From Over the Edge: Breakdown, Depression, and the Church

Added about 4 years ago by Sacristy Press

On Wednesday 12th October, Sacristy Press was proud to host a thought-provoking—and even sometimes challenging—panel on mental health and faith, organised with Durham Cathedral. In the striking setting of Prior’s Hall, we heard about the personal experiences of three speakers. Jon Grogan, the author of From Over the Edge, was unable to join us, but his father, Reg Grogan, kindly spoke about his son’s and his own experiences of depression. Reg was joined by David Grieve, a retired priest in the Diocese of Durham and a Chaplain at Durham Cathedral and Chris Cook, a theologian at Durham University and priest at Durham Cathedral.

Chairing the discussion was Richard Hilton of Sacristy Press. He opened with an extract from Jon’s book:

If, having dared bring up the subject of our illness in prayer, we do not receive a more tangible and obvious form of healing from God, this can rock us. Or sometimes we can live our lives with an unchallenged assumption that we probably aren’t one of the lucky ones who are able to tap into God’s healing power anyway.

Rather than being distracted by such hang-ups, we would probably do better by finding out where the healing is already taking place in our livesyes, it is there, somewhere!and trying to be thankful for this. I know that we can also get unstuck by not understanding how asking for God’s help will fit in with the medical treatment that we have been advised to follow.

We are not in a position to doubt the validity of their claims, but, still, we might not be helped by hearing the testimonies of those who have claimed instant healing from God. These people tell us that they immediately threw all their antidepressants in the bin, and the suggestion seems to be that they should never have been relying on medication in the first place.

As I write, there have been some controversies in other fields of medicine where doctors have reported patients saying that they have been told by their church leaders not to continue with their medication, and instead to trust in the healing power of God. We might feel uncomfortable about that sort of thing, but how do we personally reconcile our faith in conventional medicineincluding psychiatric medicinewith our belief in God’s healing activity?

Jon Grogan, From Over the Edge (Sacristy Press, 2016), pp. 24–25

This, said Richard, was the important but difficult question that would be addressed by the panellists this evening. “I am sure there will be no easy answers.”

David Grieve spoke about his experience struggling with depression whilst serving the pastoral needs of his congregation, a struggle that ultimately led to his early retirement at the age of 37. Faced with a future that seemed “long and bleak”, David explained that he eventually found poetry-writing as an outlet that enabled him to harness his thoughts and experiences into words. Early poems saw him underline the conflict that arises between faith, or the practice or religion, and depression. David found, however, that he grew spiritually as a result of his struggles, finding a stronger awareness of the presence of Jesus in his life. Even in times when David found life black, he felt that Jesus had been with him in the darkness.

Reg Grogan then spoke about Jon’s composition of From Over the Edge and Reg’s own experiences of his son’s illness. He found that reading Jon’s book helped him as a father find a better understanding of depression but emphasised that Jon wrote the work as much for the benefit of others as for himself. Jon emphasised in his work the paradox that although God sometimes felt very far away, Jon could also feel God’s presence as being very close. For Jon, his illness became a spiritual pilgrimage. He was drawn closer to God because he felt more dependent upon Him. Jon received treatment from the medical profession throughout his illness but found inner strength from trusting in God. In writing From Over the Edge, Jon wanted to give hope to others who were suffering from mental illness with an honest and sometimes difficult account of his experiences. Reg spoke about the impact of Jon’s illness upon family life and the inevitable struggles of the every day. Reg emphasised that family life could be particularly difficult for a sufferer of mental illness because they wanted to appear well to their family. It was important, he reiterated, to provide love and support so that they knew it was alright to admit that they were unwell.

As a psychiatrist and priest, Christ Cook provided some broader context to David and Reg’s personal experiences. He emphasised the importance of recognising that even with a physical illness there was frequently a psychological or spiritual impact upon the patient. From personal experience, in fact, he found that a patient’s inner struggles were often more difficult to bear than any physical pain. He then spoke about the Church’s responses to those dealing with depression. It could be difficult to attend church regularly because to admit that they are suffering mentally could seem like a betrayal in some church communities where there is a strong emphasis on wellbeing being linked to the strength of one’s faith. Chris emphasised that the Church needed to make it easier with better training for ministers. Although some Christian traditions were more successful than others, most clergy are at a disadvantage and not in a position to provide the required support for sufferers of mental health.

Afterwards, members of the audience brought their own experiences to light, with the final comment being a pertinent reminder that Jesus’s public ministry started in the desert.

Copies of Jon Grogan’s book From Over the Edge sold out on the night, but, if you missed out, it is available at our online shop (paperback and e-book).


Please note: Sacristy Press does not necessarily share or endorse the views of the guest contributors to this blog.

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