Podcast
Mental Note

48 - Can You Pray Depression Away?

By Abraham Sculley

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What do you do when prayer is not helping your depression but actually making it worse? For author and speaker Abraham Sculley, answering this question and finding lasting freedom from his mental illness meant rethinking and challenging a lot of the ideas he grew up believing. But this son of Jamaican immigrants knows how to persevere.

Join us as we explore Abraham’s transformation into the person he is today — a mental health advocate with a special passion for showing how accessing mental health care doesn’t mean going against your faith.

Transcript

Ellie Pike:
A quick note to our listeners before we begin. Today's episode broaches the topic of religion. This content is reflective of our interviewee's lived experience as a Christian, causing him to grapple with his culture's biases regarding mental health and depression. We honor Abraham's story, while also recognizing that Christianity and religion may not be the path for all. As the son of Jamaican immigrants who led a charismatic Christian Church in the American South, Abraham Sculley, grew up with a lot of strong ideas on how he should deal with difficult situations.

Abraham Sculley:
When it came to having any sort of challenge in our lives, I would see my parents pray. And I would look at that and think to myself, "Well, this is how you handle difficult situations. You pray, and then God will solve the problem."

Ellie Pike:
But when life threatening episodes of depression began to unravel his ideals of a good Christian's life, he was forced to confront cultural and religious beliefs that kept him from seeking help.

Abraham Sculley:
It felt like I was trapped in a pit, a dark pit, and I was all by myself. It was hard because the more I prayed, it almost felt like the more I stayed in the depths of depression.

Ellie Pike:
Challenging the belief system he grew up with allowed Abraham to develop into the person he is today, an author, speaker, and podcast host with a special passion for showing how accessing mental healthcare doesn't mean you're going against your faith. Today, we sit down and talk about that transformation and why he now embraces mental healthcare as part of a faith filled life. You are listening to Mental Note podcast. I'm Ellie Pike. Well, Abraham, thank you so much for joining us for this episode and really making this an incredible collaborative effort. So would you like to introduce yourself?

Abraham Sculley:
Yeah. Thank you so much, Eleanor, for having me, and I'm excited to share my story with you all. My name is Abraham Sculley. I am an author, I'm a mental health advocate, a speaker, podcaster, and the CEO of Speaks to Inspire. And I'm really just on this mission to eradicate mental health stigma and encourage conversations about mental health.

Ellie Pike:
So let's start with your upbringing and some of the pieces of your life that really influenced you, being that you come from a Jamaican American family and that you also have a Christian upbringing.

Abraham Sculley:
Yeah. So growing up in a Jamaican household and a Christian household where my dad was a pastor, we were literally in church every week. Like every Saturday we were in church, every Wednesday night Bible study, we were in church. There was a lot of pressure to be perfect. I felt the pressure to always say the right thing, always have it together, and never put my family in a position to look as if we were "unholy." And that put me in a difficult spot because when it came to dealing with mental health challenges, I didn't know how to open up, I didn't understand that it was safe to even share that part.

Abraham Sculley:
So it was a big challenge for me because, number one, I saw my parents work very hard and never complained about anything, let alone struggling with their mental health. When it came to dealing with any physical illness, I would see my parents struggling, whether it was limping because they hurt their leg or whatever the case was, but still getting up and getting it done. And when I was struggling with my mental health, I thought to myself, if my parents didn't complain, if my parents were able to push through it regardless of what their current circumstance or situation was, how dare I stop because of something that was mental.

Abraham Sculley:
We never really had spaces to talk about things that were challenging. I remember growing up and watching my parents go through their own individual challenges and how I would see them respond to that is through withdrawing and shying away from having those conversations. And as I saw that, I started to take that on for myself. So I thought that any negative emotion or negative feeling that wasn't happy or excited or positive, then I should withdraw or push that off to the side. I shouldn't pay too much attention to that. And that transitioned into me growing up and dealing with my own mental health challenges. And as I was experiencing depression, I did what I did growing up, which was, I tried to ignore what I was experiencing and really run from addressing those feelings. So that's how it influenced me during that period.

Ellie Pike:
And what are some of the ways that you would avoid the depression and the feelings that came with it?

Abraham Sculley:
Yeah, so I'll backtrack a little bit, because once I got older and was officially diagnosed with depression in college, I started to really think about my life growing up, and I realized that I was actually depressed prior to college. And it was during the time when my parents were going through a difficult season in their marriage and they ultimately divorced. So my parents were married for over 20 years, and it was a very challenging season watching them have hard times and seeing how it was affecting our entire family. And during that time, I also felt that their divorce was them intentionally trying to harm me or put me in pain and that it was done because of me.

