My dear children, let’s not just talk about love; let’s practice real love. This is the only way we’ll know we’re living truly, living in God’s reality. It’s also the way to shut down debilitating self-criticism, even when there is something to it. For God is greater than our worried hearts and knows more about us than we do ourselves (1 John 3:18-20, The Message).
Tom and Jan Gilbert
Depression is a serious mental illness.1 It is such an overwhelming personality dilemma that the idea of “overcoming” is almost a misnomer. For many people, it is a life-long struggle, but there are ways to manage it and bring it under control. This disease is not to be taken lightly. It can be extremely debilitating and, if not treated, even lead to suicide.
Globally, an estimated 350 million people of all ages suffer from depression, or 4.7 percent of the world population. More women are affected than men. Although there are known, effective treatments for depression, fewer than half of those affected in the world (in many countries, fewer than 10%) receive such treatments.
Depression is frequently caused, at least in part, by a chemical imbalance within the brain. If this is the case, then a person must take medication to correct this imbalance. This is no different than having any other chemical imbalance within the body, such as diabetes. Consequently, an individual experiencing depression should be seen by a medical professional. Some people may need to take medication for the rest of their lives. Others may need it only for a short time.
Medication, however, is only one way to treat depression. The best way to treat depression is with a two-fold approach involving both medication and counseling, or talk therapy. Usually, those who engage in both medical and behavioral therapy treatment have better outcomes than just doing one or the other.
Sometimes people are hesitant to participate in behavioral therapy with a psychologist. They might have heard that a psychologist will encourage them to give up their religious beliefs which could be the basis for their feelings of guilt over their failures, leading to their depression. However, no competent psychologist will encourage a patient to abandon their foundational values and beliefs. More likely, they will inquire about the patient’s beliefs and values and use those in therapy to help the person find their way out of the mental maze that is depression. For instance, the counselor might help the person realize that their unrelenting guilt over past failures, or sins, is inconsistent with their belief in the Bible’s teachings about the grace — the undeserved kindness — of God, who is so willing to forgive us.
This kind of therapy, in which the counselor helps the patient reevaluate the way they view themselves and the world around them, is called cognitive therapy. From one perspective, this kind of therapy is more important than the medication because taking anti-depressant medication does not make a depressed person happy. As described by psychiatrists, the antidepressant only “gives the person traction” so they can progress in correcting the irrational thinking patterns in their mind that feed the feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness.
Cognitive behavioral therapy helps us change the way we think about things and is consistent with the scriptures. The Apostle Paul tells us that we need to change the way we think about things. In Romans 12:2 (NAS), he wrote, “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” Yes, we have to learn to think on a spiritual level, but we also have to stop thinking in irrational human patterns — the kinds of patterns that lead to depression.
(1) For further reading on depression, please see the July /August 2007 issue of The Herald, which focused on the Christian’s struggle with depression.
Irrational Thinking Is the Culprit
These patterns of thinking are part of the fallen human nature and are based on false perspectives we hold and false messages we tell ourselves. Professionals identify a number of unsound thinking patterns that lead to depression.
All-or-Nothing Thinking — This is the tendency to evaluate personal qualities or interpret events in extreme black-or-white terms. All-or-nothing thinking forms the basis for perfectionism. It causes us to fear any mistake or imperfection; we will then see ourselves as complete failures. This way of evaluating things is unrealistic because life is rarely all one way or the other.
Over-Generalization — We conclude that an unpleasant thing that happened once will occur over and over again. The pain of rejection is generated almost entirely from overgeneralization. Usually words like “never” or “always” occur in over-generalizations.
Discounting the Positive — This is the tendency to transform neutral or even positive experiences into negative ones. We do not just ignore positive experiences; we cleverly and swiftly turn them into the opposite. We search like scientists to find evidence to prove that we are second-rate, inferior. The price we pay for this pattern of thinking is intense misery and an inability to appreciate the good things that happen, the good in ourselves, and the good in others.
Jumping to Conclusions — We arbitrarily jump to a negative conclusion that is not justified by the facts of the situation.
“Should” Statements — We try to motivate ourselves by saying, “I should do this.” Or we put ourselves down by saying, “I should have done that.” It creates self-loathing, shame, and excessive guilt. Unrealistic expectations for ourselves and others will lead us to continual disappointment.
