Managing depression during the holiday season
Mark Meynell is Europe & Caribbean Director for Langham Preaching (a programme of Langham Partnership), and part-time Chaplain to HM Treasury, HMRC & the Cabinet Office, in Whitehall, London. He is married to Rachel and they have two children (Joshua, 20 and Zanna, 17). He is passionate about connecting Sundays to Mondays in worldview and cultural terms, and has written a range of books that seek to do just that.
Here, we chat with him about he manages depression during the holidays and how he helps others to do the same.
1. How do you manage depression during the holiday season?
It can certainly be a difficult time for many people, regardless of whether they have mental health challenges. I guess it boils down to how we manage triggering events or circumstances in general. The better we know ourselves, the better we can anticipate the danger zones. Each of us is different, but after many years handling this stuff, I have a good idea of where my vulnerabilities lie. Where trigger moments can be avoided, we should do so. Where not, we need to build up our resilience with other things that are helpful. So much of it is about being anticipating situations ahead of time.
2. What have you found to be the most helpful form of self-care, especially around Christmastime?
When I’m with a big group for an extended time (as often happens at this time of year—it’s why family tensions arise now!), I often need, where possible, to have some recharging time alone. This might simply be with a good book and an iPod for a bit (if I can’t physically be alone, perhaps). It does help if those around us are aware of our challenges, and so it doesn’t require explanation. It’s harder if you’re battling in isolation (whether because of being physically alone or because others don’t 'get it' at all). Either way, it really does help to be in contact with supportive friends through other means, though—perhaps by text or messenger—even if you’re with family. I think it is especially at these times of year that we need our 'friends in the cave’ (as I put it in the book).
3. As a minister, how do you support others who experience depression?
None of us have unlimited capacity so with any area of pastoral ministry, we always need to work in teams, or at least as groups of friends. It is always risky if people become entirely dependent upon just one person. Furthermore, speaking as one who both gives and needs pastoral support, we need infinite patience. The temptation to offer quick fixes or glib soundbites reveals a deep impatience and lack of empathy. Instead we need to be prepared for things to take time and for conversations to be repeated. We might have a 1 hour conversation today during which a lot of issues get ‘covered’. But tomorrow may be a very different day. The same concerns may raise their head again (but perhaps for different reasons) and so as a pastor I need to be prepared for a sense of déjà vu. Simply saying ‘but we sorted this out yesterday’ is unlikely to be much use!
4. What advice would you give to people who will be alone during the holidays?
The first thing is to try to keep occupied - by which I don’t mean just idly surfing the internet or being glued to the tv for hours on end. Perhaps plan to do something you’ve never done before (like a writer you’ve never read; walking in a new area; an activity or craft you’ve never tried). Try to have people you can be in contact with - even just to check in with each other. Being in a Christian community should be great for this kind of support - but sadly, many find that Christmas is precisely the time to batten down the hatches and ignore the world beyond our family walls. This actually undermines the claims we make about what the church is. We can all do better...
5. Which books have you found most comforting in times of depression?
As I say in my book, the Psalms is my go-to biblical book. For their honesty, rawness, compassion - I get to know myself better through them, but even more importantly I get to know my God better through them. Most remarkably, they help me to face up to my brokenness WITH him instead of hiding it FROM him.
Unfortunately, my experience is that there are few Christian books about depression that help (either because they’re too generalised or too prescriptive or too glib - or all three!). My go too book is not Christian at all - William Styron’s powerful memoir Darkness Visible. But if there was one Christian book that has helped me more than anything it would be Zack Eswine’s book Spurgeon’s Sorrows.
Other things I turn to:
- The poetry of George Herbert - 400 years old but so up to date!
- The graphic books of Matthew Johnstone (I had a black dog and Living with a Black Dog)
- Lots and lots of music of all sorts!