Dealing with Depression

by Mark A. Sutton and Bruce Hennigan, M.D.

There is a sticky question many Christians struggle with: Is depression a sin?

This particular question is posed to me by more people than perhaps any other when trying to understand what is going on emotionally with themselves or with someone close to them. The situation isn’t helped by well-meaning Christians who don’t understand depression saying things like: “You just need to have more faith,” or “There must be sin in your life, or you wouldn’t feel like this,” or even “If you’d pray harder (read the Bible more, have a deeper walk with the Lord), you wouldn’t have this problem.” To someone who already feels guilty about everything, this just piles on even more guilt.

But are they right? Is depression a sin, or a picture of sin in our life? I answer that with an unequivocal no!

Depression can, in many instances, have a physical cause. So can alcoholism and several other things spoken against in the Bible. Follow me closely here: The tendency toward depression or alcoholism is not a sin; giving in to them, however, is a sin.

The alcoholic will probably get drunk when he drinks, so the Christian who is an alcoholic and wants to stay in God’s will must make sure he never takes another drink. Likewise, the person who has a tendency toward depression isn’t at fault if his or her emotions begin a downward spiral. However, how he/she responds to that downward spiral will determine if there is sin.

When I feel depression beginning to clamp its cold hands upon me, I do several things:

1. Above anything else, I make sure I’m still reading my Bible and praying. Depression often makes you want to do just the opposite, but:
* You have the power, in Christ, to do what God wills.

Say no to your emotions and yes to communion with God during these times.

2. I thank God for loving me and bringing me through the bout of depression. This is important. Both of these first two actions go against what I feel. My depression makes me want to stay away from everyone — including God. And it also makes me feel as if no one could really love me — including God. But in reading the Bible, praying to God, and thanking God for his love, I am saying that:
* God’s Word, not my present emotional outlook, is my authority.

In thanking God for bringing me through the depression, I am also exercising my faith in God and in his Word, precisely at the moment I don’t feel like doing it.

3. I try to keep from making any major decision. I’ve learned that life looks a great deal more bleak when I’m depressed. Therefore, any decision I make during this time is bound to be colored by a false sense of what’s going on in my relationships, my business and my family.

Taking these steps actually may allow me to have greater faith than many who never experience depression. That's because:
* I thank God for taking care of me and loving me even when I can't feel it or see it.

It that's not a biblical definition of faith, then I don't know what is! For example, look at these verses from the Bible. If, when depressed, you can trust God to take care of you and bring you through your bout safely, then you're exercising faith. If you can believe he loves you even when you don't feel loved, that's faith. In fact, perhaps the person fighting depression who trusts in God has the greatest faith of all! "Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for” (Hebrews 11:1-2). “We live by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).

So your depression is not a sin in and of itself. But how you respond to that depression will determine if you sin.

Let’s try an experiment. Perhaps, when you feel that horrible negative emotion coming on, you usually say something like: “Oh no, here it comes again. I’m in for a horrible time.” Next time, however, say this instead:

“Heavenly Father, here is an opportunity for me to show great faith and grow in you. May I be faithful to you during this time.” It might not stop the depression, but it can surely transform what it does to your life! And it can help you remain true to God even in the midst of emotional storms.

Strength for Today: The Disease Has a Cure

Imagine a world of darkness. In this world your senses are limited to sound, smell, taste and touch. For most of your life, you have spent every day crouched against a rough, stone wall, surrounded by the sound of a milling crowd. You feel the warmth of the sun as it shines on your face, but you cannot see it. And then a shadow falls across you, bringing welcome coolness. A voice from nearby asks the question you have heard so many times: “Who sinned that this man was born blind? Was it his fault or his parents?”

Paraphrased, you hear, “What did this poor, wretched fool do to deserve a life of misery? Where did he go wrong? What did his parents do that he should suffer like this? What sin in his life has brought him to this life of abject hopelessness?” Perhaps you have had similar thoughts regarding depression. After all, aren’t we meant to be happy and well-adjusted all the time? If we are unhappy, we must have done something wrong. In Jesus’ day a common conception existed that all disease could be traced to sin. The Savior of the world knew this was not true — and he was getting ready to prove it.

The young man mentioned above, of course, is the blind man from John 9. The questioners were Jesus’ disciples. Jesus Christ, with the divine knowledge of the Great Physician, spoke some of the most encouraging words of the Bible: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned…but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life” (John 9:3).

“What sin have I committed that has brought me depression?” Many people ask this question. Learn a lesson both from the Bible and from science. Let’s paraphrase Christ’s words and direct them toward you:

“What sin have I committed that has brought me depression?” Many people ask this question. Learn a lesson both from the Bible and from science. Let’s paraphrase Christ’s words and direct them toward you:

“Neither you nor your family sinned, but this happened so that the power of God might be displayed in your life.”