A feeling of worthlessness can manifest itself as a consuming fear — a fear that we are unlovable; a fear of doing anything lest we fall short of the expectations of God or others. A fearful mental paralysis can overcome us.
“‘The spirit of fear’ is … simply a mental influence natural to every fallen human being of humble mind. It is begotten of the realization of personal imperfection and unworthiness of divine favors. The antidote for this spirit of fear is the holy Spirit of Truth, and its instructions accepted and held in full assurance of faith. The Spirit of Truth tells us that there were good reasons for our entertainment of the spirit of fear; but that those reasons no longer exist since we have come into Christ as new creatures. It points us away from our unintentional weakness to the great Atonement accomplished by our Lord Jesus” (Studies in the Scriptures, Volume 5, pages 196, 197).
Truth Is Essential to Recovery
While we are not worthy in God’s eyes on our own human account, Christ has covered our unworthiness with his righteousness. In fact, because we have given our heart to God, the truth is that we are a special treasure to God (1 Peter 2:9-10).
The Apostle Paul counsels us to be truthful in all things. “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true … think on these things” (Philippians 4:8). We need to keep a diligent watch on ourselves to ensure that the contemplations of our hearts and minds are based upon what is true and what is real.
The power of truth smashes the subtle seductions of unsound thinking. It eliminates the maze of irrational thinking that leads to depression. Whenever we feel unworthy, unlovable, hopeless, etc., we should ask ourselves, “What do I know that is true, really true?” Focusing on those things will often lift the clouds from our hearts and minds.
One of the most powerful things we can do is accept the forgiveness God has offered us through his son, and then forgive ourselves for not always being the kind of person we would like to be. Releasing the load of guilt we feel over past sins or present inadequacies is very important to overcoming depression. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). We also need to forgive others if we are carrying a load of anger or resentment toward those who have offended us. “Be tolerant with one another and forgive one another whenever any of you has a complaint against someone else. You must forgive one another just as the Lord has forgiven you” (Colossians 3:13, TEV).
Another important thing we can do is meet with fellow Christians. There is a strong tendency among those who are depressed to withdraw from relationships.
We must resist the desire to withdraw, with all the strength within us. We need the encouragement that comes through Christian fellowship. We must be especially careful to not withdraw from our relationship with the heavenly Father through prayer. There is no being in the universe more approachable, more willing to hear the depths of our experiences, than Jehovah.
Help From Others
It would oversimplify the subject of treating depression to suggest that it is easily overcome by focusing on the truth of every situation. In most cases, those who are suffering from depression need to seek the assistance of someone they can trust to help them sort out the realities with which they are struggling — a close friend, a pastor/elder, a doctor, or a counselor. A trained professional can often provide the mental tools, and perhaps medication, that will enable the suffering ones to begin the work of controlling and relieving their depression.
Individuals who are depressed tend to self-focus and struggle to find any evidence that they have value. But the irrational thinking patterns constantly defeat their efforts. Others may see them as selfish or self-absorbed. Focusing on others and their needs is a healthy shift away from self-centered thinking. Psychologists will tell depressed patients to start counting their blessings. When we see how many blessings we have received from the Heavenly Father, it is harder to continue to focus on negative things and feel down. But this will require us to stop “discounting the positives” in our life and look at things truthfully.
Some people are so paralyzed by their depression that they can hardly make daily decisions or accomplish anything. It can be extremely difficult to get a depressed person to follow through on tasks, appointments, etc. In those cases, a family member or another individual needs to “hold their hand,” i.e., make appointments for them (a challenge in view of “privacy” laws), take them to the appointment, take them to the pharmacy to get medication, be on the phone with them to help explain the type of assistance they need.
People with severe depression invent many excuses for not doing the things that need to be done. The person helping them has to cut through those excuses and help the depressed person do those things, because if not done, the failure to do them feeds the feelings of worthlessness.
We can attest to all of these observations and recommendations based on many years of personal experience with this illness. If you want to overcome depression, pray for and seek help in renewing your mind. Changing your thinking patterns is hard work. Consider seeking professional help. If you are trying to help someone experiencing depression, seek a source of support for yourself in the experience, either from a professional counselor or another family member or friend that has the ability to provide you the support you need.
God is pleased to offer his children a life filled with joy. Joy is one of the fruits of having God’s Spirit dwelling in us. If we are lacking this joy, there is no shame in admitting that we are experiencing the fallen human condition of depression, or in seeking help from others, including medical professionals.