How The Bible Can Be Damaging to People with Depression

How The Bible Can Be Damaging to People with Depression January 5, 2018
Image: Thomas Froehlich/Shutterstock
Image: Thomas Froehlich/Shutterstock

As a teen, I read the entire Bible. Twice. Deuteronomy, with rules about weird sores on the body, 1 Chonicles and the list of who “begat” whom, and all. Not one verse helped.

I clung to verses of encouragement as I lay sobbing and screaming into pillows, wracked with internal pain. Hopeless. Pleading for God to help me, to deliver me. I could find only one verse that I identified with: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:45-46).

Many approaches neurotypical people use to encourage themselves can actually damage the health of those with depression. Depression, to some not afflicted with it, is simply being sad. A temporary feeling, caused by something specific, or maybe even a choice. When neurotypical people feel sad or grieve, they find it helpful to meditate on verses like, “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him” (Psalm 42:11).” Just move to hope and praise, and the disturbance will subside.

These people want to help the loved one, so they share what worked for themselves.

The typical “encouraging” verses celebrate faith in the face of adversity (Psalm 32:10), trading negative thoughts for positive (1 Peter 5:6-7), trusting God to help (Psalm 40:1-3), and waiting out pain because of the promise of something better (1 Peter 4:12-13, John 16:33).

“Just have a little more faith,” coach these verses and those who deliver them. “Just think more positively; just hope.” That’s the thing about depression, though: there is no hope.

“There must be some hope,” respond those lucky enough to be in good mental health. “There is always hope!” For you, that may be true. But not for some of us.

Depression is characterized by a lack of hope. Internally, that means every area of life is hopeless: career, family, finances, fitness, health, friendship, spirituality, and love. In the mind of someone with depression, reality truly changes. That person likely believes that every aspect of life has always been terrible. No amount of evidence to the contrary (reminders or photos of good times, a recent promotion at work) changes this “reality”. Any suggestion for a way to “feel better” feels like salt in a wound; we know for a fact that nothing will work.

That’s where the verses can get dangerous, in the following three ways.

1) Bible verses keep us from seeking treatment.

When we believe that depression can be overcome by thought changes, we ignore the fact that clinical depression is a medical issue, an imbalance in brain chemistry. People generally don’t offer someone with a broken leg some Bible verses to heal it; they help that person seek medical attention, and perhaps provide some verses to help the patient’s mood throughout recovery. Depression should not be treated any differently than another physical ailment. It’s not just “being sad”, and it’s not a choice.

2) Bible verses make us feel worse about ourselves.

If the message we get from the Bible is to simply tough out our feelings or have more faith, we believe that depression is just a tough time to overcome. A little more hard work or a little more surrender to God will get us through; therefore, reason points out, if we’re still struggling we must not be faithful enough or hard-working enough. In the depression thought cycle, we already feel worthless or stupid. Adding faithless or lazy to our descriptors further damages our self-esteem.

3) Bible verses make us more suicidal.

Some of these verses encourage neurotypical people by promising that suffering is rewarded in the afterlife. They focus on the vision of heaven: celebration, peace, new bodies, golden streets, and most importantly, no pain. If a person with depression is having even mild suicidal ideation or fleeting thoughts of death, heaven sounds awfully tempting. Why would we continue our anguish here on Earth when we can be pain-free with God? The amount of suffering we’ve done, it seems (and in this state, remember, the suffering seems to have occurred every day of our lives), promises a pretty good pile of rewards stacked up in heaven. Once that imbalanced person realizes that suicide is in fact not an unpardonable sin (because God forgives everything, Romans 3:23), the pathway opens further.

How, then, can a person of faith be helpful to a loved one with depression? If Bible verses and faith won’t help, what will?

1) Accept that you don’t understand and can’t identify with what this person experiences. The worst time in your life, the saddest you’ve ever been, is miles from what depression feels like. 2) Don’t offer advice. No matter how well-intentioned, your suggestions will not land well. Also consider that, if this person has had depression for some time, she’s already heard every suggestion you have. She’s likely tried them all, too.

3) Ask. Ask what you can do to help. Ask if he’d like to go to a doctor, and whether you can offer him a ride there or help make the appointment. If he’s never sought medical treatment for depression, the thought can be paralyzing, so your help in those little actions may be all he needs. The person might respond that there’s nothing you can do; in that case, just be present with him if allowed to.

4) If you are attached to sending verses, ask whether the person would like to receive them. Most importantly, accept an answer of “no” if that’s the response.

5) Most of all, shower this person with love. Drop a text saying, “Thinking of you.” Remember that depression makes us feel unloved, unworthy of love, and profoundly lonely. Keep in mind, also, that one of the hardest things to do when we’re in that state is to reach out to you or anyone else.

By Morgan Meredith

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