Abraham Sculley:
And so, I really struggled during that time. And I didn't open up about how I was affected by their divorce or their decision to divorce. And I isolated a lot. And I really lashed out as a kid. So I went from being a straight A, student, being very respectful to my parents, and respectful to authority, to then being a very bad kid. Right? And I would act up in school. I would disrespect my parents. I didn't care about my grades. I didn't care about any relationships that I had at that time. I also dabbled into substances and I was abusing substances in middle school.

Abraham Sculley:
So I didn't know how to express those negative emotions. And so I did everything in my power to run from it and avoid it. When I noticed those signs in myself once I got to college, I was able to make the connection that I was actually depressed. Because once I did get to college, I started to exhibit some of those same behaviors. I found myself isolating a lot more, withdrawing from friends and different things that I enjoy doing. I found myself dabbling into substances and abusing substances again. And at that point I was able to make that correlation between me being depressed as a young adult and then me being depressed as a teenager.

Ellie Pike:
That sounds like a lot to go through, and especially a lot to try to avoid. So I imagine there were times where you really encountered the feelings of depression. Can you talk a little bit about what depression felt like to you?

Abraham Sculley:
Yeah. Depression felt like I was stuck in this bubble. It felt like I was trapped in a pit, a dark pit, and I was all by myself. And it was almost as if everything that I tried to do to come out of that pit only dug me deeper into the pit. So it was very dark. It was very lonely. I also felt a lot of shame and guilt for not being able to motivate myself or dig myself out of that pit. So it was very, very dark.

Ellie Pike:
Thank you for sharing that. I know that many people experience it and might not always have the words to express what's really happening. And many of us can run to those avoidant behaviors. And so, I think you're really creating a story that many of us have lived. And yours is also really unique because you, as you mentioned, grew up in this Jamaican American family, and you also grew up with a Christian faith. And I'm curious how those around you with a shared faith talked about mental health.

Abraham Sculley:
Yeah. So when it came to mental health, not only was the conversation non-existent growing up, but if ever the thought or the conversation did show up, it was almost as if that was beyond what was important. So what's important is the fact that we need to make money in order to provide food, in order to make sure we have a house, we're able to pay the mortgage. And if you ever had any challenges that were beyond what was the basic necessity, then we don't focus on those things. So, mental health care was almost as if it was a luxury. It wasn't for people like us. And if we were struggling, we were kind of expected to figure it out. And if we were in dark seasons in our lives, then we were to pray to God and ask God to pull us out of that season.

Abraham Sculley:
But when it came to my mental health, I tried praying. And I prayed longer. I prayed harder. I prayed louder. And for some reason, it was as if I would still go to bed depressed, still wake up depressed, and I couldn't understand why. Because I was praying. I never stopped praying. But that's kind of the conversations around mental health. I can't even remember hearing the word mental health growing up. In my mind, mental health meant that you were crazy or meant that something was wrong. And it's unfortunate now that I think about it because, if I would've had the awareness to know what mental health is, what depression is, I may have been able to identify the signs early on to then get help for it.

Ellie Pike:
It sounds like if there had been more conversations about mental health within your faith circle, it really would've helped you get treatment earlier and just have words for the experience that you were going through. And one thing that I feel like in some faith circles people can experience is feeling like if their depression or their anxiety doesn't go away, it's a sign that they aren't believing enough or aren't praying enough, or that their faith is weak in some sort of way. Is that something that you ever experienced?

Abraham Sculley:
Yeah. I experienced it a ton because I believe that if you are a believer, I grew up Christian, if you are a Christian, then you should be able to pray through anything and pray anything away. When it came to just thinking about financial responsibilities, being able to pray through that. When it came to my mental health, feeling that if I was a strong Christian then I should be able to pray through those issues and I shouldn't struggle. So I definitely felt that, and it was hard because the more I prayed, it almost felt like the more I stayed in the depths of depression. And it turned out with me having a challenge with my relationship with God, because I thought for a very long time that I was being punished for something that I had done. I thought that my faith wasn't real because I was still depressed. And I felt that even if I would have reached out for support, that that was a sign that I didn't have enough faith. So it was a real challenge for me and remaining faithful during that period while I was struggling.

Ellie Pike:
And that was a few years back. And I'm curious, how do you feel about therapy, mental health counseling now? And how is it different from back then?

