I will say it again. Yes, Christians can have depression. We are humans, liable to the same illnesses as anyone else. Think about it: 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience mental health problems in any one year (Mental Health Foundation, 2015). That could be depression, or anxiety, bipolar, trauma, or other mental health issues. In Scotland, 1 in 10 adults had experienced two or more symptoms of depression or anxiety in that year (2012-2013). So in a church with a congregation of 10, it is likely that one member has had depression in the past – and that there would be at least two people who have experienced some form of mental health issue. And without being too technical, the research is unequivocal in that if someone has experienced a depressive episode before, they are likely to have another at some point in their life. The life-course of depression is not like that of a broken arm. So, we need to talk about it. Examine it. Study it. Ask questions. Look inward at ourselves and outward to others. Depression is real. And within the church.
And church is all about healing people by pointing people to Jesus Christ. As it should be. But with those statistics and that statement in mind, we immediately come to a a few problems. What does healing look like? Is there a relationship between sin and depression? How does trusting in Jesus heal someone of depression? Is trusting in Jesus enough to see me healed – should I abstain from meds, for example? If I am not being healed, does this mean I am not trusting enough?
Fundamental misunderstandings of depression have unfortunately skewed the church’s understanding of how to help people heal. In my experience, it took me about three years to answer the fundamental question of what healing in my situation looked like. I do wonder if healing might have been simpler if I hadn’t been a Christian: I would have the ‘gold star treatment’ (an actual term used by my GP) of meds, psychology and exercise and be done with it.
The promises of the bible are true, but often they are turned into trite truisms, which minimise the struggles of someone with anxiety or depression. I found this picture this morning, and my honest response was “ugh.” I’m sure it is meant to help, but it just makes me doubt! And because I doubt, this feeds more doubt!
It is into this murkiness and confusion of being a Christian who has depression that I would like to write in the next few weeks. I’ll be examining some truths within the bible, combining it with a bit of ‘secular’ (horrible, self-conscious word) research and personal experience, and hopefully bring some clarity to help individual Christians who have depression, or those who look after someone with depression.
But before I do, I’d like to define two key terms.
Depression. There are different types of depression – major, dysthymia, postnatal, atypical etc – but they are all characterised by common symptoms, for example: loss of hope and enjoyment of hobbies/interest, feeling tearful for no apparent reason, lowered self-esteem, difficulty in making decisions (even basic ones like whether to make the bed or get dressed first), lowered sex drive, moving or speaking slowly, heaviness in arms or legs, headaches, changes to sleep (under or over sleeping)… for at least two weeks. More info at NHS Choices and Patient.co.uk. The length marks it out as being different to regular emotions, which – don’t get me wrong – we all still need to be supported in.
Christian. Sometimes it is helpful to define what being a Christian isn’t. Going to church on a Sunday doesn’t make me a Christian any more than going to Murrayfield would make me a rugby player; reading the bible doesn’t make me a Christian any more than reading The Great Gatsby turns me into Fitzgerald. It isn’t about being good in a tenant/landlord transaction, in which I do good deeds and hope that God won’t kick me out of His Kingdom. It is about recognising that in myself I am not good enough to enter into His presence, and that my sin – “any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, any law of God” (Westminster Catechism, in which I take ‘any law’ to mean the whole of Scripture, not just the 10 commandments) – requires punishment. And Jesus took that punishment for me. If I didn’t trust Him I would be going to Hell, and as I love him for doing that for me, I aim to follow Him in all I do. I now have freedom from that punishment, and the freedom to choose not to sin – and the promise of eternal life.
Luther said it better in his Catechism: “I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature, delivered me and freed me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with silver and gold but with his holy and precious blood and with his innocent sufferings and death, in order that I may be his, live under him in his kingdom, and serve him in everlasting righteousness, innocence and blessedness, even as he is risen from the dead and lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true.”
Next week I’ll be asking: “is there a relationship between depression and sin?”