What I know about Christians and depression

Georgina Barratt-See


Some people say Christians shouldn't get depression.  Some people say that Christians should just snap out of it, or just have more faith.  There's nothing less helpful.

I was inspired to write this after talking on one of the forums about unemployment and the debilitating effects of being without a job. Our society places so much emphasis on what we do for a living. I remember running into someone after I finished studying (chemistry), and them asking what I did. They laughed with derision when they found out I was working as a secretary, as we had both studied together, and actually I'd dropped out of a scholarship program at uni and they had then received my scholarship. I know that their derision was probably motivated by their feelings of inadequacy, as they had originally missed out on the scholarship " but it still hurt.

It still hurts actually. I still get comments about how I'm "only a secretary" from people.

But that's not really what I wanted to talk about. And I do love my job!!

For the past 4 ½ years I've been working as the administrator of a university counselling service. Prior to that I worked for a year as a secretary to a leading research psychiatrist, who specialises in treating bipolar disorder (often called "manic depression") and severe depression. So you could say that I had some knowledge about mental illness, and you'd be right.

However, a couple of points I want to make clear: I'm not a "mental health" professional. I'm not qualified in any extent in mental health. My specialty is administration. But I am a Christian. And I do suffer from depression.


So what do I know about depression?

It's sadly quite common: statistics estimate that 1 in 5 Australians will suffer from mental illness at some stage in their lives. Probably the most prevalent of these illnesses is depression, and perhaps also anxiety (things like excessive worrying, painful shyness, panic attacks).

By no means are Christians immune to this. We still live in this fallen world, we still deal with pain and despair and we still have factors in our lives that contribute to being depressed. It's a complete myth that Christians should be immune to depression! I've personally often thought that actually Christians are more likely to be depressed " because they truly see the nature of man's sinfulness, and they occasionally glimpse what the new creation, heaven, will be like, and therefore compare it to what this world is like.

It's quite debilitating: Don't get me wrong " some people manage okay with mild or moderate depression, but even then there's those like me who occasionally have to take time off work because of depression, and who take a little red pill every day. Some people describe it as being a "black cloud" that descends over them. It's like an "absence of hope". I've often felt it as a crushing despair and hopelessness. Some people have strong feelings of uselessness and inadequacy, others find it impossible to relate to people. Some have it combined with other symptoms or conditions, and some people get it when something terrible happens in their lives.

My depression stems from a number of factors: from a painful childhood, dealing with divorce, abuse and incest; to a young adulthood trying to work out who I was, and why God had placed me where he had. I still am not whole " but then again, who is? We all carry scars and traumas from this life " if we don't get them as children they come later in life. It's part of the painful state of this world " and it's what will be relieved permanently in heaven, when there will be "no more crying, or pain, or death". (Revelation 21)

For further information on What Causes depression, see
http://www.beyondblue.org.au/index.aspx?link_id=7.246&tmp=FileDownload&fid=38

It's misunderstood: Christians with depression "can't just snap out of it" and it's not just a feeling of low mood one day. Some people think that it's all to do with upbringing, but there are multiple, varied factors that contribute to people having depression. It's an illness " and some people don't get that. If somebody had Type 1 diabetes, you wouldn't tell them to "snap out it" " depression's just like that but in the brain.

It's treatable: Personally I'm a great believer in the "talking therapies" " such as meeting with a counsellor, social worker or psychologist and looking at ways of changing attitudes and developing coping mechanisms. Seeing a psychiatrist or a good GP who can prescribe medication is also extremely useful. I personally have changed a huge amount since getting consistent treatment. But bear in mind I have an excellent, supportive job and I'm lucky enough that my medication works well most of the time.

In terms of medication, there are different types with different functions.  Sometimes it takes a while to find the right one.  I'm on Efexor XR at the moment, but I've also tried Aropax which worked a bit and Zoloft which didn't work at all.  Sometimes treatment is difficult and needs to be extreme " things like shock therapy administered in hospital are actually quite helpful " surprisingly enough! And the patient is under anesthetic, so there's no "twitching".