Abraham Sculley:
So, for me now, when it comes to therapy, it plays a huge role in my life. I love therapy. I'm a big advocate for everyone being in therapy. I think we all need help in some capacity and it's okay. And that has changed because I started to believe that God loves me so much and he's willing to put anyone and anything in my life to support me where I am. I think prior to seeking support and getting the help from a therapist, I believe that I should be able to figure these things out by myself. And so, my approach to therapy is one in which I utilize it to make sure that I'm prioritizing my mental health, I'm giving myself for what I need, and I'm really making it a practice that, not only can I utilize but I can also share with others and talk to my family members about to say, "If you are ever struggling, this can be an option for you to work through some of those challenges."

Ellie Pike:
And I know that therapy doesn't just make depression go away or anxiety get better overnight. Can you talk a little bit about that process, and what that has felt like to you as you've moved through your depression and learned a lot of skills in therapy?

Abraham Sculley:
Oh my gosh. So I will say this. When I initially reached out for counseling support, I believed that it was going to be this perfect scene. That I would go and get help, and then I would be cured. I'd be free the next day. And that was not my experience. I actually started off on medication for depression because of the state that I was in. And then I started in therapy a little bit after that. And I had some really high moments where I was doing well. And then I had a lot of low moments where I was even contemplating, was this even helpful? And if I should even continue. But what kept me going was really thinking about, that in order for me to get well, and in order for me to be in a better space mentally, I have to get committed to the process and not so focused on a destination or an end goal, but really looking at this as a part of my life and it being a tool, a tool for support.

Abraham Sculley:
And I remember reading this Bible verse, in the book of James that really helped to reshape my thinking around mental health. And it says, "faith without works is dead." So what that meant for me that, I can have faith that God wants me to be well, I can have faith and pray to be mentally healthy, but I also have to do the work. And the work that's required for my mental health sometimes includes professional help. Sometimes it includes medication. It includes journaling. It includes going out in nature. It includes opening up and sharing my honest thoughts, my honest feelings, and that was hard work, and work that I wasn't used to, and work that I wasn't excited about, but it was the work that I needed to do in addition to having faith so that I can get support and I could be well.

Ellie Pike:
And who have been some of your mentors along the way?

Abraham Sculley:
So a best friend of mine years ago actually introduced me to counseling support for the very first time. I remember being a college student and really struggling with depression, not having a name for it, not knowing what the signs were, but knowing that something was off. Because I went from being this enthusiastic college student, someone that's excited about life, motivated every single day, and really just able to do whatever I wanted to do, to then being someone who was isolating and withdrawing and not doing a lot. And my best friend saw those signs in me, and she decided to reach out one day.

Abraham Sculley:
And I remember the phone call because it really changed my life. And she called me that evening, I was hesitant to pick up the phone because I didn't want her to hear me in this state. I didn't want her to see me like this, because I wasn't like myself, but I decided to pick up the phone anyway. And I remember she just checked in and she said, "Hey, are you okay?" And I told her that everything was good, that I was doing well, and I didn't have the words to articulate what was going on. And I had a lot of fear around, what if I opened up and she would see me as being weak? What if I opened up, and she maybe thought that I was making excuses?

Abraham Sculley:
And so, we were on the phone for a while before I really decided to open up with her and share some of the challenges that I was experiencing. And I told her how I wasn't sleeping. I told her how I wasn't eating. I didn't have motivation. I didn't want to do anything. And after sharing those things with her, she shared with me that it sounded like depression. And if it was depression, that it was okay for me to be depressed. And it's also okay for me to get help.

Abraham Sculley:
And in that conversation, she introduced me to the counseling center on campus. And that was a long battle in and of itself to even go to the counseling center. But I finally decided to go to the counseling center and get support, and that really started my journey. So she's been instrumental in my life from the very beginning, and in really just showing me that it's okay if I'm struggling, it's okay to seek help. And it's all a part of this journey that I'm on.

Ellie Pike:
I think that that is such an incredible story. Because my next question for you is going to be, where did you find hope? And it sounds like she was really that reflection of hope when you felt like you were just digging yourself in this dark hole, not really able to get out. Was there anything else that helped shine light on what life could be like?

Abraham Sculley:
Yeah. So I actually, during that period, once I had a name for what I was experiencing, I then started to do a lot of research. I started to learn about other people who struggled with what I was dealing with. I started to hear different stories and how people had overcome and how they sought treatment. And that really brought hope for me because I could see a face when it came to depression and I could see someone doing well. And that let me know that even though I was in this state where I was suffering and I was really struggling, that I didn't have to stay in this state.

