Over the course of my life, I’ve gotten to know many people—some of whom are Christians of deep belief and passion for Jesus—who struggle with varying types of depression.
The first time I ever befriended someone with depression, I was in my early teens. Up to that point, if anyone I knew was fighting that battle, it was not widespread knowledge. But then I befriended someone whose depression ran deep, to the point that they harbored suicidal thoughts. I remember at the time being honestly flabbergasted when I found out.
How could anyone be that sad, I wondered…especially someone with such a great family, bright future, and deep love for God?
I went through a long period afterward where I had to slowly unravel my preconceived notions about Christians who struggle with depression. Unfortunately, depression—and its tagalong cousin, anxiety—still do not always receive the concern and attention they deserve…particularly, I’ve found, in Christian circles. Eleven years and many encounters with depression—both personal and through friends’ experiences—later, I feel it’s time that I try to openly tackle the subject of Christians and Depression.
First of all, what is depression? The dictionary classifies it as “feelings of severe despondency and dejection.” From personal experience, I can say that this is a roughly accurate, but grossly underwhelming, definition.
Imagine if you could bottle the sensation of the gloomiest day, mix it with a bit of pitch-black night, shake it up, and pour it between your ears. Imagine it sliding down your throat and pooling in your belly, churning into a black hole that eats your insides alive. Meanwhile, the rest of that dimness is riding your bloodstream to your limbs, your fingertips, the soles of your feet, where it drags against you like an anchor.
To me, this is what my depression has felt like. Depression carries a physical weight with it, like a saturated, musty old blanket wrapped around your entire body. In some cases, this feeling is crippling—to the point where the person suffering from depression can’t physically get out of bed. At other times, they’re able to function through the motions of life, but without any energy or interest to give.
Recently, however, some medical schools have begun to teach that there are two different types of depression – “Big D” and “little d.” These would be more aptly defined as Clinical Depression and Situational Depression.
Situational Depression is the kind that’s often brought on by a high-stress situation, loss of a loved one, struggles within a job, marriage, etc.
Clinical Depression pertains to a chemical imbalance in the brain and body which isn’t necessarily rooted in the individual’s circumstances.
The tendency I found in myself, when I became aware of several friends who struggle with Clinical Depression—and something that I’ve noticed prevails in many of the Christian circles I’ve brushed arms with since—is the tendency to lump all depression into the “situational” category, and to then shame the sufferer for not having enough faith or godly joy to combat their despondency.
Can You Pray Away the Blues?
At one point or another in life, most people—even Christians—find themselves in some state of Situational Depression. I would wager to say that even the Greats of the biblical world suffered from this. Lamentations, Psalms, and Job are full of heartfelt cries of anguish, despair, and brokenness, almost a lack of ability to get up off the ground. In these times of great devastation, when the weight was too great, the people of God entrusted their hearts to Him. They cast the heaviness of their great, spiritual brokenness on Him, and trusted Him to heal them—and to show them how to navigate that brokenness. And we can see that in many cases, He did just that.
However, as with most things, no two people walk through hell the same way.
In my teenage years, I just didn’t get that; and I realize now that I’d slipped into a habitual perspective that I saw in many Christians around me: the idea that if you just prayed enough, if you believed enough, if your trust in God was strong enough, your depression could be cured. I began to see depressive and anxious thoughts as a metric for how poorly someone was doing at the whole “trusting in God with all your heart” concept, and I was thoroughly convinced that if they just looked on the bright side of life and all that God had done for them, things wouldn’t be so bad!
Years later, this train of thought barreled into self-condemnation when I began to struggle with both depression and anxiety myself. I felt like I couldn’t turn to anyone within a church community for fear of receiving the same judgement I’d doled out, and I would just have to shoulder the burden alone; suddenly, I understood the exact kind of impression I’d given to my friends when theywere suffering. I’d fostered a notion—in them and in myself—that there was one kind of depression, one vein of hurt, one breed of brokenness. And if it couldn’t be cleared up by looking at the positives of all that God has done, then you just weren’t spiritual enough to be delivered.
Situational vs. Clinical – Two Different Approaches
Something Jesus understood very well during his ministry on earth was that no two situations have the same solutions, no matter how similar they are. Jesus must’ve healed hundreds, if not thousands of people during his ministry; yet the records show that of the blind who were made to see…once, he spat on a man’s eyes; another time, he put mud on his eyes instead. And in another instance, Jesus didn’t touch the person at all…simply asked him a question, told him he was healed, and BOOM, so it was!
