When I was 23, I was undergoing a severe bout of depression. This was related to PTSD flashbacks that I had some traumatic life events that I experienced earlier in my life. However, during this state, many people became very troubled by the things I was experiencing. It is quite difficult to watch someone suffer because it causes us to feel pain as well. Some of them couldn’t handle what I was experiencing so they would come up to me and say, “You know, I heard about this book on this topic” or “Have you considered going on medication for this?” Obviously, these people didn’t want me to suffer, but it was also a reflection of what they saw as the cure for what I was going through.
If you see depression as a biological issue, as many psychiatrists do, you are going to prescribe medication. Why would you spend time on other “therapies” or “remedies” when this is a chemical imbalance in the brain? If you see depression as a psychological issue, why would you spend time on physical activities or getting involved in a church group when this is a “problem” with the way that we think about ourselves, the world, and our life?
The story of Job is interesting because it points to a similar reality. When Job is faced with desolation in his life, his “friends” came up to him and began asking him about how he may have sinned or done wrong that would have caused this to happen. Job’s friends were acting in a similar way that many people do when it comes to mental health. For Job’s friends, he needed to “fix” his relationship with God (which wasn’t true). For others, they want you to “fix” your biology or your thinking. This is problematic as it relates to spirituality because what it says is that there’s no place for brokenness or darkness in a person’s relationship with God. I want to use a quote by Addison Hodges Hart to illustrate two points,
“I want only to say here that to be completely devoid of melancholy in today’s world – a world rife with terrorism, war, a multitude of addictions, lack of moral direction, starvation, exploitation, poverty, pornography, abortion, senseless less violence (think of Columbine, think of Virginia Tech), vandalism, etcetera, etcetera – is to be lacking something thing vital to common humanity, whether one is overtly religious or not. It is to lack feeling in the most basic sense. If one understands that Mother Teresa’s own “darkness” was directly related to these somber facts of human life, conditions she faced daily and unblinkingly, one can also begin to understand, or at least intuit, how this was inevitably related to her faith.
Anything calling itself “faith” that sets itself against the essential human feeling that engenders melancholy is, in fact, a fraud. Even when melancholy becomes a malady, there are few things more intolerable, tyrannical, and oppressive than the inane injunction that “Thou shalt smile:’ When this absurd dictum goes on to get mixed up with mass-market religious drivel, such cheerfulness and baffling fling optimism are enough to drive a thoughtful believer to the brink of disbelief or even despair.”
The first point is that if human relationships and feelings are necessary for our spirituality, then depression (or melancholy as Hart and others prefer to call it) is a necessary experience and reaction to the brokenness that we find ourselves in. Secondly, if human beings are going to have vibrant relationships with humanity, with themselves, and with God, we need to be able to cry out and vent the brokenness we experience and witness. The Bible and the Christian tradition are witnesses to a God who redeems human brokenness and brings light out of it. To simply say this is a biological, psychological, or spiritual issue that needs to be “fixed” is to say that this is evil and it needs to be done. The Bible is clear that what Satan meant for harm, God will use for God.
The job of the Christian community is not to look at a DSM chart that says depression is, “the presence of sad, empty, or irritable mood, accompanied by somatic and cognitive changes that significantly affect the individual’s capacity to function.” but to understand that behind these phenomenon are stories. There are life events that have caused those feelings of sadness, emptiness, irritation and broken thought patterns. What Job needed was not someone going off a spiritual DSM checklist but friends who were present to him in his time of brokenness. It might be that people need to go on medication and to learn to adjust their thinking patterns but core to the human being is the need to be loved, to be cared for, to receive empathy and compassion, and to make sense of their broken lives. Those things might “fix” our biology or thinking, but it doesn’t necessarily heal the soul. John Swinton calls this understanding especially important to spiritual care,
“Therapeutic understanding is not a technique. Rather, it is a way of seeing the world and being with people which is sensitive to their inner experiences and the significance of these experiences for the therapeutic process. It is an approach, or perhaps better an attitude, that seeks to enter into the experience of people with mental health problems and in so doing focus on ways in which that experience can be understood rather than simply explained.”
The Church has a role in the caring and well-being of the world. One of our core tasks in doing so, in regards to health, is to look at somebody and not see a diagnosis but to see a human being. Sure this person may display symptoms of something that might get them labeled as “ill,” but that person won’t find healing unless they are seen, known, cared for and loved for who they are.
Hart, A. H. (2009). Knowing darkness: on skepticism, melancholy, friendship, and God. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub.
Swinton, J. (2001). Spirituality and Mental Health Care : Rediscovering a ‘Forgotten’ Dimension. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.