Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Psychosis and the Spirit-- Christians and Depression

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?” Psalm 13:1-2

If you ask me, I think King David struggled with depression. A lot of scholars have suggested that King Saul was bipolar. Jeremiah certainly hit the dumps when he wrote Lamentations. Even Jesus felt extreme sadness and pain in his heart. So where do we get this mindset that Christians are supposed to be happy-go-lucky all the time?

Perhaps it's all the verses on joy and rejoicing-- especially during times of trials. Somewhere along the way we equated joy with a state of emotional stability rather than a conscious decision of how we will think and act based on God's promises. Since Christians are supposed to be “joyful,” we started assuming they are in a state of disobedience and sin when they are not “happy.” The gospel became a vehicle of prosperity, not only in material things, but in emotional health. Thus, if you're depressed, surely you are screwing something up in the spiritual department. As Christians we have the Holy Spirit in us, and the fruit of the spirit includes joy and peace--so if those traits seem absent, perhaps one is not walking by the Spirit... or so the thinking goes.

Those, like me, who have suffered from bouts of serious depression don't even like to talk about the differentiation between happiness and joy. Both are elusive and impossible when you are at your worst. No Bible verse, no promise of God, no hope for healing can bolster your spirits. You find it difficult to pray, even if you want to pray. Other people seem supportive at first but then start to get irritated when the depression lingers.

How silly of us to think that the effects of sin could taint every part of our world and leave our brains and emotions unscathed. Only the health-and-wealth nuts think cancer or other life-threatening illnesses are a result of unconfessed sin. Granted, illnesses can result from our sin, such as the alcoholic who now suffers from liver failure. But a lot of Christians assume depression is not a legitimate physical illness. I think this disconnect comes from the current form of gnosticism that pervades the church-- the mentality that this world and everything in it is just going to be left behind when we fly away to glory. We elevate our spiritual nature and denigrate our physical bodies. We think of them as two separate entities rather than two parts of the same whole, interconnected and intertwined, one constantly affecting the other, and vice versa.

It should be said that depression CAN be caused by sin or outside circumstances. If I'm perpetually living in sin, then the Holy Spirit is going to make me feel conviction, which may make me depressed when I don't want to confess it. Sins like discontentment, unthankfulness, and impatience can cause me to be perpetually unhappy. Situations in my marriage or work may make me stressed and frustrated, which can make me depressed. But what's the explanation when everything in life is just peachy, and I still wake up with this unexplainable weight holding me down? When I can't think clearly? When all I can work myself up for is sleep?

I came up with my own little test years ago-- if I pray and ask God to show me what sin might be causing depression, and I've confessed all the sin I know of, and if I'm not in conflict with anyone or anything in life, and I still feel like crap, then I think it's okay to just say I'm sick and treat it with medication. And thank the good Lord for medication! My Mom always says that Satan never fights fair, so it's okay for us to use chemical warfare when appropriate. When medicine DOES help, I think that's a good indication the depression is rooted in physical causes-- medicine would not remove the guilt of sin nor the consequences of rebellious living. If taking medicine helps clear one's mind to pray and actually helps a person feel well enough to seek God, then I can't see how it is a bad thing. There may be a time when medication is no longer necessary, as I found in my own case. And later down the road, other physical causes may be to blame-- again in my own case, I found my thyroid was way out of whack, and when I got on thyroid meds, my depression went away almost immediately.

But what do we say when a Christian suffers from not only depression, but severe mental illness, to the point that they are suicidal? My husband (who gave me permission to blog about this) also suffers from severe depression and emotional irregularity. Counseling and anti-depressants just didn't seem to help. It all came to a head last week, when he had a gun and a plan. Thank the Lord he willingly checked himself into a psychiatric hospital and gave his shot gun to the police. Six days and several medications later, he's remarkably better. He feels clear headed and hopeful. He is on different medications than he had been on, and it's made a world of difference.

So how should he as a Christian respond to this? How should I as his wife respond? How should the church respond? I can tell you that if someone had said he was just living in sin and needed to repent, that wouldn't have done one iota of good and might have done a world of harm. Yes, his severe depression caused him to sin-- the conflict we have had in our marriage directly stems from sinful responses on both our parts to his obvious illness. But to say his own sin made him psychotic would not be true. To say the fallen state of our world made it inevitable that some people's brains wouldn't work right would be more accurate. Just as some people are born with visible disabilities, surely some people are born with impairments in the wiring and chemistry of their brain. Yes, the fine line between nature and nurture is constantly debated, and there's no way to know which source is the major contributer. They both play a part. The sin lies in how we choose to deal with our inborn weaknesses. If I'm prone to depression, will I acknowledge it? Will I seek help from health professionals and counselors who can not only prescribe the right medications but also help me learn to process my thoughts and identify warning signals? Will I be open and honest with my brother and sisters in Christ so they can uphold me and encourage me?

