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How One Theologian Managed To Keep Her Faith Through Struggles With Depression

courtesy of Dr. Monica Coleman

Monica Coleman has an impressive resume (bachelor’s degree from Harvard, master’s of divinity from Vanderbilt, Ph.D. from Claremont School of Theology), and she doesn’t shy away from talking about tough or deeply personal things.

She’s spoken out about her own trauma of having been raped and her disappointment with the inept and sometimes callous response from church leaders to victims of sexual violence.

But as open as Coleman has been about her experience as a victim of sexual assault, there was another part of herself she kept hidden for years — her struggle with debilitating depression.

That changed in 2010 when she began blogging about faith and depression. In her book "Not Alone: Reflections on Faith and Depression," she writes that she wanted to overcome the shame she’s felt about struggling with depression and also show how a minister wrestles with maintaining faith even in the midst of a disease that can leave you feeling incapable of anything.

'The Life Of The Mind'

Coleman, who is now an ordained elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and an associate professor at Claremont School of Theology, says opening up publicly about her depression was more difficult than speaking about having been raped. A big reason for that was a fear of being judged.

“We call the academy the life of the mind,” Coleman said in an interview with KPLU. “So by talking about living with a mental health challenge is like, 'Wow, there’s something about my mind that doesn’t always work the way I want it to, and that feels very vulnerable and difficult.”'

But she says exposing this part of her psyche has been a positive experience. She’s gotten emails from as far away as Haiti and India from people who say her blog has helped them.

In the introduction of her book, she shares one reader’s email: “I am currently in an inpatient psychiatric program for severe depression. I’m learning a lot about what it means to live with this illness and I am frequently scared. Your posts make it seem like I’m not alone.”

Coleman says she sees it as a calling to help people with depression feel less isolated.

'There's So Much Stigma'

“It’s part of ministry as I understand it,” she said. “Theres’s so much stigma, particularly in religious communities, particularly in African-American communities about mental health challenges that the more we break the silence, I think the more we give voice, the more we show the reality of what it means to be faithful and still wrestle with faith.”

But how does she reassure other people that God loves them when she has moments when she doubts that God loves her?

“For me, it’s important to kind of keep it real about faith, and part of keeping it real is that doubt is part of faith,” she said. “For me, it lowers the barometer for faith … If I have faith that God isn’t trying to torture me, that’s good. That’s good for today.”

“Part of the reality is the wrestling — it’s the holding on in the midst of doubt,” Coleman said. “Faith is just holding on, just believing, just staying in the game.”

Monica Coleman will give the David and Marilyn Knutson Lecture at Pacific Lutheran University Wednesday evening at 7:30.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.