Depression in church?
Depression? Featured in a Christian magazine? Yes! Contrary to popular opinion, depression is not a baby boomer or millennial generation predicament. It existed back in Bible days, and remains present – both among the sheep and shepherds today.
What other clinical condition so perfectly typifies Job’s and David’s accounts of their morbid grief and sorrow, when describing their “skin leaving to their bones” and being “laid low in the dust”? It’s hard to accept that Christians can and sometimes do battle depression, and much of the challenge comes from our failure to either recognise it or understand how to overcome its occultic presence. The resulting cocktail of ignorance, spiked with myth, is the perfect recipe for stigma.
The first victory, in my view as a Christian who is privileged to serve as a psychiatrist, is that of recognition.
What, then, is depression?
Depression is a clinical condition presenting as a morbid, intense state of heaviness of heart, marked with persistently sad moods, loss of enjoyment of usual pleasures, and undue fatigue. Associated features include: anxiety attacks, sleep disruption, poor or excessive appetite, weight loss, poor concentration, loss of drive and libido, and feeling guilty, worthless, helpless and hopeless commonly culminates in death wishes or even suicidal thoughts.
A friend of mine – who has been there, fought it and has a trophy of victory – describes depression as “life losing its taste.” In its most severe form, depression is associated with experiences not rooted in reality, such as hearing voices without sounds (hallucinations) and false, tenaciously held beliefs (delusions).
Depression is not an attention-seeking behaviour or self-inflicted condition, nor a sign of being weak in faith. It is unfeeling and naive to accuse the sufferer of having sinned, because we know that this condition is closely associated with chemical imbalances and physical changes in the brain. So the common flippant advice, for sufferers to “Pull yourself together” or “Get over it, brother/sister”, is more damaging than helpful.
Hope for the depressed
My key message is there is hope for the depressed. “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” There is sufficient, convincing research evidence that faith confers relative protection against depression, and also promotes quicker recovery when it sets in.
Here are the five Kingdom Nuggets for dealing with depression.
1. Confront depression and seek help
Acknowledging depression as a condition to be tackled is not a sign of weakness or a lack of faith. Depression festers when denied; denial indicates there is no legitimate reason to seek help, whilst the condition worsens. Taking antidepressants or undergoing psychological therapy are not in conflict with having faith in God, just as it is not anti-faith to seek marital counselling for a fledgling marriage.
Acclaimed, in the UK, as the most versatile psychological therapy, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) relies heavily – without acknowledgement, however – on the scriptural principle of guarding one’s heart (Proverbs 4:23) and being transformed by renewing one’s mind or thoughts (Romans 12:1-2).
My answer to the often-asked question as to whether a spiritual or medical approach should be adopted to combat mental disorders has always been: both! Obtaining spiritual support through prayers does not preclude help from GPs and Mental Health Specialists. A holistic approach is best.
2. Confide about depression
Depression can be a very lonely experience, and having a non-judgmental, sensitive and supportive confidant to unburden your mind to can bring great relief. Research shows that the lack of confiding relationships increases the risk of suffering depression. Maintaining confidentiality would encourage disclosure from those standing in faith against depression.
3. Control your environment in depression
Leisure activities and socialising become a chore when depressed. Victory, however, lies in persisting while going through the motions, as this will eventually result in spontaneity. There is plenty of evidence that exercise releases happy brain chemicals.
Music remains a powerful weapon to combat depression, so fill the atmosphere of your home and car with worship, praise and faith-filled words. If David’s harp-playing lifted King Saul’s mood when the ministry of the Holy Spirit was not present, how much more now?
4. Confess against depression
Without fail, my favourite phrase to my depressed patients is: “I expect you to recover.” Words create and control atmospheres. Science is now catching up with what Scripture has always taught. The temptation is to speak unbelief, doubt, and gloom and doom when depressed, however negative words always create negative thoughts. Negative thoughts (referred to by CBT therapists as ‘Negative Automatic Thoughts’) are known to be pivotal in creating and maintaining the depressed mood and state. So, speak words of faith, and consciously paint a different picture.
5. Cast away unhealthy emotions of depression
Unresolved, difficult emotions, such as anger, unforgiveness and bitterness, only add extra weight to the spirit that is already heavy. Sometimes the strength to let go comes when one counts the cost of holding onto these toxic emotions.
Depression can be conquered. Be encouraged.
Dr T. Ayodele Ajayi is a Consultant Psychiatrist, a radio host, author and is on the pastoral team of his church. He is also a member of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, a radio host on Kent Christian Radio, and author of Footprints of Giants