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Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024
The Observer

‘Extending a hand to conversation’: Saint Mary’s religious studies professor reflects on first book

Assistant professor of religious studies and theology Jessica Coblentz recently released a book titled “Dust in the Blood: A Theology of Life with Depression” — which focused the harrowing realities of life with depression from a Christian theological perspective.

Initial dissertation research and reactions

When asked what initially inspired her to write her book, Coblentz says it seemed natural to her to continue the research she had gathered for her dissertation because it was a topic she knew she wanted to educate others on.

Some disciplines don’t kind of lend themselves to writing books in the same way that theology does,” Coblentz said. “It’s not uncommon for professors of theologies to write books, and it’s also common for theologians to base their first book, at least in part on their dissertation research.”

Coblentz mentioned that she was not certain what she would be focusing her dissertation on, but she knew she wanted to address the realities of mental health.

“I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to focus that interest for a dissertation,” she said. “And I realized at that point that mental health conditions are a reality that lots of people struggle with, but there was very little academic, theological research on it.”

Coblentz said she recently found herself reflecting her dissertation topic. This is what then lead her to take a chance at writing a book on the intersectionality of depression and spirituality. 

“I started thinking about writing a book about depression because I wrote my dissertation research on the topic of depression,” she said. “That dissertation research that I did for my Ph.D. introduced me to some amazing theological conversations about mental health and occasioned my first foray into this topic.” 

After finishing her dissertation, Coblentz knew she wanted to continue writing on other mental health issues but for the book, she wanted to take it in a different direction.

In relation to the timeline of events leading up to writing this book, Coblentz notes that it all felt like a natural fit — from graduate training to teaching and ultimately beginning to work on the book.

“There are natural transition that happens along the course of graduate training and early career research,” she said. “It was, first at that sort of transition moment that I realized, I had a long-standing interest in theologies of suffering.” 

Transitioning from dissertation to book

Coblentz was knew she want to fill the space that was missing in the research on mental health after she finished her dissertation and started teaching.

“I knew I was at least interested enough in addressing this lacuna to write a dissertation on it,” she said. “Once I finished the dissertation, there was another sort of natural transition, and a place for a pause as I began my teaching career, and sort of thought about whether I was gonna keep working on this topic or start something else.”

Once Coblentz realized this was a topic and issue she wanted to research, she noted it was not a quick process.

“What I realized is that even though it took me kind of years to bring my dissertation to fruition, in the time that I spent doing that, there wasn’t a lot more work in theology and mental health than when I started,” she said.

It was this realization that solidified Coblentz’s decision to write and research over the realities of mental health struggles — she wanted to raise awareness for the topic.

“So I saw that there was an ongoing need for theological research on this topic, and awareness of mental health struggles had only grown during that time and continues to grow today,” she said. 

As she began conducting research and diving deeper into the subject, she came to realize how intimidating this field of study can truly be.

“I learned from the experience of writing my dissertation that this was a really meaningful endeavor,” she said. “As you can imagine, it’s difficult at times to do research on a topic that is so harrowing, it often requires me to reflect on some of the most difficult times in people’s lives.”

It was not only a project based on data, statistics and literature. Coblentz had to dive deep into the lives of those she interviewed and read over.

“That can be daunting, but the challenge seemed really worthwhile,” she said. “And I learned that from doing the dissertation research, and that sort of has continued to motivate me through writing this book.”

When asked about the research process, Coblentz spoke on knowing she had to consult a variety of resources, and that this would be a lengthy process full of scholarly articles and data she had studied.

“I started out knowing that I would have to consult a wide array of resources to even begin to say something about depression from a theological perspective, and one of the challenges of that is that so many different disciplines have studied depression,” she said. 

Coblentz also wanted to include the experience of the mental illness along with her theological understanding.

“One of the early challenges that I faced was sort of wading through a lot of multidisciplinary research on this topic so that I had a strong foundation in this experience of depression, which I would then bring into conversation with theological resources and my own original theological reflection,” she said.

In the process of collecting research and getting a chance to read a range of work, she was able to narrow down several aspects of her book.

“I read a lot of autobiographies where people were talking about their experiences of depression, and I found that that first-person perspective, offered a really thick portrait of this experience than what many other disciplines could offer me — at least for what I was looking for,” she said. “And then I also got very interested in philosophical reflections on depression, in particular, philosophical texts that were employing a what’s called a phenomenological approach to depression, which studies human experience very meticulously.”

Balancing teaching and research

When asked about how she balanced everything: from teaching to researching and personal time, Coblentz said she would always look forward to the little moments here and there where she could return to the solitude and challenge of writing as difficult as it may be.

“Finding time to do research is a challenge that lots of professors, dare I say, most professors face,” she said. “I found myself at times looking forward to a few moments here a few moments, I also found that conversations with my students often inspired my research.”

Coblentz has had the chance to teach courses on theological suffering at Saint Mary’s and knows how this has impacted the research she was doing.

“There were times where we would be grappling with ideas in class and students questions or students pushback, students critique sometimes really challenged me to rethink some of the ideas that I was grappling with, as I was writing this book on depression.”

Coblentz expressed her joy and excitement now having the book officially out and published for the public to read.

“It is exciting, I mean, one of the best parts of being a theologian is getting to talk to other people about things that matter to them dearly,” she said. “And one of the thrills of this book coming out is that it has allowed me to share something that I’ve been thinking about for years with other people.”

She hopes her book will prompt conversation, and that all the work that has gone into the book helps raise awareness on the realities of mental health.

“Writing and researching in my field can often be a really isolating endeavor. You know, it’s a lot of reading, it’s a lot of thinking, it’s a lot of writing by oneself,” Coblentz said. “And so now that the book is out, it’s an opportunity for me to be in conversation with people and just learn from them, from the ideas that they’re bringing, in response to what I’m saying.”

Coblentz is excited that as an author, she can engage with her audience.

“I have always taken great comfort in books,” she said. “I have felt like, books are a way for me to be in conversation with an author. And so I think part of why I wrote this book was to kind of extend a hand to others to invite them into conversation with me, and now that’s becoming real.”