“Depressed Christian” Is Not an Oxymoron

What people commonly think about depression is a witch’s brew of everything from wrong ideas about God and the Bible to what Tom Cruise said about Brooke Shields’ severe postpartum depression: “There is no such thing as a chemical imbalance, and depression can be cured with vitamins and exercise.”   People have crazy ideas about why people have problems, and if you pay attention to everything you hear, it may make you even more depressed!

I have struggled with low-grade chronic depression most of my life—the technical term is dysthymia—and for years I’ve told my story because so many people have my problem and depression is so misunderstood, especially in the Christian community.

Years ago, I was speaking at a Youth with a Mission adult discipleship school.  In Hawaii!  The weather was fantastic, and I had received some really good news from someone on my church staff back home:  For the first time ever, our attendance had topped 2000.  Yet I was feeling depressed!  Why?  There was no good reason.  It was just in me.

At the end of the week, the class leaders asked the students to give me feedback on my teaching.  A teary-eyed woman stood up and said, “The highlight for me was when you told us you were depressed.  You haven’t given me an excuse to be depressed, but you’ve affirmed me in my pain.  I’m so encouraged to know I am not alone.”  That’s what she got out of my fifteen hours of lectures!

Did you know that eighty percent of pastors are discouraged or dealing with depression?  And the numbers are similar for their spouses? Mother Teresa wrote, “I am told God lives in me—and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.”  And E. Glenn Wagner, who had to leave local church ministry because of debilitating depression, calls it a “stealth epidemic.”  He writes, “The stealth nature of depression among pastors makes it difficult to identify and treat … Even more difficult is the fact that once a pastor is diagnosed with depression, many churches are not safe places in which they may find support and healing.  Depression among pastors is still a dirty secret that many churches don’t wish to disclose, address, and cure.”

How can you know if you are depressed?  First, you must understand that depression is not “just an emotional problem.”  Clinical depression is not discouragement, sadness, or grief.  These are common human feelings brought on by difficulty in life and personal loss.  If you lose your job, or your doctor tells you that you have an incurable disease, or a loved one dies, you will feel depressed.  Some professionals call this acute depression—soul pain caused by trouble in your life.  In other words, you have a good reason for being depressed, and you know exactly what it is.

Some people suffering from acute depression may need to take medication for a few months to help them through their pain, like my mother when my dad passed away a few years ago.  Life traumas actually affect the chemistry of your brain by depleting your serotonin—the wonderful chemical that keeps our brains working well and our thoughts about life generally positive.  Everyone, then, experiences acute depression from time to time.  Many people, though, suffer with chronic or clinical depression, a mental lethargy and pain that has nothing to do with their circumstances.  Simply put, they have no good reason for being depressed.  They aren’t gloomy because life is cloudy, and they don’t just cheer up when life is good.  Job-like suffering may trigger clinical depression, and lack of exercise, poor sleep patterns, diet, limited time in prayer and Bible reading may make it worse.  But clinical depression is fundamentally a physiological problem, a severe imbalance of the chemistry of the brain, a disability of sorts.

Take diabetes for example.  People who suffer with this disease have a chemical imbalance that can only be corrected with carefully measured dosages of insulin.  Have you ever known a diabetic ashamed of taking medication?  Hardly ever, because  insulin saves their life!  Or, if someone close to you takes insulin, would you dare to make them feel guilty for doing that?  Yet people with clinical depression, which is also a chemical imbalance, are very often ashamed to take medication to restore their brain.  And if they are totally OK with it, someone close to them won’t be.  To be honest, even after taking anti-depressants for seven years, I still feel sorta funny picking up my prescription.  I never have that kind of feeling when I ask the pharmacist for antibiotics!

True, treatment for depression can be more complex than treatment for diabetes.  Different medications work differently for different people, and other factors will contribute to emotional health, like going to the gym, diet, and spiritual exercises like worship, Bible reading, and prayer.  But for people who are clinically depressed, antidepressants are necessary.

Another myth about antidepressants is that they are mood altering, or even addicting.  This is simply not true.  The co-author of my book, Seeing in the Dark, Rich Jacobs M.D. likes to point out that, if antidepressants were mood-altering, you could buy them on the street!  No, there’s no black market for Prozac.  Furthermore, a-d drugs are not habit forming.  It’s true that not every antidepressant works equally well for everyone.  Taking them can involve a bit of trial and error, and reducing your dosage or changing medications can have some side effects—and must be done under the supervision of a qualified physician, but even niacin make me dizzy in the head!

How can you know you are clinically depressed?  We have a self-test in our book, Seeing in the Dark, as well as many helpful and safe web-links.  We also urge you to see your physician.  My daughter was having some difficulties (she has my DNA!), and I told her she should consider asking her doctor for medication.  Instead, her physician told her to try jogging regularly for a while!

Our “prescription” for depression, which we discuss in detail in our book, is comprehensive: physical exercise, diet, healthy sleep patterns, and spiritual exercises like worship, prayer, and Bible meditation.  In our view, depression is not just physiological, but may also be deeply spiritual, which is why both Dr. Jacobs and I believe in the very real, dark side of the spiritual dimension.  Yes, Virginia, there is a devil!  Resist him, the Bible says, and he will flee.  And talk to yourself: “Why are you down in the dumps, dear soul? Why are you crying the blues? Fix my eyes on God—soon I’ll be praising again. He puts a smile on my face. He’s my God” (Psalm 42:5, The Message).  If you’ve read that verse every day for months and years, and you are still “down in the dumps,” see your doctor!

You can get the facts about depression in Gary’s critically acclaimed book Seeing in the Dark: Getting the Facts on Depression and Finding Hope Again, co-authored by Richard Jacobs, M.D.

1. 1998 Focus on the Family study. See www.family.org, keyword search “pastor depression.”
2. E. Glen Wagner,”Walking Alone” (REV Magazine, May/June 2005), p. 50.
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