Question: How can I recognise the signs of depression, either in myself or someone I know? How can I help in a biblical way?
I assume from your question that some ways of helping people with depression are not biblical. You are right. There are those who think that Christians should never be depressed. After all, "the joy of the LORD is your strength" (Neh 8:10). The fruit of the Spirit includes "joy" and "peace" (Gal 5:22-23). So, if we have the Lord and the Spirit, how can we be depressed? Along this line of thinking, any resort to therapy or medication would amount to an admission of defeat and denial of our faith.
But remember: while we are spiritual beings, each of us dwells within a physical body with emotions affected by chemicals and neurons. John Ting in his book A Gentle Touch shares candidly about his experience of depression. He compares it to a medical condition like diabetes. When someone is diagnosed with diabetes, we have no issue with him going to a doctor for treatment. So why should we feel differently about a person diagnosed with depression?
What then are the signs of depression? The following are danger signals of an onset of depression. Firstly, a diminished capacity to face problems. While we were able to deal with similar challenges in the past, we now feel overwhelmed by them. We suffer from a loss of confidence which may lead to extreme anxiety or panic attacks.
Secondly, a generally pessimistic view of life. We feel overwhelmed because we interpret everything in its worst possible scenario and outcome. We also impute the worst motives on people. This leads thirdly to a tendency to withdraw from people and become fixated on our own predicament. At a time when we need help most, we are most reluctant to seek help.
The classic example in the Bible of such symptoms is Elijah in 1 Kings 19. The fact that a prophet who was mightily used by God could succumb to such a state shows that none of us is exempt, as we are told, “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours” (Jas 5:17). He suffered from suicidal thoughts (“Take away my life”) arising from a combination of complexes: inferiority and guilt (“I am no better than my fathers”), paranoia (“I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away”) , and, yes, superiority (“I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty” NIV). How God dealt with him shows us the way to deal with depression.
Firstly, God took care of his physical needs. His first words to Elijah were, “Arise and eat” after which the prophet slept. Depression may involve our emotions but the physical body needs proper diet and rest. A friend of mine who runs a retreat centre for missionaries and pastors tells me that many of those who came spent most of their time catching up on sleep! Physical exhaustion is a main contributory cause of depression.
Secondly, God asked, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” As if God did not know! He was not asking for information but giving Elijah an opportunity to express himself. There was much suppressed in the prophet that needed to come out. Just as he must rest his body, he must also ventilate his mind.
Finally, God told Elijah to find others to share in his work. There was Elisha who would eventually be his successor, and 7,000 others who were still faithful to God. How wrong for Elijah to think he was the only one!
In today’s context, taking care of the body may mean medication. Hopefully we will get over the stigma attached to taking anti-depressants, and accept such prescriptions just as we do medication for regulating cholesterol and blood pressure. Likewise, therapy or talking with a professional counsellor, should be viewed as normal, as we do when seeking help from other professionals on legal or financial matters. Of course, finding a Christian counsellor is best as we will work within a biblical worldview. Prayer and God’s Word should continue to be the basis of all help. The last thing we want to do when signs show an onset or state of depression is to withdraw from people. If we are suffering from depression, we should seek help. If we see signs in our loved ones, we should encourage them to do likewise.
As clinical depression becomes common among people of all ages, the best way forward is to cultivate what Tan Soo Inn in his book on spiritual friendship Following Jesus in Threes calls the 3-2-1 way: three friends spending two hours together once a month. Should depression hit any of us, we have at least two other persons who will be there for us.
In the pastoral ministry for some 40 years, Rev Dr David Wong has met with many individuals at their points of need. He is currently the senior pastor of Zion Bishan Bible-Presbyterian Church where a recent adult Bible class on mental illness attracted a full house of people of all ages.