s likely that findings would be similar.

The daily struggles on the field, the vicarious trauma, loving people and being disappointed when you can’t always help them or they don’t make good choices, being without solid support systems, these can all lead to depression and/or burnout. 

I feel missionaries are at a greater risk for depression because of the extreme circumstances and situations they are faced with every day involving life and death, injustice, and bringing love into dark places. 

Here are some things I’ve learned about dealing with depression:

Don’t be ashamed

I know it’s difficult to put into practice, but let the shame and guilt go. God doesn’t think any less of you if you’re struggling with depression. There’s nothing “wrong” with you. You aren’t a “failure.” I was too afraid to ask for help for fear of what people might think. Looking back, that was silly. Most people would not have judged me and even if they had, it wasn’t worth putting my health at risk. Brain chemistry isn’t something you can control. Some of the most brilliant creatives have been melancholics. Don’t put on the brave face. Tell someone.

Get a counselor

After my second miscarriage, there were days when I felt it would be easier if I just wasn’t alive anymore. One of the only things that got me through was finding someone I could talk to who I could trust and open up to. I used to think there was some kind of stigma attached to “getting help” like it meant I wasn’t tough enough to handle life on my own. Now I know that humility is a sign that you’re willing to grow. Now that I coach and counsel missionaries struggling through depression, it’s rewarding to be able to give back out of personal experience.

Pop a pill

Christians get so weird about medicine, like somehow taking a Zoloft means you don’t have enough faith. Would you take an antibiotic if you had a bacterial virus?

We don’t need to prove to the world that we’re strong enough to tough it out.

We need to be honest. The reality is sometimes we need medicine to bridge a gap while we get our grounding. Sometimes, the chemicals in our brain need a little help. I’ve been there, I get it. It feels embarrassing to say you can’t white knuckle it anymore. That doesn’t mean you are some kind of “less than” floundering Christian on the brink of “losing your salvation” because you’re tired of fake laughing at the donut table. If you’re in a prolonged season of depression please seek help from a professional and try to see if medicine will help.

It’s a season

I’m reading a wonderful book by Mark Buchanan called Spiritual Rhythm, and one thing he says which I love is:

“This was winter. It would end in time, but not by my doing. My responsibility was to simply know the season and match my actions and inactions to it. It was to learn the slow hard discipline of waiting. It was my season to believe in spite of.”

Sometimes depression is a season, one that will end. Even David, the Psalmist, cried out to the Lord in despair in Psalm 42, “My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me all day long, ‘Where is your God?'” This season can feel disconnecting from God, and yet it too will end. There is no darkness that Jesus will not willingly enter to be with you in it. Use this time to allow Jesus to uncover what He still wants to heal in you. 

Exercise & Health

I know you don’t feel like exercising, but it does crazy good things for our brains and stress levels. Almost every day I do some kind of working out. You could go for a hike or run in nature, a walk in a park, or join a fun class at the gym or a DVD in your bedroom. Our gut health is also linked to brain chemistry so taking a probiotic, eating clean, and supplementing with vitamins like Fish oil, B 12, Vitamin D, 5HTP, and Gaba can help. Check with your doctor as you should not take certain supplements if already on antidepressants.

Gratitude & Worship

Ever since reading One Thousand Gifts, I have tried to take a few moments every day to meditate on what I’m thankful for and write it in my journal. The hushed whisper of the wind in the trees. RosieTheChippin wagging her tail on a trail’s ridge. The sound of my husband’s laughter. This practice of gratitude has proven benefits for lowering levels of depression and anxiety. It’s also you know, Biblical. As we give thanks through worshipping God and His creation, for praising His goodness to us even in the midst of pain, we are strengthened. I like to throw on some Bethel music when I feel down and just sing my heart out. Worship is spiritual warfare.

Get outside yourself

I know all about doom and gloom and negativity. I could beat out that kid in Charlie Brown who always has a rain cloud bobbing over his head. But sometimes just focusing on ourselves is depressing. It’s kind of like looking in the mirror in fluorescent lighting when you go swimsuit shopping. Get outside your head. Connect with other people. Do something nice for someone else. Write a sweet note or pray for a friend. Giving back in some way helps with the blues. Several studies have linked altruism with lower levels of depression. We do better when we have purpose, when we have compassion for others, when we live in community. When we gab with our girlfriends over wine and dark chocolate.

In the end, I submitted to the process I was in, the process of having to rely more on God than on myself, the process of bearing my cross and in it, more deeply trusting God.

I trusted that He would stand in winter with me clasping hands against a cold and bleary horizon.

Even though I was rootless, I rooted myself in His arms knowing He was a “man familiar with sufferings,” and He would lean closest to me in winter.

I trusted everywhere, underneath the packed ground, there were seeds we had sown that would eventually produce life.

I walked outside one day to the worn bench that has cradled all my tears, and next to it I saw the creamy whiteness of a calla lilies’ head standing tall against the foliage. It reminded me that God is ever present, already there, even when I feel out of control with worry and despair.

My winter isn’t a shock to Him. He’s already there in it, waiting to hold me, sending me signals of His love.

How have you gotten through depression? Or maybe you’re still in the middle of it?


**If you think you might be struggling with depression please don’t struggle alone. Seek professional help. I also provide coaching and pastoral counseling to missionaries and those in ministry. Contact me at sarithartz@gmail.com. 

*If you’re not sure whether or not you might be depressed, you can take this nifty depression test.

*Broken Hallelujahs is a wonderful book if you’re in a season of feeling depressed.

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  • Great article. I have experienced low to mild depression for most of my adult life. I am a pastor who lost his church and marriage several years ago (through no fault of my own) which kicked the depression into a deeper state. I am much better these days but I have experienced the shame and the inward anger of not being able to just snap out of it. As the saying goes, “the struggle is real.” I am trying to learn how to live with it, pray through it and allow Jesus to hold me in it. Thank you for writing on such a needed subject.

    • Thanks so much for your vulnerability in sharing Michael. I pray you continue to find Jesus and peace in the midst of your struggle.

  • Lisa

    Beautifully and wisely written!! Thank you for sharing so openly!!

    • Thanks so much Lisa. Appreciate your kind words!