I can reassure you that depression is an illness. It is a disease with a physical basis. Depression is not due solely to spiritual problems. So get rid of the guilt trip and begin focusing on the cure!

We want to help you find the solution to your depression — the work of God that will illuminate your life and glorify our Creator.
Action Steps That Help

When you feel depression beginning to take hold of your life, try to do the following:

1. Make sure you’re still reading the Bible and praying. You have the power, in Christ, to do what God wills.
2. Thank God for loving you and bringing you through the bout of depression. God’s Word, not your present emotional outlook, is your authority.
3. Try not to make a major decision while in a depressed frame of mind.
4. Thank God for taking care of you and loving you even when you can’t feel it or see it. This exercises your faith and strengthens you.

Here are a few additional thoughts to keep in mind for those struggling with depression:

* At times, depression can relate to emotions that have been ignored or pushed away for years. Be willing to face them through Christ’s strength. As Matthew 5:4 says, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted."
* Though not advisable in every situation, medication may provide needed physical help for people struggling with depression. Talk to a doctor about it.
* Reaching out for Christian counseling can provide support, help you address underlying causes of your depression, and help you develop a plan of action.

Taken from Conquering Depression: A 30-Day Plan to Finding Happiness, copyright © 2001 by Mark A. Sutton and Bruce Hennigan.

The Weapon that Depresses Depression

Depression doesn't make you a failure. Persevering through it makes you a strong Christian and a winner in God’s eyes.

by Mark A. Sutton and Bruce Hennigan, M.D.

Did you ever have a boxing clown? At some point in my boyhood, I got one for a birthday present. This inflatable toy had a round bottom and was painted to look like a clown. The idea was to hit it as often as you wanted. Maybe it was supposed to help you learn to box; if so, I was a miserable failure. In any case, this opponent was a pushover — literally. It never tried to fight back, never defended itself, never got mad at me. Always smiling and standing still, it presented a beautiful target I could pummel to my heart’s content. But a funny thing happened with the boxing clown. I lost every fight I had with it.

I was the one doing the punching and the knocking down. I was the one who should have won. But the clown had a secret. Because of its round bottom, it never stayed knocked over. No matter how many times I punched the clown’s lights out, it always came back upright. By the end of the fight, I was exhausted. Punched out and worn out, I was ready to quit. But my opponent, the clown, still stood there, smiling that infuriating grin at me. When I left the room, I sometimes imagined it raising its arms in victory behind my back — smiling all the while, of course.

Perseverance. After faith, it’s the strongest weapon we have with which to fight depression. It helps us break a deadly cycle of which we may not even be aware. And breaking that cycle produces some positive side effects: new, powerful habits that actually act as our allies.

How does the weapon of perseverance accomplish all this? First, let’s take a look at this deadly cycle.

When we notice depression’s arrival, what is our reaction? In my counseling and discussions with depressed people, I’ve discovered we initially react in one of two ways. Some of us are always caught by surprise. We never expect the depression to return again and can’t see it coming until it has completely surrounded us. Others of us know our depression is pretty regular; we understand its signs and can watch as it approaches and settles in.

That is the first stage of the cycle of depression. But whether we are surprised by its appearance or we see it coming, we often react in the same way to the cycle’s second stage, and this is the part that is most important — and deadly. Let me talk directly to you for a moment. After realizing you are experiencing a depressive episode, how do you react? If you are like many I’ve counseled, you give up. You throw up your hands and say, “Depression is here again. There’s nothing I can do about it.” And then you let the disease dictate how you will react emotionally. Black moods and periods of doubt control you until the depression leaves and the cycle, for the moment, is complete. Then you wait, without realizing it, for the next cycle to begin.

But what if you changed the cycle? Believe it or not, it is within your power to do so. Again, you may not be able to stop depression from descending on you, but you can choose how you will respond to it. I want to pound this into your thinking.

Here's where the weapon of perseverance delivers a mortal blow to your enemy. You simply tell depression: "I'm never giving up or giving in to you. You may continue to plague me, but I'll fight you with everything I've got. My emotions don't belong to you, and I refuse to let them be held hostage without a fight. You may knock me down, but I've decided to keep on getting up. And I'll fight you every time.

What does this type of attitude accomplish?

* It breaks your usual cycle. You no longer simply give up when depression hits you.
* The process of deciding to fight depression, even when you don’t feel like doing so, begins to give you more control over your emotions and helps you no longer feel like a victim.
* As you decide to fight depression every time it appears, you build confidence in yourself. In many cases this shortens the amount of time depression stays with you.
* Using the weapon of perseverance on a regular basis builds powerful habits in your behavior. Use it long enough and eventually you begin fighting depression when it appears without even realizing it!