For further information, see "Types of Help available" http://www.beyondblue.org.au/index.aspx?link_id=7.246&tmp=FileDownload&fid=39
That being said, depression is not always curable.  A lot of people who suffer depression have it recur, but there are numerous coping techniques, "good thinking" strategies, support structures, and warning signs that you learn to recognise, that help to cope.  For example, some of my warning signs are: when I start reacting to things that normally wouldn't affect me, when I lack energy or "get up and go", when I keep bursting into tears, when even getting out of bed to go to the toilet seems too hard, when I start to feel out of control, and even when my room descends to complete chaos!  I know that when I'm depressed I don't want to see anyone, even though normally I'm pretty outgoing and am happiest singing or speaking in front of lots of people. Recognising these symptoms helps me to look at things I can do to manage it before it gets too bad.

Sometimes convincing people that they should seek professional help is difficult. I remember thinking that I didn't need medication, because the causes of my depression were deeply psychological. I also remember thinking that I will never feel happy or positive again, but that I sit writing about this in an extremely public forum says something about how I'm going!! I personally think that anyone with ongoing depression needs to find someone to talk to and someone to medicate " maybe the same person if they are qualified to do both.


One of the great blessings I have is a very supportive and loving church family. My friends (you know who you are) have been generous and kind over many years. As Christians, we are in the unique position of being part of the body of Christ " each of us doing our own work for the kingdom, and this is a really big helpful thing for me " that I feel "useful" and "loved" as one of Christ's members, and that my friends at church have really looked out for me and after me.

It's good for us: As much as it sounds absurd, I believe having depression has been good for me. Yes, good for me! It's great to have an insight in my job into how others are feeling. I also think I can encourage those in similar positions because it's not just a "surface" encouragement " I actually know how they are feeling. It's also shaping us and growing us to be Christ's children. Depression for me has helped me to remember that this world is temporary- that it is passing away " and that when I get down over things like the Asian Boxing Day Tsunami, that we are still looking forward to a heavenly kingdom so very much better than this one which is decaying!

I think it's made me more compassionate and understanding too! And also more aware of my own fallibility and lack of control over my life!! It has caused me to cry out to God in despair and in the deepness of my heart at critical times. It has helped me to appreciate when good things happen, and to really embrace all the great things that God has provided.

It's possible to be helpful: Yes, it's possible for us, as brothers and sisters in Christ, to be helpful to those around us with depression. Some of my friends aren't very "in touch with their emotions" but they can (and have!) provided meals, money or support. Every Christian can pray for their suffering friends. And listen! And care! Showing that you believe that each person, including those suffering from depression, are unique and special and very important to God is very important to someone who suffers from depression " and invaluable. One of my dear friends, who I crossly told a number of years ago that she did not understand, has stood by me in my grumpiness, loneliness, pain and despair, and other brothers and sisters in Christ can also do that.

My mum drove me crazy over many years telling me that I should exercise and I'd feel better.  I honestly didn't believe her, but guess what?  She was right (well, to a certain extent!).  It doesn't remove the "deep, underlying pain" but it does give a feeling of accomplishment and does produce endorphins " both things are good for you!  You can start small with a stroll around the block " it doesn't have to be a big exercise endeavour! Another thing that I've found helpful is to get in touch with nature.  Sounds pretty hippy, I know!  But admiring a sunset, watching waves break on the shore, or watching ducks land on a pond " all of these remind of the beauty of this creation that our Father has given us.

Remember that someone with depression will often feel unloveable " that they actually don't deserve love " so practical demonstrations of your care for them are important.  A card, a flower, a note " these things are all valuable. If you're having trouble deciding how or when to help, often it can useful to think of them as having a serious physical illness " that gives you the idea about what could be useful.

It's really important to remember though, to look after yourself!  Make sure that you too are okay and can listen but not have to "take on" the pain yourself. Don't make the mistake of getting so caught up in what you can do for them that you fail to take care of yourself. It's not a biblical principle " and it's not a Christ-like principle " Christ after all used to withdraw to pray and be with those closest to him. Don't forget what the second commandment says: love others as you love yourself (emphasis mine).

Bear in mind that if your friend talks about suicide, it's important to seek professional help for them.  But don't abandon them either " staying with them is important if they are actively thinking about it.

For further information, see: "How can I help?" http://www.beyondblue.org.au/index.aspx?link_id=7.246&tmp=FileDownload&fid=37

It's shaping us: We are being shaped in Christ-like-ness in different ways. Yes, it's extremely painful " yes, it's extremely difficult, but the most painful times are those when we are most changed by God. And it really gives us a great insight, as I have said before.

