Although it can be an unseen illness, depression affects millions of people on a daily basis. Fathers, mothers, sons, daughters—no one is except from this devastating and draining ailment. But how should the Christian react to this debilitating disorder? Is it a sin for a follower of Christ to experience times of depression? And what can be done for those who are currently in a bout with it?
Can a Christian Be Depressed?
Christians can be depressed, and depression is not a sin. God does not cause us to be depressed, but we need to rely on Him to help us through depression. The Bible is full of examples of depressed people. Depression began with Cain and Abel, the first two sons born to Adam and Eve. Cain’s anger and depression led him to kill his brother Abel (Genesis 4:5-6). The book of Job is a classic example of depression. Job did nothing wrong but God allowed him to be tested by Satan which caused Job to suffer deep depression for a long period of time (Job 7:1-7). Elijah became depressed after the greatest victory in his ministry. He even asked God to let him die (1 Kings 19). King David made some bad choices that sent him into acute depression (Psalms 32; 51).
The New Testament also has examples of depressed people. Jesus’ disciples became depressed because of bad choices they made. The apostle Paul suffered depression several times in his ministry, but by God’s sustaining grace he overcame it (2 Corinthians 11:23-28).
To cope with depression we must remember that life here on earth was never intended to be easy and simple. However, we can trust in God during our worst moments, because true happiness awaits the believer, now and hereafter.
Causes of Depression
Depression comes at all ages—from small children to senior adults—and takes many forms and exists in differing degrees. The vast majority of us experience periods of depression that are relatively mild. It affects our productivity and efficiency in performing various functions in life only minimally, if at all. Gloom and self-depreciation are common symptoms of depression. In more severe forms (often called clinical depression), bodily functions are impaired so that constant fatigue and either insomnia or too much sleep are common. The causes of depression can be physiological (such as a tumor or influenza), but the three most common causes are repressed anger, a deep sense of loss, and stress and anxiety over a long period of time.
Some type of loss often precipitates periods of depressed mood: the loss of a job, a relationship, a dream, or even a material possession. The milder forms of mood changes that result are common and generally require no treatment per se. When a person’s environment is relatively supportive, and an individual has some measure of control over the course of life events, his or her depressive feelings may go unnoticed.
On the other hand, moderate and severe forms of depression are harder to ignore by those who experience them directly and by those who are in contact with the sufferer. More severe states of depression may be due to the fact that environmental or interpersonal measures of support are unavailable or counter-supportive, or to chronic (long-term) dissatisfaction or disappointment with the limited support available. Many families do not foster honesty about painful emotions. Instead of experiencing comfort, love, and understanding, people in these families learn to suppress these painful feelings. When hurt and anger are suppressed for many months or years, both depression and outbursts of anger can occur.
Other contributing or causative factors for those that suffer from more severe forms of depression might include a genetic predisposition or a chemical imbalance in the basic transmitting substances of the brain.
Depression affects 30-40 million people in the United States. It reflects an imbalance in key areas of our lives. When we examine Scripture, we can see there is no single cause for depression. We now know this illness happens to people who have no reason to be depressed and who have no psychological problems. In other words, this is an illness that often affects normal and healthy people. Depression affects the entire mind, soul, and body, causing a person to feel miserable in many ways. Changes in the brain chemistry make it happen.
Typical Responses to Depression
How depression is manifested often depends upon age. Children at the grade school level may express depressive feelings through hyperactivity, firesetting, accidental tendencies, or bedwetting. Continual sulking, clinging, an inability to tolerate being separated from someone for a time, attacks of weeping or sadness, self-deprecation, a lack of interest in things, or withdrawal and isolation from other family members also may signify depression.
Adolescents may express their despair by antisocial behavior. When this is met by punishment and/or a lack of understanding, the depression likely will intensify.
Throughout adult development, depression may result from numerous challenges and stresses in relationships, career, empty-nest, and retirement. Depressed individuals can feel angry, anxious, arrogant, bitter, bored, confused, fearful, guilty, shameful, and hopeless. They frequently attempt to ward off depressive feelings with something more pleasurable. Such behaviors may include compulsive use of alcohol, drugs, tobacco, food, sex, money, or any other substance, object, or person leading to destructive consequences. These activities are designed to relieve depressed feelings, but actually contribute to their continuation.
Physical complaints common to depression are problems with sleeping, appetite, digestion, weight, constipation, sexual urges, bodily fatigue, and pain.
Another negative response is how depression affects people spiritually. Church attendance drops, as well as quiet times and time spent reading the Scripture. Even doubting one’s Christian faith may occur. This shows up the most with those that are 14-30 years old. Proverbs 11:14 tells us people will fall if there is no guidance, but we can find safety in a multitude of counselors. When someone is suffering from depression, the indwelling power of God and responsible actions of man work together for solutions.
Helping the Depressed
The tendency to feel uncomfortable when others are depressed can lead us to make serious errors in our attempts to help. Among these are providing a list of “justs” for the sufferer. “Just trust God” or “Just look on the bright side . . .” or “If you just hadn’t taken that job . . .” Sometimes we share our own experiences with depression and give a prescription for how we “conquered” it. Such comments and comparisons don’t lessen the sufferer’s severe sense of pain and lead to even greater feelings of alienation, guilt, and despair. Here’s what you need to know if you’re trying to help:
- Let others “own” their feelings. Encourage them to express “feeling states,” even depressive ones, rather than trying to talk them out of those feelings.
- Depressed individuals may have experienced severe losses in the past. Let them know others care about them now.
- Realize that anyone who is beginning to deal with loss will likely experience increased depressive symptoms. Such an increase may result from a decreased sense of adequate support, a reduction of defenses, and an attempt to begin honestly facing an inner reality.
- Understand it is not depressive feelings that harm people but the actions they may take to avoid those feelings. Compulsive behaviors sometimes are attempts to self-medicate depressive feelings without ever facing their causes.
- Remember that theories about depression abound and treatments cover a wide range, from biological to psychological. There is not one simple cure for all people.
- Keep in mind depression will lift when individuals attain balance between inner comfort and external competence.
- Be aware of indicators that signal changes are needed.
- Become committed to healthy boundaries and assertions.
- Help those who are struggling believe in themselves and know their worth and value as a person made in the image of Christ.
- Maintain and encourage positive attitudes that may help bring balance to the emotions of others.
Ask God to give you (and others) discernment that you may know the cause. Sometimes depression is too severe for non-professionals to treat. When that is true, the depressed person should be referred to a professional Christian counselor. If medication is needed, the counselor will refer the person to a medical doctor or a psychiatrist for prescription medication. Hospital-based programs can provide 24-hour care at the height of a depressive crisis. Individual or group therapy with a mental-health professional who understands depressive illnesses and its spiritual components and effects also may be necessary.
Fundamentally, it is a person’s relational connections that give him reason for living. Therefore, his relationship with God, his family, friends, co-workers, and church all play a significant role in the healing process.
If you’re struggling with depression, consider the following passages of Scripture and questions as a reminder of God’s power and faithfulness:
- Psalm 13 | When God seems distant, what should encourage us?
- Psalm 37 | When life seems unfair, what should we remember?
- Jeremiah 17:5-8 | In hard times, whom can we depend on?
- Philippians 1 | How can we return to joy?
- Philippians 4 | How we can overcome any barriers?
This article first appeared in The Brink magazine (Fall 2012)