“Why doesn’t the church know what to do with depression?” That’s the question I’ve been asking myself since the moment I experienced my depressive episode. The perspectives about mental disorders vary greatly throughout the church.
This isn’t to paint the church with broad strokes, but generally, depression is a topic Christians tend to avoid in the community. Misconceptions about mental illness are pervasive throughout all aspects of our culture. Nonetheless, some of the “church-y” misconceptions about clinical depression come from a genuine desire to understand them through the scriptures. There are things, however, that well-meaning Christians tend to get wrong.
To sort out the conflicting rhetoric and misconceptions, here are a few things you should know:
1. Depression Isn’t What the Church Sometimes Makes It Out To Be
Depression is not a character defect or a spiritual disorder. Most of all it is not a choice. Asking someone to “try” not being depressed is equivalent to asking someone who’s an addict to stop doing drugs on day one. This attitude can appear in the Church dangerously as, “If only you had enough faith.”
For Christians, having faith in God’s ability to heal is hugely important, and personal faith can help ease depression. But to deny medical or psychiatric treatment to someone suffering from mental illness is no different than denying someone with a physical illness. There should be no moral judgement differentiating the two. While I’m convinced there’s a spiritual element, medical science holds that major depressive disorder is real and the causes are varied.
2. Mental Illness Is Not a Sin
Sins of the past don’t make the sufferer of depression a sinner simply for experiencing the crushing effects of their condition. Viewing depression as a sin in and of itself prevents individuals from seeking treatment. It also ignores the fact that many Christians may respond to depression in unhealthy ways if the root cause is ignored or misunderstood.
3. The Bible Doesn’t Provide “Easy Answers”
For believers, the Bible is full of wisdom and encouragement for those suffering from mental illness, but it doesn’t come in one-verse doses. Unfortunately, it can convince a person in the worst throes of their illness that they’re not obeying God. Add that to what feels like the inability just to exist — for example, every breath may hurt or getting out of bed might be impossible — and you’ve thrown gasoline onto the fire.
God’s hand isn’t always apparent. As Dan Blazer pointed out in Christianity Today, “Most of us have no idea what David meant when he lamented, ‘I am forgotten by them as though I were dead.’ Severe depression is often beyond description.”
Rather than prescribing a bit of a verse divorced from its context, a better strategy is to look at those instances of mental suffering and to offer comfort in the fact that even the saints struggled.
4. Depression Doesn’t Look How We Often Think It Does
When I’ve opened up to Christian friends about my own depression and anxiety episode, they’re often surprised. “You seem so happy all the time,” they say.
Depressed people become really good at hiding their symptoms because of the stigma attached to the illness. The symptoms of depression often contradict each other as well. For example, it can inspire people to create wonderful works of art or make them too exhausted to be productive. This can make it difficult for a person suffering from depression to recognize it for what it is, let alone for the Church to recognize it.
5. Strong Churches Don’t “Fix” Depression
The most Christ-loving and helpful community might not have the appropriate framework for dealing with such clinical disorders, and many churches don’t have licensed psychologists on the staff. Pastoral staff can be ill-equipped to deal with depression and err toward a spiritual solution rather than psychological or medical treatment.
Even churches that seek to provide a safe haven for those suffering in their midst might not have a judgment-free place to discuss their struggles. Without a carefully-planned strategy to deal with mental illness, “All are welcome” might not be enough. Healing comes from a prayerful, loving community that develops a positive response and seeks to truly understand major depressive disorder and related conditions.
As believers we are exhorted to see God’s plan even in the midst of our sadness and depression. Yes, our world is fallen and often painful. It can be depressing. But, for believers, God is far greater. He is at work victoriously.
Don’t let your faith become an obstacle on the way to receiving treatment for your depression or mental episode. Instead start seeing your mental illness as a blessing, an opportunity for personal and spiritual growth. Then, recovery will start to come faster than what you might think.