Depression, a Pastoral Approach

From our friend Allan Bevere:

With the tragic suicide of actor and comedian, Robin Williams, depression is once again in the headlines and before us in conversation. This morning Forbes has posted on the five common myths about depression. I will list those myths and encourage you to go to the site to read the commentary on each myth. After the list, I will end this post with a few thoughts of my own.

Myth 1: Depression is synonymous with sadness.

Myth 2: Depression is a sign of mental weakness.

Myth 3: Depression is always situational.

Myth 4: Depression symptoms are all in your head.

Myth 5: If you are diagnosed with depression, you’ll be on antidepressants the rest of your life.

The kind of depression in view here is not the general blahs all of us feel from time to time because it’s a gloomy day or we have received some distressing news. The kind of depression that Robin Williams and so many others struggle with is clinical in nature. The University Health Center at Berkeley describes clinical depression in this way:

When we refer to depression… we are talking about “clinical depression.” Clinical depression is a serious medical illness that negatively affects how you feel, the way you think and how you act. Individuals with clinical depression are unable to function as they used to. Often they have lost interest in activities that were once enjoyable to them, and feel sad and hopeless for extended periods of time. Clinical depression is not the same as feeling sad or depressed for a few days and then feeling better. It can affect your body, mood, thoughts, and behavior. It can change your eating habits, how you feel and think, your ability to work and study, and how you interact with people. People who suffer from clinical depression often report that they “don’t feel like themselves anymore.”

It is estimated that 350 million people suffer from clinical depression globally and many are not receiving treatment. It is also estimated that 40% of those treated with medication receive no relief from their symptoms (see the Forbes post). Add to that the sad fact that all too many resort to alcohol and drugs to gain some relief from their symptoms, and now depressed individuals are working with a dangerous combination of depression and substance abuse, which only causes more depression which leads to more substance abuse. It is a dangerous and vicious cycle, which all too often ends in tragedy.

As a pastor for thirty years, I have been invited into the lives of the clinically depressed. Contrary to what some mistakenly think, these folks just can’t get over it by thinking happy thoughts. It’s a physiological condition in the way diabetes and cardiac arrhythmia are physiological conditions. I have found joy when people I know with clinical depression are able to cope and live hopeful lives through medication, lifestyle changes, and prayer. I have also been sad when others can’t seem to find relief no matter what they do or what anyone else does. Moreover, clinical depression is a silent illness in that those who suffer with it often do not want to make it public for fear of losing what relationships they have. They often feel all alone as it is.

We are getting better at understanding this vicious illness and it is losing some of its stigma from previous years, but there is still too much misunderstanding out there. Folks like Robin Williams can’t just snap their fingers and be over it. Yes, people are responsible for their own actions and Williams never blamed anyone but himself for his addictions; but let us at the very least understand that those suffering from this pernicious and persistent demon of depression can face strong temptations to engage in the kinds of destructive behaviors in the hope of gaining some relief even though they will make things worse. No, such behavior is not logical…

…but neither is the idea that the clinically depressed can “just get over it.”

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