Depression and the Church: What You Need To Know

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            “If you break your arm, everyone runs over to sign your cast, but if you tell people you’re depressed, everyone runs the other way. That’s the stigma.” Comedian and Mental Health Activist Kevin Breel shares his experience regarding depression during TEDTalks. “Why is depression such a difficult subject to discuss?” However, in 2014, actor and comedian Robin Williams shocked the world with his suicide caused by depression. His death opened the gates of discussions regarding depression. How can someone who gives so much joy and laughter be suffering in a pit of hopelessness? Hollywood entertainment, school classrooms, mental health organizations, social media and even the church shared their beliefs and understanding concerning depression. Sadly, depression is one of the most stigmatized issues in Christian community that is causing harmful effects on people that are suffering.

What is depression? According to World Health Organization, depression is a common illness worldwide, with an estimated 350 million people affected. It’s also a leading cause of suicide that estimated to be one million deaths every year. Depression kills people but there are barriers that stop individuals from getting treatment. Barriers such as lack of resources, lack of trained health care providers, and social stigma associated with mental disorder (WHO). Despite clinical understanding, the world view of depression still causes victims to remain silent. Researcher Rachel Manos and her colleagues from University of Wisconsin study the relationship between depression severity and avoidance concluded five stigmas that causes depressed people to remain silent. First, the public stigma where depression is portrayed as a sign of weakness. Others view depression as a very contagious emotional state that when one tells another, it can cause others to be sad or melancholy. However, with this state of mind, it produces more sadness to a depressed individual. Therefore, the depressed will eventually view themselves as weak, which is the second stigma, self-stigma. Self-stigma produces more negative thinking towards an individual. It can lead people to have unhealthy coping habits such as drinking, smoking, promiscuity, and other harmful coping mechanism. It also stops an individual from seeking treatment. The third stigma is the negative belief of treatment. If someone goes to treatment, then that person must be crazy, or so is the common thought. Sick people go to hospital when they are not feeling well, then why is going to a therapy or psychiatry makes an individual different from other sick individuals? The fourth stigma is the labeled stigmatized experiences from other victims that disclosed their depression but was mishandled. Due to self-stigma and the negative experiences regarding depression, it alludes that disclosing or seeking help is unnecessary and unhealthy. For example, when an individual discloses about having depression, “just stop being sad,” was suggested. This advice is very unhealthy because one cannot say to an asthmatic individual to just breathe because there are plenty of air. Or say to an allergic individual to stop sneezing or scratching. It needs to be medically aided. The final stigma is secrecy, where one will just remain it as a secret to avoid all the negative attitudes towards depression (1130). It is a sign of personal immaturity, lack of self-discipline, hereditary disease, and it is a sign of failure in life. These world views vary also from different cultures. Nonetheless, these stigmas only provide barriers from people that are suffering from hopelessness. Dr. Dan G. Blazer, J. P. Gibbons Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University Medical Center explains in an article in Christianity Today that clinical definition of depression is sterile, however, it fails to capture the unique quality of the severely depressed person’s suffering (23). Most individuals suffering in depression are hurting emotionally, physically, and spiritually. Most victims need guidance, and most spiritual depressed people go to church for help.

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Sadly, the church is not innocent when it comes to stigmatizing depression. Church communities can provide the social support and spiritual meaning that depressed individuals desperately need (Blazer, 25). However, depression is often well-kept secret in Christian organizations. The church shares some faults for silencing victims with depression. One stigma from the church views depression as a sin. Clinical Therapist Stephen Sorenson shares in Psychology Today, “Even influential Pastor John Piper wrote a book aimed at lay Christians in which he stated that one causes of depression might be sin (344).  Another stigma is that victims do not trust God. Some religious leaders want their members to avoid therapy and just believe in the healing power of Christ. Researcher Steve Sullivan states in the Journal of Religion and Health, “many in the church community perceived the rise of psychiatry and psychology as a direct threat to the Biblical understanding of the human condition” (1270). This stigma affects depressed people that are spiritually passionate because it keeps them away from therapy that can help them from getting better. If one has asthma, isn’t it normal to have an inhaler? If one has a broken bone, isn’t helpful to have a cast on? If one is diabetic, doesn’t insulin aid the individual? Why then do some churches perceive depression as something different? There are also other stigmas that confuses people in a religious environment such as depression is a biological condition, or it is a spiritual problem, or moral issues (Hedman, 292). These definitions confuse individuals. Instead of going to psychiatry, depressed people self-diagnosed themselves that lead to more confusion in their already complicated life. The most hurtful stigma from the church is the misused of biblical stories in the Bible. The story of Joseph regarding his struggle in life is a great example for depressed people (Genesis 37-50). One should not be depressed because Joseph went through years of suffering and still survived. Job’s story is another example that even if one is righteous, suffering still exists (Job). Then there’s Jeremiah’s cries, David’s lament, and Jesus’ prayer at Gethsemane. The intent to use these passages is not to harm the individual, however, because of the mental state of the individual, it leads depressed people to see themselves more sinful and in such grave sin. Other individuals do not comprehend the mental pain when one is having an episode of depression. It can lead to harmful decisions with compulsive actions that sometimes leads to death such as suicide. People get sad when someone dies, or they lose a job, or gets brokenhearted, but depressed people can get pure sadness even when the sun is shining brightly. Without, the mental and psychological approach, the biblical approach can do more harm.

