Depression is an illness. It is not anybody’s fault. It is not a spiritual failure. It is not a sin. It is not a punishment. It is not a symptom of anything evil. It is not a sign that God has stopped loving someone. It is just an illness.
A broken leg is also an illness, but people respond to that kind of need by being sympathetic and helpful. Depression does not always attract the same level of sympathy and helpfulness because it is invisible. People who are living with depression have a right to be extra kind to themselves to make up for people are not as generous as they should be to someone who requires some nursing.
Depression is an illness that usually comes to an end. Christians believe that treatment, therapy, medicine and prayer are all good means of healing that God has placed in the world. Those who live with depression can be well treated by whatever medical professionals recommend. People who suffer in this way usually come to a point at which they look back on it as having been dreadful, but having ended.
Christian attitudes to mental illness have changed over the centuries, but the improvement is better in some quarters than others. The attitude to illness in the Bible was shaped and limited by the medical knowledge of the day. Conditions that were diagnosed in the first century as requiring evil spirits to be cast out now have a much broader range of treatments available.
The vast majority of Christians would not make a connection between depression and the evil spirits described in the Bible. However, all health issues have a spiritual side, and Christians invariably include prayer and trust in God among the helpful ways to address depression.
Four things that are known to help, and which have been part of Christian life for twenty centuries are these:
Actively serving other people - having other people at the centre of your attention instead of yourself tends to make you feel purposeful.
Connecting - spending time creating community around you with friends, family, colleagues or a church congregation tends to make you feel appreciated.
Being active - even a small amount of exercise, either individually or in a team sport, tends to increase your wellbeing.
Learning - new skills and ideas about any subject that interests you tends to increase your sense of achievement. (That includes exploring the Christian faith, and if you click ‘Get in touch with us’ below the Christian Enquiry Agency can find you a nearby church or discussion group if you live in the UK.)
What the Bible says about it
An extract from the Bible:
Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba [he] went a day's journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. ‘I have had enough, Lord,’ he said. ‘Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.’ Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep.
Where to find it:
1 Kings 19:3
About these words:
Elijah was one of many people in the Bible who were prone to depression. This breakdown came immediately after a time of exhilaration. It was followed by sleep, food and drink, and an encounter with God whom he experienced as a ‘still, small voice’.
And they said...
Katharine Welby, worker for homelessness charity and daughter of the Archbishop of Canterbury:
Some Christians will say ... that you don't have enough faith, or that depression is not biblical because the Holy Spirit gives us joy, or that you haven't experienced the love of God. To which I just say, ‘I experienced the love of God more during my darkest period than at any other point in my life.’ ... Reading the psalms [I find] that I don't need to have hope every second of the day. In my hopelessness I just need to acknowledge that God is bigger than my illness and he will come through – eventually. Not always easy, but always possible ... The Bible is full of people who screw up, who get miserable, angry, who hurt and who weep. Even Jesus, in the garden of Gethsemane, found life too much to bear and pleaded with God.
Tony Campolo, North American Christian leader:
One of the most prevalent problems in the stressed world in which we live is depression ... Depression is caused by a chemical imbalance. The causal factors for such imbalances are not always easy to discern. It could be hormonal changes, sometimes our diets are the cause, and some chemical imbalances may be genetically triggered. All of that is to say, spirituality will not be the cure-all for depression. Some of the greatest saints in history suffered from bouts of depression. But having said this I have to contend that, over all, those who have experienced the fullness of God’s Spirit in their lives give ample testimony that whatever one’s state may be, the Holy Spirit lifts us up to higher ground.