Mental health is something many in the black Christian community shy away from discussing. That’s why I’m honored to have board certified child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist Leesha M. Ellis-Cox, M.D., M.P.H., back today to do a guest post on depression and the believer. Welcome, Dr. Ellis-Cox.
Formidable, disabling, destructive. The word depression conjures up such negative descriptors. But depression is also very common, both in the United States and globally. According to the World Health Organization, 350 million suffer from depression; and, this mental disorder is the leading cause of disability. The statistics are equally staggering for the United State where 9% of American adults have depression, depression is the leading cause of disability for individuals ages 15 to 43, and suicide is the leading cause of death among individuals age 15 to 29, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Stated differently, 15 million American adults are dealing with depression any given year, which suggests that depression does not discriminate. Depression impacts the wealthy and the poor, the cultural majority and people of color, men and women, and children and adults. This also means that Christians can and do suffer from depression as well.
Depression has been in existence for centuries. The Holy Bible contains scriptures describing what we would now understand to be clinical depression.
- When Job has lost everything precious to him, he says in Job 30: 16–17 (NLT), “And now my life seeps away. Depression haunts my days. At night my bones are filled with pain, which gnaws at me relentlessly.”
- Jeremiah in Jeremiah 15:10 (NLT) asks, “What sorrow is mine, my mother. Oh, that I had died at birth! I am hated everywhere I go.”
- Elijah became suicidal after discovering that he was being hunted by Ahab’s soldiers. In 1 Kings 19:3 (NLT), the scripture says that “Elijah was afraid and fled for his life… Then he went alone into the wilderness traveling all day. He sat down under a solitary broom tree and prayed that he might die. ‘I have had enough, LORD, he said. Take my life.”
- Many Biblical scholars believe that Jesus also dealt with depression as he was preparing for his crucifixion—“My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Matthew 26:38, NLT).
This begs the question If depression is so common, why is stigma so entrenched in our current religious climate and so pervasive?
Unfortunately, many myths and mistruths about depression abound, especially in the Christian culture, and, these lies keep believers from getting the help they need to fight this devastating, but very treatable, condition.
- Depression is not a real disease. The medical term for clinical depression is Major Depressive Disorder or MDD. Depression is a serious medical condition characterized by different symptoms, including persistently sad or irritable mood, inability to enjoy family/friends/leisure activities/work, changes in sleep and appetite, changes in energy levels, difficulty concentrating, feelings of guilt and worthlessness, suicidal thinking and thoughts of death, and physical symptoms like fatigue, body aches and pain, and recurrent headaches. While there is no blood test or imaging study to definitively diagnose depression at this time, mental health providers conducting a thorough clinical evaluation can effectively diagnose most cases of depression and other psychiatric disorders.
- Depression is a normal response to the challenges we all face in life like divorce, job loss, illness, or death of a loved one. While it is certainly true that the difficulties we confront in life can be stressful and engender negative emotional responses, these responses are often temporary and an expected reaction given the circumstances. It is when symptoms persist weeks and months later and begin to negatively impact an individual’s ability to carry out their responsibilities such as going to work, caring for children, and managing their household on a frequent basis that we suspect that something more serious might be going on. Stressors can be depressing, but that does not equal clinical depression.
- Only people who lack sufficient faith or do not have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ get depressed. As discussed earlier in this post, there are several men in the Bible who likely struggled with depression, including Jesus Christ himself. In our contemporary culture, pastors and other leaders in the church have been depressed, and some have spoken openly about their illness. Depression has nothing to do with your level of faith or how long you have been saved.
- You must be crazy if you seek counseling or take medication for depression. I strongly believe that seeking treatment for depression and any other psychiatric disorder makes you courageous, not crazy. It is much more difficult to confront painful aspects of your life compared to simply sweeping problems under the proverbial rug and pretending as if they don’t exist. All that happens when you sweep things under the rug is that you create a huge pile of dirt and mess that will trip you up and cause you to stumble and fall rather than to grow and move forward.
- All you need is prayer to pull through depression. James 2:17 (NLT) says, “So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.” The King James version uses the word works in place of deeds. To me, this means that God expects us not only to believe but to do if we expect our faith to bear fruit. And if we do the “work,” i.e. prayer and therapy and medication if your symptoms are severe and warrant this, then we can and will recover from this condition and go on to lead a happy and fulfilled life.