I have no shred of doubt that God hears and answers our prayers. I believe that God can miraculously heal whomever God chooses. However, suggesting that people can pray away depression and its symptoms leads to serious harm.
After years of struggling with depression and suicidality, here’s what I know to be true: Depression is an illness that is treatable, and suicidality is a symptom of depression. Psychologist Ashley Borders defines suicidality as “both suicidal ideation and actual suicide attempts.” I have suffered from both.
I am a Christian, biracial Chinese woman. Because I identify in this way, there are certain expectations that have been put on me that have worked against me during my lowest points. Fellow Christians have told me to “pray more, trust God.” My Chinese family, who are immigrants and have survived terrible circumstances, told me to “be stronger.” During these depressive episodes, I’ve felt ashamed for not being stronger or having more faith. Christian friends and mentors, as well as my Chinese family, reinforced that shame. “Have you tried praying more? You’re stronger than this.”
When I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder at age 35, I was given an incredible gift; I had an explanation that said: This is not your fault. I remember the relief I felt on that day. It marks the moment that initiated my true healing journey. Medication and therapy were critical for my mental wellness; not only was my brain chemistry imbalanced, but I had a history of childhood trauma. Being diagnosed with major depressive disorder finally gave me some understanding of my mental and emotional anguish.
I am grateful for all of the counselors and therapists I have seen over my lifetime. But it wasn’t until I lived in Singapore that I had a psychiatrist who came from a cultural background similar to my own. He was Chinese, and because of this he was able to understand cultural nuances, such as equating mental or emotional struggle to weakness, and weakness bringing shame to one’s family; feeling known in this way was extremely important. He was trained in Western medicine, but he knew the stigma of having a mental illness as a culturally Chinese person. He understood my challenges and fears in a way that I realized my prior therapists had not. He was also Christian. “Don’t let people tell you that you can pray this away,” he told me. “Would anyone ever tell a cancer patient that he needs to pray harder to cure his cancer? Depression is the same.”
A few years later, when my family and I moved to Switzerland for my new job, my depression flared up and my suicidality returned in full force. Upon landing, it was one stress after another: There was a language barrier as I didn’t speak German, there were new cultural mores to adjust to, and my husband and I were having trouble. My daughter who was 9 years old, was terribly grieving our life in Singapore and was being bullied at school. During this time, my depression was not being treated properly, which resulted in me having to leave my job.
We ended up moving back to the United States and living with my Chinese-Christian family. Two weeks later, I went to the hospital and was admitted to the psych ward. I was ashamed to a degree that I had never been before. I did not accept visitors other than my husband and daughter because I was so disgusted with myself. I felt like a failure — to my Chinese family and in my faith.
When I returned from the hospital after eight days of medication changes and daily therapy, I was caught off guard in an amazing way by my stepmother. “Take your time,” she told me. “Don’t do too much.” Though she worked full time, cared for my disabled father, and already had two adult children living with her before my husband, daughter, and broken-me started living there, she was telling me to take it easy. I can see myself then: wide-eyed, partially relieved, but also anxious. Could I take it easy? Was that really an option?
Days and weeks went by. Sometimes I laid in bed all day crying or sitting still in numbness; sometimes I was able to get up and make a meal or walk my daughter to school. I kept waiting for my stepmother to tell me to find a job, or go to church, or try something new. I thought, “I should be getting better by now ... What am I doing wrong?”
But I never heard these words or anything like them from her. She was patient and so very understanding. She told me, specifically, not to go back to work too soon and especially not full time. “You need time, your brain chemistry is not balanced. You can’t rush, do only what you can,” she told me. “Cry when you need to.” She encouraged me to heal and never told me to be stronger. I was grateful and also curious. This was new. Then one day, she told me about a friend of hers who was a Chinese immigrant living in the United States and who suffered from depression. She had lacked the care and treatment that she needed for many months. She died by suicide, having taken care to avoid disfiguring her face; even in death she worried of bringing shame to her family. I continue to feel the weight of this story on my whole body: my chest, my stomach, and my shoulders.
After this tragedy, my stepmother took it upon herself to learn more about depression and the various treatments possible. She researched brain chemistry, mental illness, drug treatments, and therapy. It was too late for her friend. She did not know that I would ever end up at her house, in a similar mental state. I hardly ever discussed my depression with my Chinese family because I feared their responses would exacerbate my shame. But in opening up to my stepmother, I realized that God brought us together when we both needed one another. God prepared her for me — she was the angel that I never prayed for.
For those of us who have a relative, friend, or church member suffering from mental illness, I pray we turn away from the dangerous belief that mental illness is something that can be prayed away. Keep praying, but stop telling us to pray in an effort to rid ourselves of mental illness because it gives more power to our shame. In addition to your prayers, take action that helps. We need grace, patience, and understanding; we need someone to sit with us in our darkness, to hold space for us; we need acceptance for every emotional state we find ourselves in. Ultimately, we need real human people to show us the love-in-action that God desires for us.
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal ideation, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 800-273-8255.