Ps Valerie Chan and Ps David Chan

Pastor Valerie Chan can testify to God's grace as she journeyed with her husband through clinical depression. All photos courtesy of Ps Valerie.

Is Papa going to die?

This short question revealed the fears of Pastor Valerie Chan’s then 11-year-old son as he saw his father lying down in the room to rest.

It was 2009 and Ps Valerie’s husband, Reverend David Chan, had been diagnosed with clinical depression.

He couldn’t find God

Aside from seeing a psychiatrist and taking medication, Ps David needed space and rest to recuperate.

However, his son, who has Asperger syndrome, found that difficult to understand and thought something was very wrong.

Ps David soon found that reading God’s Word which he greatly enjoyed became a struggle.

He even refused to attend school that day as he was worried that he would lose his father.

To put his fears at ease, Ps David assured him that he would be at home, awaiting his son’s return from school every day.

Such was one of the changes the family had to adapt to. They gave Ps David more space while ensuring he still made an effort to talk to his two children.

Ps Valerie also became his main caregiver as he learnt to cope with his diagnosis.

“At that time, the kids were very young and I had returned to work. I had to manage everything, including sending them to school,” she told Salt&Light.

As she shared her testimony at this year’s Christian Mental Health Conference (CMHC), it was telling that it has been a long journey for the couple, yet one anchored in selfless love.

Ps Valerie and Ps David have witnessed God’s grace upon their family in many instances.

“He’s a gentle, quiet guy, very personal,” said Ps Valerie.

“His words are meaningful and carry a lot of weight. People call him a man of depth. He is devoted to God, loves God and loves to read the Word.”

However, Ps David soon found that reading God’s Word which he greatly enjoyed became a struggle.

“That period, he just felt God was so absent, so distant. He felt he couldn’t find God,” Ps Valerie shared.

Noticing the signs

According to a study conducted by the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) during the pandemic, 8.7% of the population surveyed in Singapore met the criteria for clinical depression.

For Ps David, it began with insomnia which lasted for a few years.

Ps Valerie said: “He couldn’t sleep, and the next day he would be in a daze.”

The other symptoms crept in slowly but surely.

Then, the other symptoms crept in slowly but surely.

The insomnia worsened and as it became more acute, it led to depression.

“He became a recluse. He didn’t talk much, had no appetite, didn’t want to do anything and was easily agitated,” said Ps Valerie.

At that time, talking about mental health or mental illness was taboo.

Ps Valerie recalled that it was not discussed much in her social circles.

But that did not stop her from taking the initiative to help her husband cope with his symptoms.

The initial lonely months

Whenever Ps David needed time alone, Ps Valerie would joke and tell her children: “Papa is back in his cave so give him time.”

She also ensured that the family engaged him so he had a balance between resting and interacting with people.

Sometimes, Ps David would be physically present during family time but emotionally disengaged. Ps Valerie would help her children understand their father’s behaviour.

Moreover, she assured her husband that he was not alone.

She said: “I would make time to just be with him, to encourage him.”

Support from a close-knit family has played a big part Ps David’s journey.

When her husband was first diagnosed with clinical depression, Ps Valerie did not want to burden him further.

On occasions where she encountered problems, she did not share much with him and kept her thoughts and emotions to herself, especially during the initial months after the diagnosis.

Even if it meant that she was missing her closest confidant, Ps Valerie felt it was the best move as her husband had enough to deal with.

Her thoughtfulness towards her husband and family provided him with a safe space to accept and cope with his diagnosis.

Nonetheless, challenges abounded.

“Pastor is depressed”

Ps Valerie’s greatest struggle was not being able to reveal her husband’s condition in the initial nine months of his diagnosis.

The couple, who are in their 60s, have been worshipping in Covenant Evangelical Free Church (CEFC) since 2000.

When people asked about him, she would say: “He is still resting, appreciate your prayers.”

Ps David had requested that she kept it private as he did not want others to know about it.

While she provided support for her husband at home, she also had to manage questions about him outside of home.

She said: “I couldn’t even share about what I was going through until he gave me permission to share with my close friends.

“So everything was kept hush-hush and I just had to manage on my part.”

It was not easy keeping things under wraps for nine months, but when Ps David was finally open, a new set of problems surfaced.

Ps Valerie received questions like: “What’s wrong with him? He’s my pastor and he’s depressed?”

Once people knew about Ps David’s condition, they asked many questions.

Mental illness was not commonly talked about at that time, so people wanted more details.

On top of that, some were surprised or shocked to hear that their pastor had depression.

Ps Valerie received questions like: “How come Pastor is depressed?” and “What’s wrong with him? He’s my pastor and he’s depressed?”

While she understood that such questions were asked out of concern, it was still challenging having to deal with overly inquisitive people.

As for Ps David, he felt lost as he could not imagine what his future would be like with clinical depression.

He even considered resigning from his duties as he felt unfit to continue in pastoral work.

He felt disconnected from God and at one point, he even thought about walking away from the faith.

Preparation for the trial

Despite the various obstacles the couple faced, they continue to testify to God’s grace and provision every step of the way.

