Information on Depression for Mentors

Dr Barbara Visser
August, 2011

This has been written specifically for use by mentors of those in church leadership.

Church leaders are subject to stress in their work, as are those in other occupations. Stressors that they share with others include excessive work demands, role conflict and lack of work autonomy. However, they also experience stressors unique to their work. Some of the factors contributing to this stress flow from the intangible nature of the work, but also are related to high congregational expectations, increasing congregational mobility and the changing nature and status of ministry in secularised societies (Miner, Dowson & Sterland, 2009).

Due to the high levels of stress experienced by church leaders, a number will develop symptoms of depression at some time during their ministries.

What is depression?
Depression is an illness which affects a person on many levels of his or her functioning, including emotional, behavioural, cognitive (problems in thinking), and physical functioning. Spiritual functioning can also be affected. Depression is not just having a few bad days; it is an illness lasting for at least a two-week period, and can last for several months. It may be mild, moderate or severe.

What are the features of depression?
Depression affects every sufferer differently. Not all those with depression will experience all symptoms, but below are the features commonly presented:

  • Markedly depressed mood
  • Loss of interest or enjoyment
  • Reduced self-esteem and self-confidence
  • Feelings of guilt and worthlessness
  • Bleak and pessimistic views of the future
  • Ideas or acts of self-harm or suicide
  • Disturbed sleep
  • Disturbed appetite
  • Decreased libido
  • Reduced energy leading to fatigue and diminished activity
  • Reduced concentration and memory

Depressive symptoms are often accompanied by anxiety such as worry or panic symptoms. There may also be a desire to withdraw socially.

How is depression treated?
Usually, treatment comprises psychological treatment, antidepressant medication, or a combination of the two.

Psychological treatment is eligible for a rebate under Medicare after a person is referred by his or her medical practitioner to a registered psychologist or clinical psychologist. Christian psychologists are available in most metropolitan areas, and in some regional areas.

What can the mentor do?
Recognize the importance of good mental health for those in church leadership.

Ask mentorees about their emotional well being; don’t be afraid to discuss this. The presentation of cheerfulness doesn’t rule out the possibility that the mentoree may be experiencing depressive symptoms.

Make the mentoring relationship a safe place for mentorees to initiate conversation about their mental health if they desire.

Be aware of signs that depression may be developing; the mentoree may mention something that you perhaps should ask more about.

Know where to refer for professional assessment and treatment: the mentoree’s general practitioner is usually the place to begin. He or she can then refer to a psychologist or a clinical psychologist for treatment.

Recent research has demonstrated that an internal orientation to ministry increases ministers’ job satisfaction and renders them less vulnerable to psychological symptoms (Miner et al., 2006, 2008). The three features of internal orientation to ministry are:

  • Personal autonomy (capacity to make independent choices)
  • Spiritual relatedness (connection to God)
  • Professional skills (competence in ministry)

A focus within the mentoring relationship on deriving authority for ministry from an internal orientation to ministry rather than from external sources such as congregational approval and support will assist in building resilience against the the work-related factors that may contribute to depression.

Further assistance
I am willing to be available free of charge to mentors who would like further assistance with any of the above, or if you need help with other issues related to mental health or problem behaviours. For example, you may be experiencing difficulties in a mentoring relationship – feeling stuck, or a mentoree may be engaging in unhelpful thinking or behaviour patterns.

My background of sixteen years of pastoral ministry with my husband (including planting two churches), as well as my clinical knowledge and experience, has given me a real desire to contribute to the work of building resilience in leadership so that Christian leaders can more effectively do the work that they have been called to do.

Contact information
PO Box 1242, Armidale NSW 2350
Phone 02 6776 6217

Dr Barbara Visser
BA; BA (Hons); Grad Dip Soc Sc; Dip Ed; D Psych (Clinical) MAPS
Clinical Psychologist