Depression is a physiological disorder. The brain is an organ. It causes chemical imbalances that lead an individual to depression. Adopted from the National Alliance on Mental Illness online document titled “About Mental Illness” was provides that:

Depression is a common medical illness that is no different from any other disease. It is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain involving the neurotransmitter serotonin. It is not the result of a personal weakness or character flaw and is not something that can be overcome through willpower or by pulling yourself together. (Deacon, 421)

Depression can be treated. There are several mental health activists that went through depression and promoting awareness to break the silence.  The world’s negative view causes victims to avoid therapy is not helping. The church view and influence affects the victim’s attitude and the congregation’s perspective towards depression. World stigmatization plus church’s problematic approach leads victims to either walk away from their faith, or sadly, commit suicide. Sorenson suggests:

Clergy have the unique opportunity to use the pulpit to draw ill individuals to health by de-spiritualizing – or at least normalizing – depression. The pastor can be proactive in spotting symptoms, be mindful of people with depressive symptoms, create a culture that approves of the use of medicine for depression, and spend more energy addressing possible misunderstandings of concepts such as sin, the afterlife, and divine intimacy. (352)

It can be done. “Our deepest life message often comes out of our deepest pain,” Saddleback Church Pastor Rick Warren said to his congregation after the death of his son from suicide due to depression. After this tragic event in 2013, most churches are now on the move to de-stigmatized mental illness. Rick Warren and his church organized a convention to talk about mental illness. The stigma needs to stop so that people that are suffering in the dark can come out. Suicide can be avoided. The church can make a difference.

Church pastors and leaders have an opportunity to reach out for these broken soul. There are numerous resources outside of the church wall. There are organizations that provides medical facts about depression. National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) promotes awareness to the world. It helps an individual to understand why his or her mental suffering is happening. In San Diego, UP2SD.org educates the community about mental health. Aside from praying to these individuals, the church can guide them, support them, be with them even during this arduous time. It can also be helpful for pastors or leaders to have conferences or workshops about pastoral counseling to their congregations. Use outside resources to promote awareness. It can bring the whole community together to fight against the stigma and depression itself. Other pastors know psychiatrists and therapists that can help church members. It opens up opportunity and brings awareness to the church. If one can stop the stigma, there is a higher chance to diminish suicide rates in the community. It can bring healing, hope, restoration, and joy.

Depression is a disease that wreaks havoc between families. Stories after stories regarding suicide due to depression are showing from social media to local news. It can happen to female, male, Christian, non-Christian, rich, poor, and to any human being. It does not discriminate. It kills. It is time to take a stand against depression. One step is de-stigmatizing it. People can open up. Judgmental needs to be thrown out of the conversation. Ignorance can be replaced with education. Healing can be replaced from secrecy. Light can be seen in the dark lives of depressed people. Psychotherapy can help individuals identify the cause of depression. Individuals can understand why they are having these mental pain, emotional struggles, and unexplained psychological behaviors. Then, the church can show God’s unconditional love and transforming powers to penetrate the darkness of their failures and brokenness. There is power in the first part of the Beatitudes when Jesus said in Matthew 5, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Everyone matters. Change can happen. It is possible. It starts from one small step. Time to break the silence.

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Works Cited

Blazer, Dan G. “The Depression Epidemic: Why We’re More Down Than Ever — And The Crucial Role Churches Play In Healing.” Christianity Today 53.3 (2009): 22-31. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials. Web. 17 Aug. 2015.

Breel, Kevin. Confession of a Depressed Comic Video. TEDxKids@Ambleside. May 2013. Web.10 Aug. 2015.      <http://www.ted.com/talks/kevin_breel_confessions_of_a_depressed_comic&gt;

DEACON, BRETT J.BAIRD, GRAYSON L. “The Chemical Imbalance Explanation Of Depression: Reducing Blame At What Cost?.” Journal Of Social & Clinical Psychology   28.4 (2009): 415-435. Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection. Web. 24 Aug.     2015.

Hedman, Amy S. “Perceptions of Depression, Counseling and Referral Practices, and Self- Efficacy Reported by Minnesota Clergy.” Pastoral Psychology 63.3 (2014): 291-306. ProQuest. Web. 17 Aug. 2015.

Manos, Rachel C., et al. “DEPRESSION SELF-STIGMA AS A MEDIATOR OF THE     RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN DEPRESSION SEVERITY AND AVOIDANCE.” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 28.9 (2009): 1128-43. ProQuest. Web. 17 Aug. 2015.

McCandless, J. Bardarah. “The Church Confronting Adult Depression: A Challenge.”     Counseling & Values 35.2 (1991): 104. Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection. Web. 10 Aug. 2015.

NIV Bible. Zondervan. 2014. Print

Sorenson, Stephen J. “Depression and God: The Effects of Major Depressive Disorder on Theology and Religious Identity.” Pastoral Psychology 62.3 (2013): 343-53. ProQuest. Web. 17 Aug. 2015.

Sullivan, Steve, et al. “The Pew Versus the Couch: Relationship between Mental Health and Faith Communities and Lessons Learned from a VA/Clergy Partnership Project.” Journal of Religion and Health 53.4 (2014): 1267-82. ProQuest. Web. 17 Aug. 2015.

World Health Organization. Media Centre: Fact Sheet: Depression. 2012. Web. 10 Aug, 2015. <http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs369/en/&gt;

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