Years before Ps David’s diagnosis, God was already preparing Ps Valerie for what was to come.

She had helped set up a counselling ministry in her previous church, which gave her opportunities to equip herself with the necessary skills to serve in that ministry.

Ps Valerie sees God’s faithfulness in equipping her with relevant knowledge and skills before her husband was diagnosed with clinical depression.

Together with the books she read and the courses she attended, Ps Valerie learnt how to pick up signs of mental health struggles.

It built up her experience as she would encourage individuals facing mental health issues to see a psychiatrist or their family doctor.

“But it was very difficult in those years because mental health issues were a taboo issue to talk about, so even though you encouraged people to go, most of the time they wouldn’t go,” Ps Valerie noted.

“They wanted spiritual help more than just medical help.”

Though it was not easy, this gave her an edge in detecting her husband’s symptoms which suggested that he was having a depressive episode.

“I thought of how to love him, assure him that it is ok and that there was nothing to be ashamed about.”

At a time when there was limited awareness of mental health, her experience served her well in seeking timely intervention for her husband.

In 2019,  God would expand Ps Valerie’s heart and capacity for believers struggling with their mental health.

She took over her church’s Care-In-Covenant ministry, an initiative to provide counselling help for CEFC’s members or those in a Covenant group.

Today, the ministry has a team of 40 lay members, which includes professionally-trained counsellors and health practitioners.

All these experiences enabled Ps Valerie to see the stigma surrounding mental illness, and more importantly assure her husband that his struggles were valid.

She said: “I’m a little bit more well-equipped in this area so it’s just thinking of ways to encourage him, to reach out to him.

“I thought of how to love him, assure him that it is ok and that there was nothing to be ashamed about.”

No longer alone

Not only did God empower Ps Valerie to journey with her husband through clinical depression, He also sent them pillars of support.

She said: “He provided resources in terms of people.”

She added that there were two men from other churches who were an encouragement to Ps David.

Being pastors who had gone through depression themselves, they were a source of comfort for Ps David. They reminded him that it was normal for a pastor to experience depression.

Struggling with his mental health was not easy for Ps David but God showed him that he was never alone.

The support did not stop there.

The couple’s extended family rallied around the couple. They looked after their children when the couple needed to take a break.

“As I continue to find His grace in the wilderness, I will emerge with joy and thanksgiving.”

This was especially helpful when Ps David was stressed, and the couple would go on short trips to find some respite from everyday life.

Even their children, who were then in primary school, chipped in to lift their spirits.

They would tell Ps Valerie: “Mama we love you, don’t be so sad.”

While Ps David’s strong foundation in the faith keeps him walking closely with God, the strong support he receives has strengthened him further.

He is currently serving in a part-time position at CEFC while managing his condition closely with his psychiatrist.

Finding grace in the wilderness

Through it all, Ps Valerie has never forgotten to draw strength and encouragement from Scripture.

The daily dependence on God’s Word helped her to walk closely with Him as she journeyed with her husband.

Psalm 16 is dear to her, in particular verses 5 to 6:

5 The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup;
    you hold my lot.
6 The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
    indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.

She said: “I have a beautiful inheritance indeed. I believe in the sovereignty of God and that whatever God has led me through, He is aware of it.

“If this is my lot, then I will embrace it.”

Ps Valerie acknowledges that embracing the situation does not happen overnight. In one of her sorrowful moments with God, she was touched by Jeremiah 31:2-3.

“At that moment, I felt God telling me: ‘You are going through a wilderness with your husband in this journey, but you will find grace.’”

She added: “I think these are the verses that anchored me in those very difficult times. God is aware and as I continue to find His grace in the wilderness, I will emerge with joy and thanksgiving.”

How to respond

Ps Valerie shares how we can respond to those experiencing mental health issues and to their caregivers.

  1. Listen without judgment.
  2. Ask if people want to get help.
  3. If you offer to pray, pray for the person there and then.
  4. Encourage caregivers to seek a listening ear from someone they trust.

RELATED STORIES:

“With God, we can cope better”: 4 ways the Christian faith protects mental health

Healing from a breakup and breakdown … and hope in the highs and lows of bipolar disorder

WHERE TO FIND HELP

Hotlines

  1. SOS 24-hour hotline: 1-800-221-444
  2. Care Corner Counselling Centre: 6353-1180
  3. IMH Mental Health Helpline: 6389-2222 (24-hours)

Counselling

  1. Care & Counselling Centre
  2. Email: [email protected]
  3. Focus on the Family Singapore
  4. Grace Counselling Centre
  5. Wesley Counselling
    Call Caroline Ong for an appointment: 6837-9214. (Monday-Friday, 9am-6pm)
  6. Whispering Hope Singapore
  7. Haven Counselling Centre: 6559-1528 or email: [email protected]
  8. Bethel Family Life & Counselling: 6741-2741 (Ps Jean Ong)

Mental Health Directory
Mental Connect

About the author

Gracia Yap

Gracia is an aspiring journalist who loves hearing the unique stories of others and writing for Salt&Light as an intern brings her joy in doing just that. In her free time, she wants nothing more than to chill with Netflix or a good book.

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