What is depression?
Depression is a mood state that is characterised by some of the following symptoms: a melancholic mood; a prolonged diminished interest or pleasure experienced in activities in one’s daily life; a significant weight loss or weight gain; irregular sleep patterns; feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness; diminished ability to think or concentrate; psychomotor agitation or retardation, and recurrent thoughts of death. Depression is further categorised into varying levels of severity, as well as the duration of the episode, whether it be chronic or acute.
Though the diagnosis of depression could be easy enough, the cause and treatment of depression is more complex, and any one dimensional statement about its cause, whether it be spiritually based (“It is your weak faith”), biological (“You must just take medication because you have a chemical imbalance”), or mental (“You just need to think more positively“), is misleading and obstructive to the recovery of a person suffering from depression.
An understanding of depression
Our mood state emanates from within us. Our inner being is rich in ever-present thoughts, attitudes, beliefs, emotions and memories. As we journey through our formative years, we are impacted by events and circumstances, in particular those people whom we encounter in those different situations. As a result of this impact, our inner being is shaped in many different ways, particularly in our attitudes towards and beliefs about ourselves, others and God. A key aspect of this moulding process is the forming of our attitudes and beliefs about both emotional discomfort and pain, as well as the vulnerable disposition or mood state we experience as a result.
If the emergent attitude towards the emotional discomfort of sadness, hurt, disappointment, fear or anger is one of minimising or denying their presence, the resultant suppression of these emotions can impact our mood state detrimentally. Or if we believe that we ought to feel shameful about our emotional vulnerability and must therefore not disclose to others or to ourselves that we are feeling difficult, painful emotions, with time our mood state will be affected negatively. If we’ve grown up to believe that being strong and ’emotionally bullet-proof’ is preferable to being emotionally open, our inner world will become a dumping ground to our disowned emotion which, with time, is burdensome to carry.
Being vulnerable before God
To be sure, a significant aspect of the cross that Christians are urged to pick up each day in following Christ is the conflicted inner world that is part of our human nature, with all its uncomfortable emotions and changeable moods. Let’s not be surprised by that reality of our human condition.
As I read the gospels, I get the impression that Jesus was accepting, compassionate and understanding towards his disciples as they constantly displayed their vulnerability. How many times did Jesus display an awareness of the emotion of fear experienced by his disciples and reassured them, “It’s okay. I see your fear, and I want you to know that all is in hand”? He saw their bewilderment at times, their confusion, their petty jealousies, and not once did he shame them, or reprimand them for their vulnerability. Their ongoing vulnerability seemed to strengthen their dependence on Jesus. Jesus never seemed shocked or dismayed by their changing emotions. As they oscillated between a growing dependence on Jesus and putting too much emphasis on their own egos to mask their fragile inner worlds, they were regularly met with a moment of being humbled and taken back to the truth of their inner vulnerability. Clearly, particular actions emerging out of our mood space can obstruct our growing relationship with God and can therefore be seen as sinful, but the depressed mood, in and of itself, is not a sin.
If you are depressed, I appeal to you to be gentle, understanding and kindly toward yourself. Try out these renewed attitudes:
- I don’t need to be embarrassed or ashamed. My depression is not my fault. I can value myself sufficiently to seek help.
- I don’t need to isolate myself in my low mood, even though I might often feel like withdrawing.
- I can seek people who are understanding and encouraging in my difficulty.
- I will renew my loving commitment to myself each day and slowly try to sit with my inner pain rather than minimise or flee from it.
- Maintain your relationship with God, regularly praying with the psalmist: ‘I am weak and poor, O Lord, but you have not forgotten me. You are my saviour and my God – hurry to my aid.’ (Psalm 40:17)