We were recently listening in the car to a Christian worship CD that our eldest daughter had bought. My ears immediately pricked up when I heard a line from one of the more upbeat numbers. The singer was singing about how negative things had no power over her as a believer, and she singled out “depression” here for specific mention. There was something that made me feel a bit uneasy, but instead of interrupting the C.D I just made a mental note to think some more about why this response had been provoked in me.
I don’t know if you have seen any of the brilliant videos that Heads Together put together earlier this year where celebrities and non-celebrities alike were enlisted to discuss the mental health issues they have experienced in frank two-way conversations. The viewer is invited to pry into what are highly illuminating dialogues. In this conversation [YouTube] between Alastair Campbell (former Downing Street press secretary) and his partner Fiona Millar, Alastair says that he is grateful that Fiona still asks him what has triggered his depression whenever he starts to experience symptoms, even though his reply tends to be that he does not know.
After several years of suffering depression, I still find it difficult to work out what residual symptoms are triggered or exacerbated by stress of some sort or other, and how much just happens independently of this as part of some kind of fluctuation in my condition. When researching a bit about depression you may come across sub-categories which are used to try and distinguish between episodes of clinical depression which are caused by more of a reaction to stressful life events and those which may be less affected by such things and may even be influenced by more biological than environmental factors. The standard approach of diagnosing depression does not address such issues, with an episode being normally diagnosed with reference to the severity of its symptoms (i.e. “mild”, “moderate”, or “severe” – see ICD-10).
As I say, my own experience suggests that it is very difficult when looking at the causes of depression to disentangle environmental factors from other factors. But the concept of depressive illness as something that “happens” to the sufferer, as opposed to 1) something which the sufferer has somehow allowed to happen, or 2) a mind-set that can be shaken off with enough will power, is quite difficult for people to appreciate. I think it might be revealing that we don’t generally talk of sufferers of depression as people who have “fallen ill” in the same way we talk about people suffering other types of illnesses; even the concept of depression as a diagnosable medical illness may not be familiar to many.
And I believe that even the sincerest of Christians may face issues which make it difficult to understand what is happening to a fellow Christian who explains that they are suffering from depression.
When it comes to emotions, Christians can have higher levels of happiness on account of their faith, and talk of depression does not sit easily with this. We note the references in the bible to the promise of our “joy” as being in the Lord and as a fruit of the Spirit. Joy was the mark of the life of the early Church and even the early Christians’ trials (of which there were many) were to be considered as “pure joy” (see James 1:2-4). These references are challenging for us, but it may be helpful to understand Christian joy in more mysterious terms - as being a quality rather than just an emotion, something closely associated with an attitude borne out of agape love. The bible also has a lot to say about the authenticity of less positive emotions as experienced by God’s people. I think it is often the case that Christian sufferers of depression are forced to go deeper for answers.
Coming back to my daughter’s CD, I suppose my uneasiness about the song’s lyrics really stemmed from a potential misunderstanding by the songwriter about the way in which depression “happens” to people, Christians and non-Christians alike, just like other illnesses do – I don’t think it’s as simple as thinking that if we had somehow lived differently or stayed closer to God we could have avoided this. I recognise that God has the power to heal people suffering from depression, just as with other illnesses. It is also important to remember that people recover from depressive illness, often with the assistance of medication and talking therapies, and that their “joy” may be restored in this way. But also, and even though we will want to do all we can to aid our recovery, if we only see depression as some sort of enemy stronghold to be resisted then we might ignore how God is trying to speak to us during our time of suffering.
Depression asks the believer to grapple, even wrestle with aspects of their faith. I am reminded of the story in Genesis when Jacob wrestled with God. Although he received a blessing from God, the experience left him walking with a limp (see Gen 32:31). Our experience of suffering depression may cause us to both feel and think with something of a limp, but it may also result in our being formed into something very special.
Author of “From Over the Edge: A Christian’s guide to surviving Breakdown and Depression” published by Sacristy Press