The theological reflection included at the beginning of my dissertation entitled “Towards a Contemporary Pastoral Theology of Clinical Depression”.
It is impossible, even for the most rigorous and professional of academics not to be moved and influenced by their own personal experiences in studying clinical depression for a substantial length of time.
This is particularly true when the writer has a personal experience of that which they are writing. Therefore, in order to preserve the following paper from my own preconceptions and misconceptions, it feels necessary to frame my own experiences and reflect theologically upon the process of developing a Pastoral Theology of clinical depression as someone who has suffered from clinical depression for nine years at varying degrees of severity. The use of theological reflection in Pastoral Theology is a recognised and important part of the academic process. O’Connell Killen and deBeer write “genuine theology is the fruit of a dynamic process of reflection.” That is to say that theology has never been set apart from life-and genuine theology emerges from rigorous academic study and theological reflection. The reflection which follows is based on Gerkin’s method of theological reflection, “The Living Human Document” which seeks to use written word in a variety of forms; verbatim, journals and personal letters to reflect on experiences. It is a method of theological reflection with a long history-far before Gerkin’s study of it. Examples include the Psalms and the works of C.S Lewis and Augustine. Therefore, in utilising this method I have drawn upon my own writings and reflections throughout the year to produce this reflection.
I am a twenty-three year old female. I am an evangelical Christian and have been since the age of five. I have been involved in voluntary work in Churches since the age of thirteen. I was also a mental health service user for five years, during which time I experienced the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, an Acute Inpatient Psychiatric Ward, a Crisis Home Resolution Team and my local adult Community Mental Health team. I have also acted as a Spiritual Care Volunteer in my local Acute Day Treatment Unit and an Acute Psychiatric Unit. I now work in a medical centre and run a mentoring project for young women with issues surrounding emotional health and self-esteem. These experiences have shaped my thinking in terms of mental health stigma and the way in which I personally self-stigma as opposed to public stigma. The above précis of my main life experiences represent a set of preconceptions and misconceptions which, although I have tried to keep separate from my work, have inevitably influenced my thinking and my thesis.
It is certainly true that I underestimated the difficulty of spending a year studying clinical depression. I perhaps rather naively assumed that it would not affect me or my mental health to embark on such a personal study having come to terms with my own experiences and the reasons it took such a hold on my teenage years. This was particularly true of the chapter in which I attempted to define clinical depression. Studying in depth the symptoms and effect of depression on functioning and faith stretched me academically, emotionally and spiritually. This is equally true for the biblical work, the apparently pervading hopelessness seen in Psalm 88 and in the Elijah narrative in 1 Kings 19 was difficult to get to grips with as it involved reading articles and commentaries which presented a far bleaker view of the sovereignty and goodness of God.
It has also demanded a high degree of professional partiality — what I have experienced as depression is far from definitive, and it proved a steep learning curve to accept other people’s experience of depression when it so often presented in completely opposite ways to mine. For example, throughout the course of my illness, sleeplessness has been something with which I have regularly struggled and as such I found it difficult to sympathise with those for whom hypersomnia is a major feature of their depression.
In addition, having to read so deeply and widely about people’s experience of depression was, at times, harrowing. This would probably be true for anyone studying such darkness, but it had the added dimension of being a darkness I had inhabited and fought for nearly a decade and it awakened memories of that darkness which challenged the mental equilibrium I have sought to develop and maintain over the past four years. Reading such articles and accounts impartially, but pastorally was particularly challenging as the immediate reaction is to reflect it back to your own experiences.
Moreover, it was particularly difficult to be impartial regarding particular strategies that whilst may have proven to be helpful or unhelpful to me personally were clinically proven otherwise for the majority.
That which proved most challenging, however, was also the most useful, stretching me academically and pastorally by challenging my own preconceptions to look at the factual evidence and seek out those things which best serve the suffering.
Killen, Patricia O’Connell and deBeer, John. 1994. The Art of Theological Reflection. New York: Crossroad. as cited by Yaghjian, Lucretia B. “Teaching Theological Reflection Well, Reflecting on Writing as a Theological Practice.” Teaching Theology & Religion 7, no. 2 (April 2004)
Gerkin, C. The Living Human Document: Re-visioning Pastoral Counselling in a Hermeneutical Model, London: Abingdon Press, 2008.
Graham, Walton and Ward, Theological Reflection: Methods, London: SCM Press, 2005.