Tim Bergmann has found a winning strategy for overcoming bouts of depression. “I battle them with Scripture as intensely as I can. I work hard at trying to think right thoughts,” he says.
“It’s like a battle going on. In one corner is the depression — and it is a significant foe — but in the other corner is God’s Word. I quote God’s Word until the feelings of depression start to abate. Sometimes this will take days. But God’s Word always wins.”
Just over a year ago, Bergmann became the lead pastor of Alliance Community Church in Sylvan Lake, a town of close to 15,000 people located about twenty-five kilometres west of Red Deer in central Alberta.
The fact that he was mentally and physically able to take on his new role testifies to the healing that he’s experienced in his life. In a 2018 podcast with Promise Keepers Canada (and an email update), Bergmann recalls that in high school and as a young man, he was “strong and energetic and charismatic” and had no problem being in front of people. Then in 1989, when he was in his early 30s, he slid for the first time into depression compounded by an anxiety disorder. And together, he says, they “kind of did this terrible dance together in my soul.”
“It’s pretty intense,” says Bergmann. “It feels for me like a steel ball the size of a medicine ball growing inside my chest. You feel like you can hardly breathe. You think some dark thoughts — ‘Why am I here? What’s my purpose? I’d be better off if I wasn’t around’ — an overwhelming sense of sadness and darkness and despair.”
Bergmann is not alone. Far from it. Mental health issues impact thousands of Canadian men — and the numbers have grown to epidemic proportions.
“As men, we deal with depression more than we think sometimes,” says Mark Vander Vennen, executive director of the Ontario-based Shalem Mental Health Network in a separate PK podcast. “Depression in men can show up a little differently [than it does in women]. I think that has to do with shame. We all experience shame. How we as men process shame is a huge thing. And sometimes in men, depression builds up in some of those other ways of processing shame like being angry, irritable, controlling, rather than sadness which is often how it looks in women.”
Rubbing salt in the wound, Vander Vennen adds, is they often feel the manly thing to do is bottle up their suffering. “We’re told to man-up — don’t be vulnerable, don’t show your weakness, that sort of thing. And that doesn’t work. It’s really tough for a man to be vulnerable, because it’s often not terribly socially acceptable. I think as a society, we’re all paying a price for that.”
In fact, as The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry reported in 2018, men struggling with their mental health “do not perceive the need for care, immediate support systems do not identify male-specific warning signs, diagnostic criteria do not detect men with mental health problems, and men delay treatment until problems are too severe to ignore.”
Instead, many try to escape their darkness through excessive drinking, substance abuse, risk-taking —such as extreme sports — and worst of all, committing suicide. With horrifying results: The data shows that Canadian men are two- to three-times more likely than women to have a serious alcohol abuse problem. Over a million men suffer addiction issues. Men make up over eighty per cent of fentanyl and opioid overdose deaths. And over fifty men per week take their own lives. That’s over three-quarters of all suicides.
“Suicide in men,” according to the Journal, “has been described by a leading researcher as a ‘silent epidemic.’ It is ‘silent’ because there is low public awareness regarding the magnitude of this problem, with surprisingly little research and few preventive efforts specifically targeting male suicide. Furthermore, men are reluctant to seek help for suicidality. It is ‘epidemic’ because of the high incidence and because … suicide is among the top three sources of men’s mortality.”
Vander Vennen believes many men choose isolation because they’re gripped by a fear of self-exposure. “It’s very difficult for us to come together in meaningful ways,” he says. “There’s all kinds of permission for women to really share what’s going on in their lives — and I applaud and celebrate that — but as a society we need to create spaces and platforms for men to be able to do that.”
“The key thing,” he urges men who are struggling mentally, “is to reach out to someone. Reach out to your spouse, reach out to your good friend, reach out to your pastor, reach out to a therapist—any of those. It’s okay to be vulnerable and in fact that’s the beginning of healing.”
Bergmann agrees, but he also encourages men to reach out to the nature and the promises of God as found in Scripture. “I have episodes of depression but they aren’t as dark as they once were,” he says.
“I battle them with Scripture as intensely as I can. I work hard at trying to think right thoughts. ‘The joy of the Lord is my strength’ [Psalm 28:7] is a refrain I repeat often.”
What his fellow strugglers will discover, as he did, is a Father who always has his children’s best interests at heart, even when it might seem as though he’s abandoned them. And yet if that’s how a man really feels, then he should not be afraid to be honest with God.
“Christ says [in Matthew 26:38], ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.’ That is what depression feels like. But this is the Christ who knows and understands and is with us,” says Bergmann. “Psalm 139:8 says, ‘If I make my bed in the depths, you are there.’ That’s another way I would describe depression. But he is there, he is with us.”
Meditating on what he’s personally gone through in light of Hebrews 12:1 (“Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us”), Bergmann has realized that “God is careful in how he marks out the race for me. It’s unique and specific. Mine happens to have a great wife and six fantastic kids with their own issues and struggles. And it also involves kidney disease and stress and anxiety and job loss and financial ruin. This is my unique race that God has carved out for me — and it’s thoughtful. It’s not done randomly. God has said, ‘Now this is the race I want you to run.’”
Bergmann is not suggesting he looks forward to his next bout of depression. “It would be really nice if God would snap his fingers and make all this stuff go away,” he admits. “But there are incredibly beautiful things that we can experience in those dark times. If I am an orphan and have nobody on my side, then I had better claw and scrape and fight and get everything I possibly can. But Scripture says I’m adopted, I’m a child of God. And if I’m adopted, and my Father loves me, then I can trust God in the midst of all of that.”
And having found God is indeed trustworthy, Bergmann is now able to offer that hope to others facing their own mental health issues.
“What I’ve discovered as I have gone public with my suffering,” he says, “is it has freed people up to give voice to their own suffering. My identity is in Jesus so I can take big risks when it comes to self-exposing. I am grateful for what God has allowed me to go through both in how it has drawn me so close to him, but also in how he can use me to minister to others who are struggling.”