When students returned to school after the April holidays, one girl was missing from the state high school nearest to where I live. She was not on an extended holiday with her family. Nor was she sick. Tragically, this girl, just 13, took her own life the day before school went back.

A theology about brokenness is about normalising it; not having simplistic healing theology, like if you pray it will go away.

Shock waves continue to reverberate throughout the close-knit community. One of my long-time friends knew the girl. She came from a good family—a loving mum, dad and older sister. She had spent time with all her friends during the holidays and seemingly enjoyed herself. How could this tragedy happen? What drives a girl at such a tender age to think there’s no other way but to end it all?

From outside appearances, the girl seemed to be like most teenagers: happy and carefree. But inside she was in turmoil, one of a growing number of young people battling anxiety and depression. 

For those of us who have never experienced mental illness there is no way of ever understanding what someone struggling with depression and anxiety is going through. It has been described to me as a “living hell”. And while diseases like cancer and heart disease receive plenty of support and sympathy in the community, depression and anxiety still leave many people perplexed. 

So how are we going as a Church in helping those with mental illness, many of them sitting in our pews?

The good news is that we are starting to talk more about it, according to Paul Bogacs, an Avondale College lecturer who has spent the past 21 years working as a counsellor and educator. But there is still a long way to go. 

“I think we are reframing it as not so much a faith issue as a mental health issue,” he says. “In the past it was thought that anxiety and depression were due to a lack of faith.” 

Mr Bogacs teaches a “theology of brokenness”, which recognises that the Bible is full of people who are emotionally unhealthy, one of the most notable being David. 

“David definitely suffered depression. There are these huge highs with intense happiness, joy and praise, and intense lows,” Mr Bogacs says. “These days he could well have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

“A theology about brokenness is about normalising it; not having simplistic healing theology, like if you pray it will go away.”

Church should be a place where we can, as Mr Bogacs puts it, “be a bit more real”. “Instead of just using the meaningless cliche, ‘I’m fine thanks’ to anybody who greets us, wouldn’t it be amazing if there were at least some people who we could be real with? What would it be like to answer that question with, ‘I’m actually a bit of a mess right now’? Is it possible that the church could become a place where it’s OK to not be OK?” 

It comes down to accepting people as they are, taking the journey with them and being a good listener.

Let’s work towards these things. Indeed it may just save a life.

If you or someone you know needs help, contact Lifeline in your country.

Tracey Bridcutt is head of editorial for Adventist Media.