Looking back over my relatively short life, it seems that most of it has existed in duality. On one end — Christian faith, the foundation of my most deeply held convictions and the core of who I am. On the other — depression, an unwelcome visitor that has made itself at home in me through various periods of my life.
The National Institute of Mental Health reports that depression is one of the most common mental disorders in the U.S. At the most basic level, it’s an imbalance of brain chemicals that help stabilize mood and allow people to experience pleasant emotions. Symptoms include “feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness and hopelessness; loss of interest or pleasure in usual activities; and thoughts of suicide or death.” I can tell you from personal experience that depression is more agonizing than this little list from WebMD makes it sound.
Although I was officially diagnosed a little over a year ago, I’ve had major depressive disorder on and off for half my life. I’ve been a Christian for even longer than that, having been born into a nondenominational home. I knew the tenants of charismatic Christianity before I had a name for the inexplicable emptiness I felt as a child, but I was in the throes of depression before I ever tangibly encountered the Holy Spirit.
The Gospel of Christ is hope. It is joy. It is life. I’ve experienced these things for myself.
Depression is hopelessness. It is sorrow. It is death. I’ve experienced these things as well.
During my lowest points, I’ve never found much relief within the walls of a church. That’s not to say churches are bad places; there just seems to be a lack of understanding in tending to depressed Christians. I, as well as other Christians who struggle with depression, have noticed a few common responses to depression in faith-based environments.
Oftentimes, particularly in charismatic circles, the idea of praying depression away or casting depression-causing spirits out of a sufferer is prevalent. I firmly believe that there is a time and place for these practices, but I also know the human body breaks down sometimes. Chemical imbalances and their effects are real. Most Christians wouldn’t suggest someone with cancer receive prayer in lieu of chemotherapy, so why isn’t the same attitude held for a mental disorder that is diagnosed by medical doctors? There’s nothing wrong with praying for someone with depression, but that shouldn’t be the end of it.
Similarly, depression is sometimes approached solely as an issue of mindset, a series of negative thoughts that can be improved by reading Scripture. Psychology Today reports that there is a correlation between negative thoughts and depressive feelings. Although Scripture can help reinforce biblical truths and encourage a more positive attitude, it won’t restore physical issues of chemical imbalances. It’s a great tool to use in conjunction with physical treatments like medicine and counseling.
In other instances, depressed Christians are treated like they’ve done something to bring the illness on themselves. This is a dangerous attitude to have with a depressed person, and even more so with someone trying to make sense of an illness that seems to contradict their beliefs. Assuming someone wouldn’t be depressed if they had more faith, prayed harder or sinned less does damage that can take a long time to recover from. Depression is an illness that is often characterized by uncontrollable, demeaning thoughts toward oneself. It also brings on feelings of worthlessness. Being told that depression is your own fault can result in an even quicker downward spiral into harmful thoughts and believing you aren’t valuable to Christ.
Sometimes Christians will avoid those who are ill because they don’t understand how a Christian can be depressed. Cutting ties with a depressed Christian for lack of understanding can be damaging. Depression is an intensely personal disorder. It’s an illness of thoughts and emotions, things that can only be experienced by the sufferer. It also fosters shame in sufferers because of how unhealthy and twisted those thoughts and feelings become at the height of a depressive episode. All of these things compound into an indescribable loneliness.
Interacting with a depressed person can be confusing, fatiguing and awkward, but it really is during this time that they need community most. Depression causes an instinctual withdrawal from family and friends, so forced interaction is sometimes necessary to help bring people out of their bouts. Besides, many depressed people aren’t looking to those around them for answers. Sometimes they don’t even need to talk. Simply having someone sit beside them and acknowledge the pain they’re experiencing is enough.
It’s time that Christians stopped being misguided about depression. It’s a widespread mental disorder that affects countless believers. Christians, both in leadership and in congregations, should continue to suggest solutions like prayer and Scripture, but they should also promote medical help, counseling and practical solutions like proper diet and exercise. Addressing the spirit, body and mind simultaneously will bring true healing to hurting Christians.
To the believers who have suffered as I have: There is no duality between faith and depression. There is only faith, because depression isn’t part of our identity in Christ.
Instead, we are rooted in hope. We are rooted in joy. We are rooted in life.
Rae Jefferson is a senior journalism major from Houston. She is copy desk chief for the Lariat.