Full disclosure: I don’t believe in much. I am currently an atheist, or agnostic, or whatever. This may come as a blow to a few members of my family, and I’m sorry if this is how you’re learning about my leaving the fold. Please don’t tell Grandmother. That said, we’ve got strong love for one another, so I think we’ll be cool.
If I don’t believe in anything, why do I think I get to tell you about the Christian path through depression? Because I lived it. I was a believer until around the age of 22, and I was depressed and anxious… always. The whole time.
If you’re a Christian struggling with depression, you’ve gathered that your religion has positives and negatives when it comes to coping. You know that your church community can be helpful sometimes, and other times not so much. You may also agree that being depressed as a Christian feels… wrong somehow. Like a failure. If faith as a mustard seed can move mountains, is your faith broken?
It ain’t as bad as all that. We’re going to take a step back, talk about where depression comes from, what it means spiritually, and how you can leverage your resources in such a way that you can help yourself and others in your position. There will be no point in this where I recommend giving up on your deeply-held personal beliefs. Hell, I might have some perspective for you that I wouldn’t otherwise have if I were still in the thick of it.
Depression: Not Spirit, but Flesh
First, let’s get something out of the way: You’re not depressed because your relationship with God is off. You’re not being punished, you haven’t been cast aside, and faith can only do so much.
How can I make such a bold statement? Well, depression is heritable. It runs in families. We’ve found genes that directly relate to how prone to depression you are, and we’ll likely find hundreds more as we continue investigating. We’ve found differences in the size and activity of different portions of the brain meats in those with depression.
Does this sound like a spiritual problem to you? This is akin to being born with scoliosis, or a seizure disorder, or a cleft palate. If you’re born with a twisted spine, you don’t blame yourself. You don’t wonder whether you’re in a good place with God.
More importantly, would you blame a Christian friend who struggled with depression? Even if you didn’t know about the organic (body-based) origins of the disorder, would you question their faith? Hell no. They’re suffering and they’re devout. They’re afflicted in spite of their heart, not because of it.
If you’re wondering whether your depression has to do with your relationship with God: Would you ask that same question regarding a friend? Wouldn’t you have compassion for them instead? All I ask is that you have that same compassion for yourself, and that you give yourself the same benefit of the doubt. This isn’t your fault.
Ignoring the Ignorant
I’m hoping that you can accept that depression has nothing to do with your level of faith… but others might not have the same perspective as you. They haven’t been there, so they might see your travails as a referendum on who you are.
One of the most hurtful things that was ever said to me in my time as a Christian living with mental illness, one that I heard more than once, was, “Have you prayed about it?”
Think about what must be going through that person’s mind. Here you are, suffering about as much as a person can suffer… and they wonder whether you’ve prayed? Yeah, it’s okay to take this as an insult. It’s okay to recognize that this person has a dysfunctional empathy unit, and that they can be summarily dismissed without much more thought.
Of course I had fucking prayed. I prayed without ceasing, I fasted, I surrendered to God. I asked in the name of Jesus Christ. I had faith inasmuch as any human can.
Why didn’t it work, then? Was I spiritually broken? I thought so at the time, and certain folks didn’t help disabuse me of this notion.
On Miracles and Genetics
Consider this: God doesn’t seem to regrow limbs. He doesn’t seem to be in the business of healing cleft palates or spina bifida. If it’s written in our genes, that kind of thing seems to be outside of the purview of miracles (you may have examples to the contrary, but I imagine you’ll agree that these are exceptions rather than the rule).
Simply put, you were likely born this way, and praying for it to change might be barking up the wrong tree. God doesn’t change height or hair color, and depression seems to be in the same category, physiologically speaking.
This, my friend, seems to be an organic affliction, much like a broken ankle. When you’re strategizing for the coming months and years, I want you to be thinking, “how can I strengthen this injury? How can I work around it? How can I work with it?”
Using Your God-Given Resources
Okay, so you’re stuck with it. Prayer ain’t gonna change the size of your hippocampus or orbitofrontal cortex, unless God has a sudden drastic policy change re: rearranging anatomy. What can you do?