Jesus understood that although all these men were blind, each one’s healing had to come about in its own way. Why that was, we may never know; but God revealed this truth to Jesus, and Jesus walked out in it. And just as no two blind men where healed in the same way, no two kinds of depression can be healed the same way, either.
Several years ago, I had a friend living across the world who emailed me that she was just having the worst day. School and life woes had her in such a slump, she could barely function. All she wanted to do at the end of that day was sit and stare at the wall. Blank, dark depression hung over her head—and though we were on opposite sides of the globe, her sadness was palpable to me. My heart ached so badly for her, and in that moment I felt inspired to tell her, “The worst day is only 24 hours long.”
That might seem like a silly and obvious thing to say, but she told me that as soon as I said it, her outlook brightened up. She was able to look at the narrow window of the day that she had left, get up, and make something productive of it. Many years later, we still quote this line to each other if the other has a bad day.
That was a case of my friend’s situational depression; it came on because of a series of bad events all in a short amount of time, and ended with a change of perspective. That doesn’t mean her feelings of hopelessness and despair were any less real in the moment; her lack of motivation to get up off the couch, the tears she’d cried, and the bleakness she felt about her future, were in every way indicative of situational depression. Yet, by turning her perspective to a positive one, she was able to get ahead of her depression and, in effect, conquer it.
Another example of how situational depression can affect an individual is a personal one for me; I call these “Off Days” and they’re something I’ve struggled with for years, as a writer. I frame it through the lens of my writing because it almost always starts with a deep feeling of resentment toward whatever novel I’m currently working on…even if I have a very productive writing morning. I’ll start to have a barrage of negative thoughts—nothing you write is any good, you’re just going to stick this project on the shelf and never publish it anyway, and even if you do, no one will read it, blah blah blah. Before I know it, I’m stewing in revulsion and can’t brainstorm a thing. When this state of unhappiness becomes apparent to me, I notice that it’s now affecting every aspect of my life. My limbs feel heavy, my brain clogged, and I am full of hopelessness. If there was an event I was SO excited about the day before, on an Off Day it becomes nothing more than an inconsequential blip on a vast expanse of worthless nothingness. I coast through these days on autopilot, usually with a steady internal monologue on how much I hate every song on my “Favorites” playlist and how pointless everything is and how annoying everyone is, and on and on. Chasing after the wind.
The very next day, I always wake up a different person. My outlook on life is back to normal, my chipper self restored, and my inner monologue is back to its positive upswing.
When I first became aware of my Off Days, and how they cycled up once or twice a month, there one day and gone the next, I was able to accept them and that they would not last more than a day…but I just sort of assumed I had to ride them out and that was the end of it. It wasn’t until about two months ago that I tried plugging in a playlist of Christian songs I grew up with, and blasting it while I worked. The effect was not instantaneous, but as the hours progressed I found my sour mood lifting and my perspective growing lighter. By the end of the day, while I still had a lot of resentment toward my writing and couldn’t listen to my favorite songs and still mostly wanted to be alone, it wasn’t because I felt the urge to wallow. I simply wanted to relax and get to bed early.
Both of these stories are examples of situational depression. I say this with confidence about my Off Days because when I was truly Depressed (note the Big D), the solution was counseling and God’s healing. Listening to worship music and trying to sleep it off did not do a thing for me. All of this to say that Situational Depression is often a matter of perspective; when we focus on the negatives in this world, from which there are admittedly many to choose, we heap up grief, despair, and, yes, depression on ourselves. The solution to this kind of sadness is often to take a more positive, heavenly approach; to plug in whatever music puts our hearts in a state of worship. To focus on the eternal, not the temporal; to make it about Him, rather than us.
Conquering Situational Depression can also require, at times, some self-care…eating a good meal, taking a relaxing shower, getting to bed early; also, taking whatever steps we can to solve any stressful situation that may be feeding into our depression, such as confronting a problem, mending a misunderstanding, pursuing a broken friendship, etc.
To summarize: one of the keys to healing Situational Depression is to turn the inward focus outward, and above.
But where I think that much of mainstream Christianity gets it wrong is that it tries to apply this same healing solution to Clinical Depression.
