08/29/2014 08:34 am ET Updated Aug 29, 2014

A Pastor Uses Her Own Experience To Counsel Depressed Parishioners

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This is the story of the Rev. Emily Freeman Penfield, a senior pastor at a United Methodist church in Birmingham, Alabama.

I began having anxiety attacks at the end of college and they seemed to center around leaving college, going to seminary, leaving my core group of friends and going somewhere else. So I sought out counseling and I talked to my mom and she helped me find somebody to go to. They put me on a low dose of Xanax. But one of the things that were most helpful that they taught me was breath prayers, which fit into my tradition and my thinking really well. I liked that I could help manage things with my breath and prayer.

I didn’t know anybody in Atlanta where I went to seminary. I was really out on my own, miles and miles away from my family and other people that I knew. I began to have more depression -- I just kept calling it anxiety because nobody had introduced the term "clinical depression" to me. I went to see a Christian counselor, who really thought I needed to be more active in church -- which I thought was strange because I was in seminary. That was what I lived and breathed all the time.

So I really just managed my way through seminary and didn’t have any helpful therapy or medication. I functioned well, I should say. Then two years after my first child was born, I began to feel depressed, like I couldn’t function, and really overwhelmed. My depression started with feeling really overwhelmed and like I couldn’t get everything done -- like there’s too much to get done. And I just thought, "I have to do something, I don’t function."

I went to see a counselor and after talking to my family, I realized that other people in my family were depressed. I had a history of it that went back a couple of generations. That hadn’t been discussed before, even with my anxiety problems. So I began to realize that this is a real thing that I have. And my counselor was really helpful in letting me see that this was a condition that I needed medication for and to do therapy for. We kind of have a way to prevent these times when I was just sinking.

Then a couple of years ago, my counselor left town and I moved from one church to another. I’d been at this church for 12.5 years and I was really happy there -- I felt like it was my community and like I was doing what I’d been called to do. But it was time for me to go for a lot of reasons. My new job was at a homeless shelter and that was hard to manage. I mean, I loved the people, but I just wanted to take everybody home. There’s so much mental illness, I kind of knew with a lot of them what was going on.

There are very limited resources for folks who live on the street to get mental help. There are some, but there are often long waiting lists and you have to go through so many different kinds of bureaucracy to qualify to get medication, or deal with a social worker who has 200 other cases and is overworked themselves. It really stinks. When I was in a place with some discretionary money, I would buy their antidepressants on behalf of the church because I thought that consistency was really important.

I stayed at the shelter a short time and moved on to a new church, but in that time, I had to adjust my medication and go on three things instead of just one. It took a while to adjust, but I finally found a new counselor who I was comfortable with and I was going pretty frequently, so I began to feel more balanced.

Sometimes I tell people that I have clinical depression. I mean, the church where I was for 12.5 years knew and I tried to use it in an encouraging way, but also so they would know what was going on with me when I was depressed. I’ve told some people at the church where I am now -- one of those people felt like they could go ahead and tell other people. I guess when people came to me, I just very matter-of-factly said, "Yes, that’s how I am and this is how I manage it." I try not to be embarrassed or anything.

When you’re a pastor, people have lots of different images of who you are and who you are supposed to be. Some people think we’re super human and in humility, I am not. I struggle just like a lot of other people and I’m not perfect. At some point you will see me at my lowest, and I hope you will care for me the way that you would care for anyone else who has some sort of illness.

Sometimes I can kind of see it in people in my congregation. I just notice things -- little behaviors that make me think they might be struggling with depression. And if someone is brave enough to confide in me that they are depressed, I really advise them to get counseling, and if they’ve been given medication to stay on that medication, to find something that balances them. There are all kinds of therapy, and some people look for yoga or exercise. There’s all kinds of tools out there. And it's important to know what your triggers are. But if someone goes off their medication -- medication has a stigma, and people don’t want to be chained to prescriptions or they think they’ll get hooked. But you know if you have cancer or some other disease, you don’t usually question taking your medication. If you want to have a full life, then you do what you need to do to be able to function. And I’ve seen time and time again folks in my congregation who have just decided that they don’t need their medication anymore, that everything is fine and they’re functioning well and then they find themselves hitting bottom weeks or months later.

I have been where it has been so dark and so scary that I didn’t want to go on. I know that I’ve never tried suicide or had those thoughts, but I’ve been in such emotional and spiritual pain -- just, a pain of your soul that I didn’t know how to go forward. And depression makes you not even want to go forward. It gives you thoughts so you don’t think you’re worthy, it takes too much energy to get out of bed and put on your happy face and even go call your counselor, who can help you get unstuck. The worst part of depression is becoming complacent about your depression -- being contained and not wanting to work your way out of it.

The stigma is the thing that can really be worked through. I think people who don't have depression see it as the opposite of happiness and joy, like an emotion instead of a chronic illness. And so for those people who have it, if they buy into that, they might say, “Oh I’m doing well again, so I’m fixed.”

I mean, sometimes we need to dive into our dark emotions, but chronic depression makes it so that you can’t function for long periods of time and that’s not OK to live with. And for people who don’t have depression, they think, "Well why can’t you just snap out of this?" There are some things I read after Robin Williams -- "He had all this to live for, why didn’t he get it?" Well, he didn’t get it because he had a chronic disease.

My counselor tells me: Someday there’ll be a cure for this. But some of my lowest points are when I think that this is something I’ll always have -- that even when I do the right things, this will take me down. I’m not going to die from it, but it’s chronic. Chronic disease stinks.

As told to Meredith Melnick. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.