Since depression runs in my family, I've had ample opportunity to observe the church's reaction to depression. I've seen the church react in very negative ways. I've seen judgmental attitudes and heard very hurtful things said. But I've also seen the church step in to help when appropriate. The same has been true this past week. It's hard to be open and honest with fellow believers about the junk in one's life and in one's brain, but the body of Christ has been incredibly supportive and understanding to us. I'm sure it confuses some of them, but even the approach of “I don't quite understand your situation or know what to think of it, but I'm here to help and pray in any way I can” is a blessing.

It would be great if the church at large would be willing to address depression and mental illness out in the open. It is a fairly common problem. I used to joke that depression was a luxury only those in developed countries could afford to have, and it's true that as a whole, we probably over-medicate ourselves in this country. But that doesn't make the problem any less real. I also think it is best addressed by someone who has either experienced it or at least feels empathetic towards those experiencing it. It wouldn't do much good to have a person with no experience in this regard to get up and start telling people how they should act or what they should do. I find that people who understand depression through first-hand experience can recognize others who have been there through how they talk about it. And I tend to disregard those who speak about it when they obviously have no clue.

For those who are trying to support a person with severe depression, I'm finding that a good support system of friends and a counselor makes a world of difference. Asking for help is a very hard thing to do, but no one knows you need help unless you ask for it.

Finally, I never want to underestimate the power of prayer. The times when you can't seem to pray are the times when you need other people to intercede on your behalf. Those are the times when you'll just have to trust that a simple “God, help me” is heard and understood at the throne of the Father.


jaigner said...

Oh my goodness, I know exactly what you're talking about. I believe that there is a long history of undiagnosed depression and anxiety disorders in my family.

I basically lived with a low-grade depression for years until it finally hit like a ton of bricks. I had a number of things to be very happy about: finishing grad school, dating my future wife, etc., but no Bible verse or prayer could bring me out.

I finally figured out that I had a number of thought processes left over from the toxic, judgmental Christianity I found growing up a Southern Baptist homeschooler in Texas. I imagine depression rates are pretty high in that demographic.

So, all that took quite a while to change, but with much prayer, support from my wife (who happens to be a counselor) and some of those wonderful meds you were talking about, I feel better than I have in years...at least since about 7th grade(no joke).

And you are right in saying there is no Bible verse that can lift someone severely depressed out of that haze. I think Christians actually often worsen depression for people when they claim that it's all in ones head or a spiritual (sin) problem or weak faith. What a joke.

Glad things have turned around for your husband. My prayers are with your family.

Dan Martin said...

Wow, Leesha, thanks for your transparency on this. Our prayers go to the Father for both you and your husband...with thankfulness that he took the assistance route rather than the shotgun.

I can't say I've experienced the level of depression you describe (thankfully). When I've been depressed it's usually been tied--however tenuously--to circumstances in my life that I want to change but can't (or think I can't). Nevertheless it's enough for me to sympathize in some small way with that inexplicable weight you describe.

I would add one thing, though from observations both of my friends and my own self...and that is you've just illustrated another vital reason to be connected to a body of believers who really give a rip about you and know you. I say this both for the support they can offer, which you're now experiencing; but also for an important diagnostic aid: those who really know you can help you discern between the "you need to get help" and "you need to get a grip" forms of depression. Both are real, and frequently it can be difficult to distinguish which is which.

But that distinction can only be made if people know you like a brother/sister. Otherwise it's just baloney and can steer you in wrong and dangerous directions.

Grace and peace on your family, especially now. . .


jaigner said...

Dan's comments are helpful, I think. There is no substitute for a close circle of likeminded (at least to a point) friends.

I think the distinction between the two problems that are often placed under the depression umbrella is important, but I will say that if it gets persistent or particularly deep, the person, family or the circle of close friends needs to leave the distinction up to a mental health, and possibly a medical professional.

And if anyone who has a personal or family history of clinical depression hits a "rough patch," that should be taken very seriously.

E. A. Harvey said...

Thank you both for your comments! Sorry it has taken me awhile to respond. You both bring up good points-- the absolute necessity of being with believers who know you and care about you, and the importance of getting professional medical advice. Both of those things hinge on a person's willingness to be honest about their struggles, which is so, so hard to do. But it is much easier to be honest when you know the response will be love, acceptance, and help.