One of the things I’ve wanted to do more of on this blog is to interview people who I consider (s)heroes/mentors/inspiring folk. There is a lot to be learned from sitting down and talking with people I admire. This point continues to be driven home to me. So when one of my former graduate school professors, Dr. Monica Coleman, approached me about hosting a “blog conversation”, I was flattered and it seemed like a good fit.
Dr. Coleman is gearing up to host an online reading group during Lent that will study her devotional guide, Not Alone: Reflections on Faith and Depression (if you’re interested, check out the book trailer which features the other half of the Heinzekehr household). If you are interested in joining this reading group, more information can be found here. Also, note that readers of this blog are eligible to enter a raffle to win a chance to participate in this reading group free of charge. You can find more details and enter the raffle following the interview.
Here’s a few fast facts that you might want to know about Dr. Coleman:
- She is Associate Professor of Constructive Theology and African American Religions and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies at Claremont (Calif.) School of Theology.
- She is an ordained elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church
- Dr. Coleman has earned degrees at Harvard University, Vanderbilt University and Claremont Graduate University.
- She has been featured as an expert in religion and mental health on NPR, blogtalkradio, BeliefNet.com, PsychCentral.com, Huffington Post and HuffPo Live.
- You can follow her blog on faith and depression at www.BeautifulMindBlog.com.
- She is the author or editor of five books, including Not Alone
And here’s one more fun fact for you: it was in Dr. Coleman’s class on “becoming a public scholar” where I was given the assignment to start a blog and post on it once a day for one whole month. I entered this assignment begrudgingly, but almost two years later, The Femonite blog is still alive and kicking. Who knew?
But enough intro stuff, let’s dive into our “blog-versation.”
Hannah: Talk a little bit about the reason you wrote Not Alone.
Dr. Coleman: Toni Morrison says, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” I wrote NOT ALONE because it was the book I wanted, the book I needed. I often have difficulties finding devotional literature that I like, and there is very little written about being faithful while living with depression. Living with depression has been one of the biggest challenges to my faith, but I couldn’t find other people with whom to talk about this; little to read. So I started writing about it.
Who do you hope will discover and read this book?
Originally, I thought of this book as being for other people who live with depressive conditions – unipolar and bipolar depressions. But I also think this book is meaningful for people who love people who live with depression. It can be meaningful for people like therapists or clergy who serve people who live with depression. I think it can give a window into how we often feel, how we wrestle.
You are both a pastor and a public academic scholar. How do you feel like both of these arenas talk (or don’t talk) about depression?
I think many clergy are doing a better job of addressing depression. Yes, there are many clergy who still say negative things about depression. Many clergy imply that depression comes from a lack of gratitude or faith. But many clergy are also well-trained in pastoral care and they can give very sympathetic responses. I don’t feel like the academy talks about depression enough. There are a lot of articles about the post-tenure let-down and there are increasing articles about the challenges of adjunct faculty (including attendant depression), but not much about academics living with depression. I think there is still a lot of stigma out there. After all, depression affects the mind and the academy is supposed to be “the life of the mind.” It’s hard to admit something might be wrong with our minds. When I wrote an article in Inside Higher Ed about facing tenure with depression, the responses suggested that few academics had heard this experience enough.
Was it easier to be open and honest about depression in one setting vs. another?
I find it easier to be open about depression in church settings. I am probably more vulnerable in churches in general. Because faith is so close to my heart and so close to who I am. Within the academy, there are still so many ways that my reputation matters – promotions, fellowships, committees, appointments, etc. I feel more … guarded.
What are some of the worst things that people can say to someone with depression?
I’ll respond with some of the things that I have heard:
“Just get over it” / “Suck it up”
“Depression is a tool of the enemy (i.e. devil)”
“All things work together for the good of those who love God”
“Everything happens for a reason”
“Did you pray about it?”
Any key cautions that you’d offer to people?
Don’t say those things.
Fair enough! On the flip side, what’s helpful?
Saying these things:
“I’ll keep you in my prayers.”
“Is there anything I can do to help?”
Any recommendations for how individuals or congregations or communities can care for those living with depression?
Yes. I actually wrote a blog about it: 10 ways you can pray for people living with mental illness
Here are three:
- Donate money to a mental health advocacy organization like National Alliance on Mental Illness, Depression Bipolar Support Alliance or Mental Health America.
- Bring a meal (or order food delivery) for someone who you know or suspect is depressed.
- Drop by and take a walk with someone who you know or suspect is depressed.
You’re a theologian. How do you see God fitting into all of this? How has living with depression shaped your theology?
Funny you should ask that. I wrote an article for Jesus, Jazz and Buddhism about that featured on Monday, March 3rd. The short answer – living with depression helped make me a process theologian.
You’re also a public figure. How do you balance what you share publicly about this journey and what you keep private? Talking about your own journey with depression is obviously very personal, so what limits or boundaries do you place on the conversation?
It’s scary. I resisted writing about and talking about it for a long time because it makes me so vulnerable. I usually write about depression issues after I’m experiencing them. (For example, I’m writing about depression during pregnancy now that my daughter is 18 months old.) It’s really hard for me to write or speak or be creative while I’m depressed. When I do write about it, part of me imagines that no one is reading what I write. This helps me feel better about it. So I’m always a little surprised when people talk to me about things I’ve written. I try to write about myself and how I feel – without involving much detail about people around me. I also don’t write or talk about depression academically. I know a lot about depression and I try to stay up on the news, but I’m not a researcher in this area. For me, this is ministry. So when I feel like writing about talking about it can help other people, then I’m a lot less scared.
Monica A. Coleman is hosting an online reading group this Lent through her book, Not Alone. Participation includes the eBook of Not Alone, daily inspirational emails, vegan recipes (for those who may give up meat), a resource list and a weekly conference call with the author. Learn more information here. Readers of this blog are eligible for a raffle for one FREE participation. Click the link below to enter the giveaway. Winner will be chosen randomly and notified with 48 hours of the end of the raffle.
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