Let me come right out and say that I do not have any kind of degree whatsoever in biology, chemistry, or psychology. I couldn’t begin to deeply understand, much less give a detailed description of, all the factors that play into Clinical Depression. I do know from the bits and pieces I’ve researched that genes, medical conditions, medications themselves, changing seasons, trauma, and postpartum are just a few contributing dynamics. With so many potential influences, it’s really no wonder most people know at least one individual who suffers from Clinical Depression—if they don’t suffer from it themselves!
In many of the Christian circles that I read about, saw on TV, and encountered in person during my adolescence and into my teen years, people with depression were almost always treated the same way: as if they were having an Off Day. I specifically remember telling my clinically depressed friend, “Cheer up, there’s just so much good in the world! How can you be depressed during an awesome time like this?”
I cringe now to think of how insensitive and ignorant I must’ve seemed to her…and I was both of those things. But I was also a product of what I’d witnessed around me, which was a widespread lack of understanding of how Christians should relate to depression. In part, I think this is because depression itself is such a nebulous concept to those who don’t personally struggle with it; I know for me, it was simply hard to believe that anyone could be sad on a sunny day, during a Christian event, or when they had so much going right for them. And as Christians, we often look at the goodness of God and wonder how anyone could actually believe in that goodness and still be depressed.
That can lead to one of two conclusions: either the person struggling with depression is not actually depressed, or they’re not actually believing. Neither of these conclusions is universally true or in any way helpful to the individual or to the person who makes the assumption.
In the case of people with postpartum depression, some have been told that because they have a happy, healthy baby, they have no reason to be depressed. To those who go through a life-altering event that leads to PTSD and depression, a well-meaning individual has been known to say, “Cheer up! It could be worse.” But medically speaking, people who suffer from Clinical Depression aren’t capable of just cheering up. The nature of the fallen world we live in has created imbalance somewhere in their physiology that prevents their minds from operating in that sort of outlook.
I’m personally so glad that Christian psychology is becoming a broader and more widely-recognized field as time goes on. To this day, I’m still shocked when I hear friends with chronic health problems admit that they’ve been told by other Christians that they shouldn’t take medications, change their diets, or have surgery because all you need is faith…all you need to do is believe, and you’ll be healed.
But that is not the case with everybody. Unless God is personally giving you revelation, in the moment, to minister healing to a person, you have no guarantee that before they receive their new body in the future, they will be miraculously healed at all. So until that time, the urgings of the well-meaning to simply believe for healing and to restrain from addressing a health issue with dietary, medical, or therapeutic solutions is not only unhelpful…it can be dangerous to that person’s future. To this day, I thank God that my teenaged friend did not take my advice to just “pray away” or “happily power through” her depression. She got the help she needed, and with medication that addressed the chemical imbalance in her brain, she was able to thrive.
(It should absolutely be noted and embraced that God can and does administer healing to His people. But He also grants the wisdom to doctors, councilors, and chemists to find solutions in their fields of study that can help the individual to gain purpose and function in their daily lives again.)
Why Depression in the Christian Should Never Go Unaddressed
There are many consequences to suffering with untreated depression—situational or clinical—that are well-known and understood. For example, the tendency to resort to substance abuse to fill that black hole inside of you; the impossibly steep slope of negative self-talk that can take years to heal; and, of course, the potentially dark downward slide into suicidal thoughts as a means of escaping one’s pain.
For the Christian, there is an added risk that I have seen play out in more friends than I can honestly bear to say: the fact that their depression led them to walk away from God.
While Christianity, in many circles, has ignored or mishandled a problem it’s not always sure how to address—in this case, depression in its congregants—those congregants are walking away. They’re being told, directly or indirectly, that their depression is a signpost of their poor Christian walk, or that in their suffering they are “too much” to handle. So why should they bother? They are receiving neither divine healing from God nor true, Jesus-like love from their peers…so they slip quietly into the shadows.
I have said this to myself plenty of times by now; and to any who are like I was in my teenage years, let me state this clearly: If our conduct toward our brothers and sisters in Christ is pushing them to walk away from their faith, we are doing something wrong.
We are doing something wrong.
