Christians: Take Depression Seriously
With prayer, 'all things are possible,' but sometimes depression requires additional action.
BY: Tony Campolo
Years ago, a student of mine tried to explain that he had been too depressed to study and asked to be excused from a scheduled exam. I blew him off, telling him to get over it. Only hours afterward, he jumped to his death from a high-rise apartment building. The young man left behind a suicide note telling his parents that he just couldn’t endure the sadness that had been torturing his soul.
Never again would I take depression lightly. In religious circles, depression is often deemed to be a spiritual condition that can be cured with prayer. In many situations, those who suffer from depression are criticized for a lack of faith and told that if only they would yield to an infilling of the Holy Spirit, they would know “the joy of the Lord."
I’m not denying that depression can be spiritually induced. Guilt from having wronged and hurt others can bring it on. A sense of having failed to live out the will of God can give rise to depression. Certainly the fear of death and what might follow can sap the joy out of life. In such cases, meditation on scripture (especially the Psalms), prayer, and other spiritual disciplines often can make available what the Bible calls “the balm of Gilead” that heals the sin-sick soul (Jeremiah 8:22).Let's Own Up to Our Responsibility
As we consider the causes of depression, those of us in the church must face the ways we might be responsible for creating it. Supposedly, we offer a gospel that delivers people from guilt, but often, when we think people do not feel guilty enough to take our gospel seriously, we preach to them in a way that makes them feel guilty. Sadly, we do a much better job of making people feel guilty than we do of delivering them from the guilt we create. We need to confess this and change our ways.
I have a special concern about how the church has generated destructive guilt among gay and lesbian young people. Suicide is the second most common cause of death among teenagers, and many suicide victims are young people who hate themselves because of their sexual identities. Whatever else the church does, it certainly is outside the will of God if it is causing teenagers to hate themselves.Depression Is a State of Mind and Body
Often, we ignore the fact that our spiritual condition and psychological state of mind are highly affected by what is happening to us physically. Sometimes depression is simply the result of exhaustion. In 1 Kings 19, we read how the prophet Elijah, worn out from his struggles to defeat Jezebel and her prophets of the pagan deity Baal, is so depressed that he cries out to God to end his life. In response, God tells Elijah to eat a good meal and go to bed, and that he will feel differently in the morning. For those of us who are depressed because we’re not getting enough sleep (and most Americans don’t), it is a great comfort that we can take our burdens to Christ, and He will give us rest.
Diet and exercise also figure into our emotional and spiritual conditions. The Bible tells us that the body is “the temple of God” (1 Corinthians 6:19), and it is sad how badly most of us treat our bodies. How many of us would feel more spiritually alive and joyful if only we exercised and stopped dumping junk food into God’s temple? Big doses of chocolate bars can put us on a high, but we'll experience a spiritual and psychological downtime a short time later.
Depression can also be brought on by chemical imbalances in the body. A person’s DNA can trigger chemical reactions that put him or her into an intensive funk. For women, the bodily changes that accompany menopause can bring on extreme depression. With prayer, “all things are possible,” but escaping from depression that is due to a chemical imbalance in the body through prayer alone is not probable. Those who try to dissuade religious people from getting medical help for clinical depression, claiming that faith alone is the cure, can do devastating harm. In many cases, a severe depression that lasts more than a few days is bio-physically based and requires medical treatment. This is certainly true for any who suffer from a bipolar condition. A psychiatrist is trained to diagnose both medical and mental causes of depression. To seek such treatment does not denote a lack of faith, but rather evidence of a willingness to take advantage of what God has made available to us through modern science.
Life Can Be Depressing
Sometimes people are depressed for no other reason than that they are in jobs that dehumanize them and leave them drained and disappointed. The meaninglessness that so many feel in their everyday work can create a deadness of the soul. If at all possible, these brothers and sisters must be helped to take the bold step of quitting jobs they find meaningless and finding vocations that will enable them to be fully alive during the workday, as well as in their leisure hours. Being devoid of vitality throughout the workday can dilute the energy that is needed to love, and without love depression is inevitable.
Also, enduring personal tragedies of one sort or another can drain the love of life out of our being. I hasten to add that in the midst of tragedy, mourning is a good and necessary thing—as long as it doesn’t go on endlessly. There should be a point at which a decision is made to move on from mourning and choose to be life-affirming once again.
Sometimes, what is most needed for the depressed is some good counseling from a psychotherapist. There are many deeply spiritual people who have found good counselors to be godsends, especially if the causes of depression lie in deep-seated and repressed memories of painful and traumatic past experiences. This is particularly true for persons who were sexually abused in childhood. Psychoanalysis can dig out of the subconscious such ugly realities so that they can be dealt with the effects negated. Counseling can be especially helpful when dealing with the anxieties that accompany times of hard decision-making. Such anxieties often leave persons immobilized and almost suicidal.
I have a friend who, after the death of her husband, struggled over whether or not to sell her house and move into a retirement home. This previously joyful woman was overwhelmed with depression until a counselor helped her weigh her options and make a decision. Once the decision was made, the deadness of her soul and the anxieties that had tortured her disappeared. Getting the right kind of counseling from the right kind of counselor is essential. It is a good idea to talk to your pastor, priest, or rabbi about whom to see for help. The best counseling is usually carried out in harmony with one’s own faith commitments. Make sure, therefore, that you and your proposed counselor are in agreement with basic beliefs and values.
Finally, it might be that in some cases overcoming depression requires nothing more than praying for the will to be joyful. There’s a woman I know whose health has failed in many ways. She can only breathe with the help of oxygen tanks; her husband has deserted her; she needs charity to survive. But she is determined to be happy—and she is. Lincoln once said that most people are about as happy as they decide to be. In the end, you may have to pray for the grace and courage to decide to say "yes" to life and, by so doing, prove to the world that you have indeed been saved: "by grace through faith." To make such a decision is not to be a Pollyanna. It is willing to will the will of God.