Friday, May 3, 2013

The Christian and Depression

You're "down" - - - very, very far down.  It's not just that you're unhappy, or have the "blues," or that you're in a bad mood: it goes way beyond that.  You have no energy: even preparing a meal or taking a shower seems like a burden.  You feel absolutely worthless, and completely useless. You still love the people you've always loved, but you just want to be alone, and not have to deal with them. You don't enjoy the things that you used to enjoy, even things like sex, or playing with your children. You can't sleep; or, maybe, you want to sleep 24 hours a day.  Although you don't want to admit it, the idea of suicide suddenly seems reasonable - - - and you're a born again Christian! You're not supposed to feel this way!  What's going on here?

Everybody, of course, has periods of sadness, grief, or frustration at different times in their lives. If there's a death in the family, or you've just lost your job, or you've been served with divorce papers, you're not going to be laughing and celebrating: you're going to be grieving and mourning.  This is simply part of life, and everybody understands it.  But there's something else, that many people don't understand - - - and, sadly, some genuine, sincere, Bible believing Christians don't understand it, either.  It's called Depression, and isn't just a "mood" or a "bad patch:" it's a disease.  It's also called Clinical or Major Depression, or, in a very extreme form, Manic Depression, also known as bipolar disorder.  But this post isn't about the bipolar condition; it's about the disease of Major Depression.

(If you're not a Christian, who has received Jesus Christ according to John 1:12, then this post isn't for you.  If you have problems with Depression, there are many excellent resources online that can help you figure things out, and I hope you find them, or seek professional help: God bless you!  But this post is written for my brothers and sisters in Christ, who may be suffering from this problem - - - and who have experienced confusion or skepticism or even rejection from other Christians.  Because, sadly, many Christians simply don't understand any kind of mental or emotional illness, and can be quite judgmental.  That's no help at all!)

Two things must be emphasized, very clearly, at the outset. Amos said, I was no prophet, neither was I a prophet's son (Amos 7:14).  Likewise, I'm not a psychiatrist, nor the son of a psychiatrist, nor a psychologist.  But I know a few things about this subject, because I was first diagnosed with Major Depression twenty years ago, and have been treated for it ever since.  I'm not offering "professional advice;" God forbid!  I'm merely speaking as one Christian to other Christians, who may have encountered similar problems.  And my message is simple: If you suffer from Major, Clinical Depression, you're not "crazy," and you're not "bad," and you haven't "failed the Lord."  There's hope - - - and you have nothing to feel guilty about!

Second, I have a real horror of planting a suggestion in anyone's mind that they have a mental or emotional disorder, when they don't.  You may experience some of the symptoms of Depression at times, but that doesn't mean that you have the disease, any more than an occasional headache means that you have a brain tumor.  Most people reading this post probably don't suffer from Depression; they're just experiencing the "thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to."  I'm not trying to add to your worries, or give you a new worry!

Here's the reason I'm writing this post: For decades, maybe for over a century, there's been a real alienation, at times even a real hostility, between the mental health community and evangelical or fundamental Christians. (I cheerfully and unapologetically align myself with the latter group.)  For years, some psychologists and psychiatrists acted as though "religion" was a problem in itself, and the cause of many mental disorders.  (This was largely due to the influence of Freud, but that's neither here nor there.)  At the same time, evangelical/fundamental Christians regarded all psychology and psychiatry with suspicion and condemnation: they felt (and some still do) that any sort of mental or emotional problem was simply the result of sin in an individual's life, and that if a person just "had faith," the problem would go away.  Both of these viewpoints were wrong, but they held sway for a long, long time.  By the grace of God, that's beginning to change.  Both the psychological community and the Christian church are becoming less hostile to each other.  That doesn't mean that the psychiatrist has replaced the pastor, or that the pastor can treat psychological problems that have a medical basis; but both groups, with some very ugly exceptions, are beginning to understand one another.

