This blog is primarily about coping with grief, and just because someone is grieving, does not mean that they are depressed. However, recently I’ve met more than a few people whose grief intersects with depression, and I think it’s worthwhile writing about depression in general, and dealing with it as Christians.
Mental health problems are not a simple matter of half-empty glasses
Everyone knows the common adage or question about the glass. Do you see it as half-full? Then you’re a positive type of personality. Do you see it as half-empty? Then you’re a negative thinker.
This view of things seems to spill over into the mental health arena. Are you depressed? Sad? Lethargic? Can’t make the effort to take care of yourself? Can’t see any future? “You’re just seeing the glass as half-empty! Pull yourself together! Go out for a walk! Cheer up! Be positive!”
I’m not trying to imply that there isn’t a time for “cheering up” and I am personally not only a believer but also a practitioner of getting out in nature, but I think it’s too simplistic to say that it’s a cure-all. I will expand on that in a moment, but first of all, to return to the half-empty half-full glass.
There are others way to view that glass on the table.
When you’re depressed, you might not be bothered with looking at the glass. You just don’t care whether it’s half-full or half-empty.
Others might question whether the glass is really there at all. They might not believe what they see. Some others might not see a glass of water or wine, but think it’s poison. Their problem isn’t just an attitude, but a condition called psychosis.
It’s well-known that depression can lead to suicide (I will write about that in another post), but it’s less well-known that severe depression can result in psychosis, which can also be life-threatening. Psychosis is a problem that causes people to perceive or interpret things differently from those around them, which might involve hallucinations or delusions. (Read more here – external link to “Rethink”) Schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are the most common mental conditions associated with psychosis, but it can also be a symptom of severe depression. It is frightening and confusing not only for those experiencing this alternate understanding of reality, but also for their loved ones.
All of that to say, that although we can sometimes help ourselves through a depressive episode, on other occasions depression can be a serious mental health condition that needs medical attention.
I’ll say that again in other words:
Depression is a health condition, not simply an attitude that we can necessarily change at will.
Health conditions needing treatment
Some health conditions can be managed by ourselves. Have a little headache? Take a painkiller. Cut your finger? Clean and put on a bandaid. Got a stomach ache? Try some herbal tea. Fighting a cold? Keep warm, rest, have lots of hot drinks. And so on.
On the other hand, more serious health conditions need medical advice and treatment. I didn’t try personally to replace my own rotten knee joint, and no amount of positive thinking would have restored the bone either. We don’t criticise those who have diabetes or high blood pressure from taking their prescribed medication, and if we face something such as cancer, we carefully weigh the medical advice we are given.
But when it comes to depression, it can be a different story. Yes, it’s a mental health condition, but do we really see it as an actual health condition, or simply a state of mind, a choice we’ve made?
Perhaps our views are skewed because depression isn’t something we can see. It’s not a broken bone or a skin rash or some other outward physical symptom.
Plus there still seems to be some societal stigma about any mental health problems.
And there’s the glass-half-full crowd, who will teach and preach that it can all be fixed with a more positive outlook. “Always look on the bright side of life” sang the cast of Monty Python. If you’re more cheerful and take better care of yourself, you’ll get over it, they say.
Perhaps if you’re just a bit down – the equivalent of a scratched thumb or mini-headache – then yes, that might work. But if you – or someone you love – has suffered from moderate to severe depression, you’ll recognise this advice as worse than useless. If you’re in the midst of the dark fog of depression, you might not be able to even see that glass on the table. Or if you’re in the most severe, psychotic phase of your illness, you might not trust the glass at all. You need more than a positive attitude. You need help.
The depressed Christian
And this brings me to people in a faith environment. I’m going to write about Christians here because that’s my first-hand experience, but I’m guessing this could also apply in other faith communities.
As believers, we experience our faith through our worship, our scriptures, our prayers, our community. Joyful songs of praise and thanksgiving might cause our hearts to soar, whether from old-time favourite hymns such as “How Great Thou Art” to contemporary worship to the exuberant beats of Christian reggae.
On the other hand, they might not. Our heart might not be lifted. Our spirit may not be moved. Our mind may still be darkened. Not necessarily because we are unspiritual, or unbelieving, or doing something wrong (“sinning”), or in some ways in conflict with our faith. But we feel like this because we are suffering from a health condition – a mental health condition.