You can do the shit that’s been proven to work.
Talk therapy has been proven to work. As it discusses in the article there, pretty much any talk therapy strategy will do. There’s something special about being in a setting where you are not being judged or interrogated, but rather you’re able to safely explore your conflicts and pain and despair. There might be homework (journaling, thought exercises, changes to your routine), or there might not. The medicine is in the environment.
Drug therapy has been proven to work (see my article, “Feel Depressed A Lot? Please Go Get Medicated, You Jerk“). It can take a month or so, and there will be side effects, and one drug might suck for you while another offers complete relief, but this can definitely be worth the effort. Ain’t no shame in tinkering with your malfunctioning brain chemicals.
Exercise has been proven to work, given the right dosage (3-5 times a week, moderate intensity). Meditation has been proven to work, given the right dosage (3-5 times a week, 15-45 minutes). Massage has been proven to work, given the right dosage (1-2 times per week).
There’s other stuff like eating right, getting sleep, and getting sunlight that have been proven useful, but my linking finger is getting tired. Use what works.
Your Unique Advantages as a Christian with Depression
As a person of faith, you’ve got some good stuff going for you, stuff that I miss. The biggest thing is that you’ve likely got a community of kind souls that would love nothing more than to help your ass out.
Community can be incredibly important for the progression of your illness. I just picked one random study, but there are tons. The frequency of social contacts can determine how resilient you are in the face of mounting depression. It’s crucial to get out of your house and get out of your head. Depression is often characterized by turning away from social contact; this isolation can make you more depressed, which can make you less likely to make contact, which… You get the idea.
As in the above study, help-seeking behavior can be useful in working with your depression. You don’t need to say “hey guys, I’ve got a mental illness and could use some help,” because some people see that as a personal failing. Those people can piss up a rope. You may instead want to say, “hey guys, I’ve been feeling low lately for no good reason, can we talk / go out / play paintball?”
You may resist this idea. “Why should I complain? Why should people help me?” Well, because you feel like shit for no reason. If you deserved your pain, it wouldn’t be a mental illness, now would it? Also, and I know you know this, your fellow Christian wants to help you. They want to lift you up in prayer, and provide for you when you’re weak, and tell you edifying stories about their similar problems. Shit, you’re helping them be more Christ-like. That’s a fucking gift.
Another advantage to your faith? Prayer works for depression. Sitting there as people pray for you can have a significant effect on your mood. Again, this is not you being a burden. This is you allowing your fellows to make a beautiful expression of their faith: helping someone who is hurting. That’s straight-up New Testament.
Engaging in prayer yourself can help too. Just realize that it might be wise to pray for help with your coping strategies rather than the whole “please fix this” kind of thing. The above study found that desperate pleas just tended to make people feel crappier. As we’ve discussed, this is kind of like a broken limb; pray for good rehab.
Your Unique Pitfalls to Avoid
It ain’t all sunshine and lollipops. You might have a supportive community, you might not. You might have a group that is accepting of mental illness, you might not. Hell, you might have church leaders who don’t really think that mental illness is… a thing.
When I was doing really badly, I went to my pastor. He sat down with me for an hour and, to be frank, made me feel crazier. It was a rambling journey of talking about other members who had struggles, about how prayer works, some bits about the devil, and… there was this really weird workbook that he seemed pretty jazzed about. At the end of it all, he referred me to a Christian counselor to continue forward.
Thank God for my mom. She recognized that this guy was not a psychologist, and that maybe I should take his advice with a grain of salt. She also had me go to a counselor with an actual doctorate in psychology. My mom kicked ass on my behalf.
I’m not saying to tell your church group to fuck off. I am saying to do what works, and to realize that you might be surrounded by know-it-alls who have weird ideas about the godly way to deal with mental illness.
I Probably Should Have Sworn Less…
I can’t really imagine this getting passed around fellowship groups due to my colorful language and, you know, apostasy; but ah well. I’m hoping this has found a good home for one or two of you, and that you can proceed to help someone else out. Do what works, ignore the haters, and, above all else, don’t blame yourself.