Let me give you a word of encouragement. Even a little effort on your part each time is helpful. Even if you can’t successfully fight off depression this time, but begin trying to do so, you have made progress. Making the decision to do what you can each time will make you stronger. Perseverance pays off. Flash back to 1968. The Mexico City Olympics are taking place amid great fanfare. As the marathon contestants line up, spectators buzz about possible winners of the race that gave birth to the entire Olympic movement. Most of the attention focuses on Mamo Wolde of Ethiopia, and rightly so; he will win the marathon. But he will not be the only winner that day.

With the crack of the starter’s gun, the contestants begin their quest for a gold medal. One of the runners, John Stephen Akhwari of Tanzania, finds himself trapped in the middle of some other runners several miles into the race. Unable to see well, he falls and hurts his leg horribly. He watches in anguish as the other racers continue. John Stephen Akhwari will not win the marathon on this day. He has come to Mexico City and failed…or has he?

Now flash forward to the end of the race. Wolde, the Ethiopian, has already won. An hour has passed, darkness is falling, and the last spectators are leaving the stadium. Suddenly their attention is drawn to the sounds of police sirens. The marathon gate to the stadium is thrown open, and, unbelievably, a lone runner stumbles into the stadium for his last lap. It is John Stephen Akhwari. Hobbling painfully on his bandaged leg, grimacing with every step, knowing he cannot win the race, he continues all the same. Finally he crosses the finish line and collapses.

Why, someone asked him, didn’t he stop after injuring himself? After all, there was no way he could win the race. Listen to John Stephen Akhwari’s response: “My country did not send me to Mexico City to start the race,” he said with dignity. “They sent me to finish the race.” Perseverance is a powerful weapon.

Let’s flash back two thousand years to another man who knew how to persevere. The apostle Paul was a man who devoted himself wholly, unselfishly, to God. But it certainly did not ensure him a life of pleasure and ease. You could say his life was maxed out with beatings, persecutions, and, to add insult to injury, multiple imprisonments. These prisons, I might add, had no weight rooms, color television or time off for good behavior. In addition, some of Paul’s peers criticized the apostle for getting himself into what they believed were embarrassing circumstances.

Paul, put in prison once more, could have given up. Instead, he had this to say: “I am not ashamed, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day” (2 Timothy 1:12). Paul knew God would not fail him. He believed that the Christian who stayed faithful, even in the tough times, would be ultimately blessed for his perseverance.

God has a special place in his heart for those who endure. Human power doesn’t interest him. Dynamic personalities and great people skills don’t impress him. He sees through smiles and designer clothes, looking for something more. “The eyes of the LORD are on those who fear him, on those whose hope is in his unfailing love” (Psalm 33:18). If you’re giving the best of yourself to God and trusting in Christ to save you, then the heavenly Father’s eyes are on you. He blesses you every time you get knocked down by depression and then get up, still trusting God and still willing to live for him. Looked at in this way, depression does not make you a failure. Instead, it makes you a strong Christian and a winner in God’s eyes.

Even if depression keeps knocking you down, make the decision today to keep getting up. Let Paul’s creed also be yours: “Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand” (Ephesians 6:13). Keep on standing.
Taken from Conquering Depression: A 30-Day Plan to Finding Happiness, copyright © 2001 by Mark A. Sutton and Bruce Hennigan.

When Your Spouse is Depressed

Here's how you can help your loved one out of the darkness of depression.

by Carolyn MacInnes

Tim and Sandra sit close together on their porch swing, holding hands. It’s hard to believe that less than a year ago, they’d discussed selling their house, splitting their possessions and sharing custody of their three children. The couple explains that a common but treatable illness nearly destroyed their strong 12-year marriage.

"I remember the day it started," Tim says. "I walked into the kitchen one morning and Sandy was just sitting on the floor. She was still in her bathrobe, and her eyes were swollen from crying."

When Tim asked what was wrong, Sandra told him she honestly didn’t know. Their lives were good. They weren’t struggling financially or having problems with the kids. She knew there was no reason to cry, yet the tears returned every morning from then on. Her concentration began to slip as well, leading to mistakes that almost cost her a job she loved. Finally, Tim insisted she see a doctor.

"I sure didn’t like the diagnosis," Sandra explains, shaking her head. "I expected him to give me vitamins or tell me not to work so hard. I never anticipated what he would actually suggest."