(For example - - - and please pardon the personal reference - - - when I attempted suicide, many years ago, I found nothing but understanding, acceptance, and support from my very fundamentalist pastor, and I have encountered the same with subsequent pastors.  At the same time, every mental health professional who has treated me has said that my faith was my greatest asset in my struggle against Depression. I know other Christians who could say the same thing. This might not have been the case fifty years ago. There are things that only a brother or sister Christian can do; and if you have a clinical condition, there are things that only a doctor can do.  Of course, Jesus knew this all along: He said, They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance [Mark 2:17].  Jesus acknowledged the value of physicians, and the necessity for spiritual disciplines.  It's His followers, and His enemies, that have gotten things confused.  Yes, there are still psychiatrists who hate all "religion," and there are still professing Christians who damn the psychiatric community out of hand; but their numbers are dwindling.)

Well, if Clinical or Major Depression (the terms are synonymous, but do not include Bipolar Disorder, which is a different disease) isn't just "a figment of your imagination," or "laziness," or "self-pity," what is it?  I can give you a very brief description (take a deep breath): Depression is "the premature re-uptake of serotonin neurotransmitters in the brain."  It can be treated with medication.  But what does that medical terminology mean?

When God created our bodies, He enabled them to produce certain chemicals; one of these is called "serotonin."  Simply put, it's a natural body chemical that, when produced in the brain,  makes us feel good, or that enables us to feel happiness and pleasure. But in some people, when serotonin is released in the brain, it's re-absorbed too quickly, and doesn't have a chance to do its job, which is to make us feel good.  So, we feel bad.  That "premature re-uptake" causes Depression.  Anti-depressant medications (some of which are excellent, and some of which have been pretty bad) stop this re-uptake from occurring.  But not every patient needs medication; and not every medication works for every patient.  There are other therapies, too, but if one suffers prolonged Depression (and if it's not prolonged, it's not the real thing), medication will probably be used at some point.  That's why someone who thinks they might have this disease must consult a physician.  You can read the articles on the Internet for a week, but you need to have a doctor look at you. (By the way, you don't have to immediately seek out a psychiatrist; a good family doctor, or general practitioner, is trained to recognize the symptoms of Depression, and can give you a referral, if necessary.) And if your pastor tells you "psychiatry is of the Devil," you might consider finding a new pastor.  But don't abandon your faith, or the church!

It may be hard to understand all this medical stuff, but remember: we are fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14).  If our brain has a problem, it's not because the Creator made a mistake; we have sickness in all parts of our bodies, because we live in a fallen world, where nothing works exactly as God intended. (In that sense, Depression, earthquakes, cancer, hurricanes, and every other disease or disaster are the results of man's rebellion.) And, as the Creator Himself said, sometimes we need a physician.  Yes, medical science can help: so, the balanced Christian says, "Thank God for medical science!"

This is, obviously, much too serious a subject to cover in a single post.  In subsequent posts, we'll talk about some other symptoms of Major Depression, and some of the myths about it, and how a Christian can deal with it.

For now, however, it is enough to say, to my brothers and sisters who might have this affliction: Relax.  You're not imagining things, and you're not crazy, and God still has something for you to do on this earth.  Don't listen to those few shrinks who say "Religion is your problem!"  And don't listen to those brothers and sisters who say, "If you were in the right relationship with God, you'd be okay."  Most of all, don't feel guilty!  You're a member of a guilty race, but if you've been born again, your sins were covered at Calvary.  That's a tremendous advantage, and you mustn't forget it!  Don't let your imagination run away with you; you probably don't have Depression.  But if you do, it's nothing to be ashamed of - - - and both the doctor and the Bible will help you deal with it.  Just don't neglect either one; Major Depression is serious business.

We'll discuss this more in further posts. And remember (I speak from experience): And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).

Including mental or emotional problems?  Yes indeed.  The verse said all things.

Thank God for His mercy and His grace!

1 comment:

  1. I'm also a Christian who's been diagnosed with Depression - in my case, I've dealt with it for almost 30 years. I'm looking forward to your future posts on the subject!!