Some practical stuff:

This stuff comes from work, as well as some thoughts I had when I ran a study on depression.

Christians with depression are often excessively guilty, lonely, miserable, feeling unloved, feeling distant from God, feel unworthy, and believe that there is no hope.

Have a look at the following passages. What do they teach you about what God says about these things? How could you comfort someone with depression using the principles from these passages?

Ps 139 (in particular God's attitude towards us and his distance to us " e.g. He knows us intimately and profoundly and "knit us together")

Phil 1:18-26 (in particular, living in this world and living in the next " e.g. Paul knows that it is more necessary for the Philippians that he remains " reminding the depression sufferer that it is more necessary for them to remain is important)

Romans 5:8 (in particular, standing before God e.g. God saves us whilst we were still drenched and contaminated in sin and now we are washed sparkling clean)

Matthew 22:39 (in particular, love for self e.g. loving yourself as you love your neighbour)

1 Peter 2:4-9 (in particular, standing before God and body of believers " e.g. a chosen people, part of Christ's building with him as the cornerstone)

1 Corinthians 12 (in particular, being part of the body of Christ e.g. we are all given gifts, and are all important as part of God's family, it doesn't matter what gift you have or what body part you are, you are still important to the body and to God)

2 Corinthians 1 (in particular how God provides overflowing comfort e.g. the sufferings of Christ overflow into our lives, but God provides overflowing comfort)

 

Some useful numbers:

Lifeline 131114 " I have only used these guys once- but the advantage is they are there 24/7 " it doesn't matter what time, there's someone who will listen.

Kids Help Line " 1800 55 1800 - these guys are great for kids.  They also have an internet site: http://www.kidshelp.com.au

If someone is suicidal, take them to the nearest emergency room or local health service.  It's important they get help.

 

Some useful websites:

http://www.beyondblue.org.au (this is my favourite and the one I recommend above all others " especially the downloadable fact sheets)

http://www.depressionet.com.au http://www.depressionadvice.com.au http://www.sane.org http://www.truebluefriends.au.com http://www.reachout.asn.au (this is particularly for youth) http://www.ybblue.com.au http://moodgym.anu.edu.au http://bluepages.anu.edu.au http://www.crufad.unsw.edu.au (also useful for anxiety)

http://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au
http://www.sydneyanglicans.net/indepth/depression_in_your_church/ (book review of Christian self-help depression books)

 

Some useful books"

I'm Not Supposed to Feel Like This: A Christian Self-Help Approach to Depression and Anxiety
(I haven’t read this one but it’s supposed to be good)

Chris Williams, Paul Richards and Ingrid Whitton
Hodder & Stoughton, London, 2002, 279pp.
Available from Moore Books
Ph: 9577 9966

Depression and Hope: New Insights for Pastoral Counselling
(I didn’t like this one because it was trying to say that pastors and counsellors are the same thing I think - and they’re not)
Howard W. Stone
Fortress, Minneapolis, 1998, 162pp.
Available from Moore Books
Ph: 9577 9966

A Practical Handbook for the Depressed Christian (The big flaw with this one is how big it is - I particularly like the chapter on training in the mental gym)

John Lockley
Authentic Publishing, Milton Keynes, 1991, 478pp.
Available from Moore Books
Ph: 9577 9966

"Beating the Blues" by Sue Tanner & Jillian Ball. Published by Doubleday books, 1989. ISBN 0 86824 3477 (This is my favourite non-Christian resource)

"Breaking the Patterns of Depression" by Dr Michael Yapko. Published by Doubleday books, 1997. ISBN 0 385 48370 8

"Feeling Good " The New Mood Therapy" by D Burns. Published by Information Australian Group, 1980. ISBN 0 949338 59 1 (one of my male friends recommends this one)

"How to Heal Depression" by H Bloomfield & P McWilliams. Published by Thorsons Harper Collins, 1994. ISBN 0 7225 3119 2

"Taming the Black Dog" by Bev Aisbett. Published by Harper Collins, 2000. ISBN 0 7322 6757 9 (This one’s for the non-readers - it’s pretty simple and has pictures :)

"Dealing with Depression" by Gordon Parker. Published by Allen & Unwin, 2004. ISBN 1 74114 214 8 (This one’s pretty clinical actually)


As a Christian brother or sister, you may need to keep reminding the Christian depression sufferer: God loves you, as you are, right now.