After several tests, Sandra’s doctor told her he believed she was suffering from a depressive disorder. He explained that our bodies need to maintain stable levels of the chemical serotonin to function normally — but the receptors in Sandra’s brain were blocking its flow to certain areas. When he suggested she try an anti-depressant drug to trigger proper serotonin absorption, she refused.

"I left his office feeling conflicted," Sandra says. "Tim and I were both raised to believe that true Christians were happy, thankful people. I was convinced that my misery was caused by a lack of faith, not a medical condition. But truthfully, I wasn’t sure which option scared me more. I couldn’t even bring myself to tell Tim that the doctor had called my mental health into question."

Over the next few months, Sandra tried to bury her secret — but her sorrow was too pervasive to hide. Their frightened children began asking what was wrong with Mom.

In the meantime, Tim admits his concern turned to frustration. "I’d ask again and again what was wrong, but she never had an answer," he says. "Not only was I aggravated by my feelings of helplessness, I was angry the life I’d worked so hard to provide wasn’t enough to make her happy."

"And the more angry he got, the more he’d withdraw from me," Sandra adds. "Then I’d feel guilty and withdraw even more. We just kept drifting further apart."

Despite her efforts to pray during that time, Sandra admits she found it almost impossible to muster the strength or the words. She felt she was not only losing her mind and her family, but now even God had abandoned her.
Identifying Depression

Tim and Sandra’s story likely rings true for many couples. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), one in five adults in America will suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. Women face these illnesses twice as often as men, but statistics show men are highly under-diagnosed due to an unwillingness to admit they’re struggling.

Stigmas and misconceptions often prevent those with depressive illnesses (which often include anxiety and panic) from getting treatment. For some, words like mental illness and therapy still evoke images of patients in strait jackets or neurotic movie characters with phobias of germs, elevators and their shadows. In reality, depression can be much less obvious. Even so, it still debilitates and destroys its victims if left untreated.

A few key signs of depression are:

* Daily sadness
* Loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed
* Restless, anxious or irritable behavior
* Trouble concentrating, focusing or remembering
* Excessive weariness and lethargy
* Sleeping or eating too much or too little
* Unexplained aches and pains
* Thoughts of suicide or death

If you recognize any of these symptoms persisting in a spouse for more than a few weeks, check with your family doctor.
Preparing Yourself to Help Your Loved One

Flight attendants always tell you to put on your own oxygen mask before helping someone next to you. In the same way, it’s important to prepare yourself before attempting to assist others when a spouse is depressed. Deep sorrow can be infectious, and it’s not uncommon for caregivers to develop symptoms of depression themselves. Guard against this possibility by eating well, exercising, getting enough sleep, and staying in the Word.

Also keep an eye on your kids. Children are often vulnerable to a parent’s anxiety. One study indicates that 20% of 10-year-olds whose mothers suffered from depression were themselves victims within five years.

Don’t underestimate the value of caring friends and family at times like this. Let loved ones help you with day-to-day tasks, and allow them to listen to and pray with you. The surest way to intensify your struggle is to isolate yourself and your immediate family from those who love you.

Reaching Out to Your Spouse

When a care-giver understands that clinical depression is a genuine medical condition, he or she may actually feel empowered. It’s encouraging to realize there are a number of tangible ways to help a spouse who is depressed:

Pray fervently with and for them.
Share meaningful Scripture verses.
Help them see that the family needs them to get well.
Listen; give credibility to their feelings.
Seek help for yourself and offer to see a therapist with them.
Encourage them to consider medication; research shows that 80% of those suffering from depressive disorders can be treated successfully with modern medications.
Show affection; encourage them to get out and do things with you.

Tell your loved one to just pray about it or make them feel like healing would come if they'd simply trust God more.
Make them feel guilty for the impact of their illness on the family.
Blame or criticize them.
Imply that they need help because they're weak.
Also, don't immediately exclude other family members from counseling. Sometimes, complex relational issues involving several family members can spark depression.
Expect medication to solve everything. Also, don't discount the need for prayer — and possibly therapy.
Let them continue in a pattern of sleep and isolation.

A Happy Ending

Once Tim and Sandra overcame their fears and misconceptions about mental illness, they began to counsel with their pastor each week. Sandra also returned to the doctor. Within a few months, she felt like herself again, thanks to a low dosage of a Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitor (SSRI). The medication helped bring her serotonin levels back into balance. Their children were thrilled to see Mom smiling again.

The couple, now co-leading a mental illness support group at their church, discovered that they could survive depression with teamwork, education, empathy and a lot of prayer.

"The Lord has really blessed us by allowing this experience to bring us together rather than tear us apart," Sandra says. "When times were toughest, Tim decided not to give up on me — and that decision has radically changed our lives."