Christians sometimes don’t expect to feel – or witness – the pain of grief. In much the same way, Christians can be surprised by depression in themselves or others. Maybe they don’t understand why prayer doesn’t bring immediate or lasting relief. Why does the sufferer keep suffering? Are they being let down by their God, or is their faith letting them down?
I don’t have any simple answers beyond that as human beings we experience a mixture of joy and sadness, health and pain. There is quite a bit about depression in the Bible, although it’s not given that label. There’s lots to see in the Book of Psalms – “I am deeply discouraged” (Psalm 42:6). I don’t have space here to write more examples, perhaps another time.
If you, like me, have concluded that as believers we are not immune to the difficulties of life, whether practical, physical or mental, what do we do about it?
The crucial point with depression, I believe, is to do something.
From the faith perspective, whilst I believe that prayer can change things, I don’t think the answers always come in the package we want, nor in the time-frame.
I think we also need to reach out and accept other forms of support and relief, in practical ways.
If we’re hungry, we eat. If we’re thirsty, we drink. If our leg is broken, we get it x-rayed and put in a cast until it heals. If we been injured in an accident or we have become seriously ill, then it is usually in our best interests to get medical attention.
If we have a serious health condition, we seek for advice, and generally follow the advice we are given. (Clarification: This is written here in the UK with our excellent National Health Service, where medical care is free at the point of delivery, and there is no profit motive for clinicians to make recommendations about treatment. It might be different elsewhere!)
This includes mental health conditions. It includes depression. It can include being open to the advice or treatment we are offered, including but not limited to anti-depressants or talking therapies or other treatments.
I realise some people reading this might have strong opinions to the contrary. That’s perfectly fine. I hope we are still friends! We are all entitled to our own opinions. What really upsets me, however, is when people are dissuaded from seeking and accepting treatment because of misconceptions and misunderstandings, or even because of shame.
Sometimes as believers we feel ashamed – like we should not be experiencing what we’re experiencing, and then there is the shame that we aren’t able to get better without medical support. I can’t shout it loud enough:
THERE IS NO SHAME IN HAVING A HEALTH CONDITION
THERE IS NO SHAME IN HAVING A MENTAL HEALTH CONDITION
THERE IS NO SHAME IN DEPRESSION
THERE IS NO SHAME IN SEEKING AND RECEIVING TREATMENT
Serious depression, as a serious health condition, needs care and treatment. That’s the conclusion I’ve come to from personal experiences and from the people I encounter, through my work and beyond. A serious health condition can be treated, and with treatment, there can be life improvement. Ignored and unsupported, however, it can have truly tragic consequences.
Of course I’m not alone in this opinion. If you have been hesitating about treatment or beating yourself up about even needing it, the following might provide you with some additional encouragement.
A helpful article on Depression and the Christian (external link, written by a Christian counsellor)
Causes of depression can be many. Read more on this here (from the NHS)
If you need to talk to someone at any time of the day or night, no matter what is on your mind, you can call Samaritans on freephone number 116 123 (in the UK).
And finally, here’s another take on a Bible story that almost everyone knows.
The “Good Samaritan” found an injured man on the roadside. “When he saw the man’s condition, his heart went out to him. He gave him first aid, disinfecting and bandaging his wounds. Then he lifted him onto his donkey, led him to an inn, and made him comfortable.” (Luke 10:34)
We focus on the kindness of the Good Samaritan, but perhaps there’s more to this story told by Jesus. The story wouldn’t have the same outcome if the injured man had refused the help that was offered. What’s more, as Jesus told it, there was no shame implied, neither in the fact that he was hurt in the first place, nor that he accepted help.–And that help came from a stranger, no less.
What would we do in his place? An easy question perhaps, unless you think:
Through no fault of our own, through circumstances not of our making, as we made our way along the road of life, we got injured. Whatever the reasons, we feel somewhat beaten up and powerless. We’re defeated, depressed. And then help arrives, perhaps not in the form we expected, but help nevertheless. Will we accept it? Will we let ourselves be cared for, bandaged, treated?
THERE IS NO SHAME IN DEPRESSION OR ANY OTHER MENTAL ILLNESS
THERE IS NO SHAME IN SEEKING AND ACCEPTING TREATMENT