Abraham Sculley:
So that was hopeful. And I also really relied on my relationship with God during that period. And my faith played a huge role, just to remind me that God loved me so much that He was willing to put my best friend in my life at that right time. And He was willing to allow her to point me to resources so that I can get support. And once I started to see that God was with me during that period even though I was struggling, it gave me the hope to continue pushing forward.

Ellie Pike:
Thank you so much for sharing that. And that glimpse of hope is going to be so different for everyone. But like you said, hearing stories that recovery is possible, not that depression just goes away overnight, but that mental health can be there, right? And that we can have help along the way. I appreciate that now you are one of those recovery stories. That you get to inspire others and be that light, be that hope that they don't have to be stuck forever. And that there are people to walk this journey with them.

Ellie Pike:
So thank you so much for sharing those pieces of your story and your work continues. And you are doing so much through sharing stories through your podcast, education, your own book, Unlearn the Lies. You're really creating a community that is helping de-stigmatize mental health. And it sounds like your faith continues to inform you. And you really are passionate about talking about mental health in the faith community. So can you tell me a little bit more about that?

Abraham Sculley:
Yeah. So I'm really passionate about bringing up these conversations in faith communities, because that's my background. That's where I come from. That's who I am at my core. And I understand the struggle when it comes to believing that we are immune to mental health issues. And when we have that belief, then we don't allow ourselves to get support when we are struggling. And one thing that I like to share with others is that, depression or any other mental illness, it doesn't discriminate. It doesn't care what background you come from, what your faith is, how much money you got it, it doesn't discriminate.

Abraham Sculley:
And when we can allow ourselves to embrace that and see that, Hey, as a human being, we are whole beings. Right? We're mind, body, spirit. We have to pay attention to each of those areas and really prioritize our mental health and in a meaningful way. So when it comes to talking about mental health in faith communities, my big goal is to showcase that, even though we are of a faith background, we can also struggle and we can also have difficult seasons. We can battle mental illness. We can struggle or be in suffering states.

Abraham Sculley:
But one thing that's important as well is that, God doesn't leave us when we're in those states. He's right there with us. And He's right there supporting us and providing everything that we need in that moment. And then the other piece is that, there's always something positive that can come out of difficult seasons. And when I can frame my mindset around, even though this is difficult there's something positive that can come out of it, it allows me to continue moving forward. And it puts me in a position to share that and to share the fact that I've struggled, the fact that I've been able to get support, and that it doesn't end in that suffering state.

Ellie Pike:
It sounds like you've really learned a lot about the power of community, but also your own personal resilience. So, for someone who might be struggling in the depths of depression and the depths of feeling so anxious and overwhelmed, what is your one sentence message for them?

Abraham Sculley:
You're not alone. You're not alone and you can receive support. I believe that when we're in those suffering states, our minds tell us that we're the only one going through it. There's no one that will understand even if we decided to open up and we decided to share, and that it doesn't make any sense to share because we wouldn't get that support. So my words of encouragement would be that, you're not alone and you can receive support.

Ellie Pike:
Thank you so much, Abraham.

Abraham Sculley:
Thank you.

Ellie Pike:
Abraham Sculley is speaker, educator, author, and storyteller, focused on eradicating mental health stigma. And it was a pleasure working with him on this podcast. I really appreciate the way that he's made space for growth, whether it's in relationship with faith, family, or even himself. By accepting that depression was not a personal failure, he discovered a truly powerful way to counter shame and encourage others to seek help. Obviously, there's a lot more to Abraham's story than we had time to include in today's episode. So I highly recommend picking up a copy of his book, Unlearn the Lies: A Guide to Reshaping the Way We Think about Depression, or check out his podcast with the same name, Unlearn the Lies, on your favorite podcast app.

Ellie Pike:
Mental Note podcast is brought to you by Pathlight Mood & Anxiety Center. If you'd like to talk to a trained therapist or learn more about their specialty tracks for OCD, depression and trauma, please call them at (877) 850-7199. If you like our show, sign up for our E-newsletter and learn more about the people we interview at mentalnotepodcast.com. We'd also love it if you left us a review on iTunes, it helps others find our podcast. Mental Note is produced and hosted by me, Ellie Pike, and directed and edited by Sam Pike. Till next time.

Presented by

Abraham Sculley

Abraham Sculley is a speaker for Active Minds, the nation’s premier nonprofit supporting student and young adult mental health. Abraham graduated from the University of West Florida with his…