In my case, I finally discovered what the problem was: I was sitting in judgement, assuming others were living in a state of ingratitude that manifested itself as depression. So, whether I really intended to or not, if they broached the subject of their depression with me, my response was to shame them. I wasn’t showing the love of Jesus; I was taking a pharisaical approach to someone else’s spiritual walk, assuming something about their relationship with God and Jesus that was not my place to comment on. And I caused deep wounds in friends that took years to heal.
Just as a person’s cries for help or silent struggle with depression should never be ignored, it can cause just as much damage if we respond in a way that is damaging—to the person’s heart, mind, trust in God, spiritual walk, etc. So let’s take a moment to address how we can approach a subject that can oftentimes be so difficult to navigate:
Christians and Depression
After reading a handful of first-hand accounts from Christians struggling with depression who were helped by their peers—as well as from my own experiences—I’ve compiled a short list of things that we, as Christians, can do when we have a friend, family member, or person in our congregation who is struggling with Clinical Depression.
- Don’t tell them to just look on the bright side, count their blessings, or “pray away” the problem. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again…the familiar platitudes about the sunny side of life don’t cure a person of their depression. In fact, if delivered the wrong way, they can push someone deeper into it. We have to be careful of our speech and guard our mouths from any inclination to minimize the struggle someone is facing, simply because it frightens us or because we don’t understand it. To us, it may seem that their position is unfathomable because of the positives in life; but to them, it is very real.
- Don’t condemn them for having negative thoughts…even if those thoughts scare you. When I hear about women suffering from postpartum depression who have harmful impulses about their newborns, or when I talk to depressed friends who have stepped up to the edge of a cliff and considered jumping…it scares me! But I’ve also learned to recognize that there is more at work than this person’s own will. There is a disconnect, an unhealthy pattern that needs to be healed. Sitting in judgement and verbally attacking depressed individuals for their negative thoughts is like blaming a cancer patient for their lack of energy or how they vomit on your couch. Rather than condemn, pray. Pray over the entire situation. Pray for God to provide mental clarity, and pray for protection over the person and those around them as they seek healing. And try to guide them to a place of receptivity, where they can address these negative thoughts professionally before they cause harm to themselves or others.
- Take it to God in your OWN prayer closet. Ask Him to reveal to you if there is a spiritual force attacking this person. Yes, there are spirits of depression, anxiety, and suicide that can afflict a person; and while medication can help to shut mental doors that leave one open to these kinds of attacks, the medication alone will not deliver a person from demonic influence. If God doesgive you revelation that there is a spirit involved, use wisdom in proceeding; don’t barge up to the person and tell them they’re possessed. Consult with others and pursue the best course of action to tackle the spiritual aspect of the problem. This will look different in every case!
- Support them. Don’t just spout platitudes or words of advice, and don’t “listen to speak”—i.e. to insert your own opinion into the problem. Actively listen, console if able, but mostly let them know that you are not standing in condemnation toward them and that they do not walk alone. Encourage them that not only are you there for them—the Maker of the universe, the Father of all life, is in their corner. And He wants them to be well.
- If possible, help them to pursue the help they need. Many people who struggle with depression are frightened to admit it because of the notion that they’re broken, that something is wrong with them—because for all their blessings, all the good in life, they “shouldn’t feel this way,” yet they still do. The truth is, whether we “should” feel some way or not, God loves us exactly where we are at. He can love us back to wholeness, too. And as examples of that love, we have the opportunity many times to lift others up to a place where they’re ready to pursue healing. We can’t let a stalwart religious mindset or a preconceived concept of what depression is or isn’t prevent us from helping others. If the opportunity arises for you to encourage someone to seek wholeness, don’t be afraid to take it!
As with all things, depression must first be addressed with love. It’s never hurt anyone to ask that familiar question: “What would Jesus do for this person?”
Well, we know that he would empathize; that he would speak words of comfort and hope; that he would administer healing miraculously, if he received the revelation to do it. And that above all else, he would leave the individual better off than when he met them.
We also know what he would NOT do: he would not blame them for matters beyond their control. He would not turn his back on them because of the vastness or intimidation of their struggle. He would not ignore, disown, or disrespect people because of the troubles they faced. And he would not assume anything about a person’s heart-posture that was not first revealed to him by the Father.
Jesus would not, and does not, offer the depressed and downtrodden any less than he offers everyone else—which is his whole heart, his entire help, and his aid as they walk the path toward wholeness.
And as followers of Jesus, we must learn to do the same.