Depression: Who really understands it?
Over the last few years, we have become more informed about mental health concerns with a great deal of focus on depression. Some of our information has come from reading books, speaking to experts in this field and attending a couple of seminars. While that information is extremely important, it still leaves a broad measure of unknowns.
This, however, is what we know: a person can be diagnosed with clinical/endogenous depression or reactive depression. Clinical depression, which is also referred to as endogenous depression, is a result of a chemical imbalance in the brain. This imbalance is related to the misfiring of signals which causes the chemical balance in the brain to be off. As a result, the body goes into a depression until the balance has been stabilized. It is important to note that clinical depression may be hereditary, similar to diabetes or heart disease.
We also know that reactive depression is like the common cold of our emotional health. Our bodies react in a particular way when we are exposed to certain viruses. We may feel tired, achy, have a runny nose, etc. This is our body’s way of fighting the common cold to bring us to a point of getting better. During this time, we allow time for more rest and drink lots of fluids. We can recover relatively quickly from the common cold.
Similarly, reactive depression is an emotional reaction to the losses that we experience. When we experience a loss of some kind, different emotions will begin to surface and we need to give them attention. We have no problem giving attention to positive emotions such as excitement, joy, happiness and so on. But what about emotions like sadness, anxiousness, emptiness, inadequacy, fear and disappointment? Often we would perceive those emotions to be more negative than positive. We may even go so far as to believe that as a follower of Jesus Christ, we shouldn’t have such negative feelings, so we deny them and refuse to process them.
In his book, Recovering from Losses in Life, grief and trauma counsellor H. Norman Wright states:
“Loss is not the enemy; not facing its existence is. Unfortunately, many of us have become more proficient in developing denial than we are in facing and accepting the losses of life.
“Even if you attempt to ignore the loss, the emotional experience of it is implanted in your heart and mind, and no eraser will remove it. Whenever there is any kind of an attachment, a loss cannot be avoided when the tie is broken. Life is full of relationships with people, things, and dreams that break up. Then new attachments occur. As each change takes place, you need to experience the grief that accompanies it.”
When our pattern of responding to difficult emotions is to deny them, ignore them or push them down, eventually we may find ourselves displaying physical signs that force us to deal with our emotional health. It is at this point that we would be experiencing reactive depression. The longer we put off dealing with emotions, the longer it may take to recover to an emotionally healthy place.
Everyone experiences reactive depression at different times throughout their life. The severity and the length of time it may take to recover may differ from one person to the next, but we all experience “blue days” or days of discouragement.
In his article “Depressed, Stressed, and Burned Out,” Dr. Archibald Hart gives the following list of common symptoms of depression:
- Persistent sadness, anxiety, or an empty mood.
- Feelings of hopelessness and pessimism.
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and helplessness. (Depressed people may burst out crying for the slightest reason.)
- Loss of interest or pleasure in ordinary activities, including sex.
- Sleep disturbances such as insomnia, early morning waking, or oversleeping.
- Eating disturbances (either loss of weight or gain in appetite and weight).
- Decreased energy, fatigue, and being slowed down.
- Thoughts of death or suicide, and even suicide attempts.
- Restlessness and irritability.
- Difficulty concentrating and remembering, and in making decisions.
- Physical symptoms such as headaches, digestive disorders, and chronic pain that do not respond to treatment.
Those are the things that we know about depression. What about those unknowns? How do we take what we know about depression and transfer it from the textbooks to the life experience of everyday?
When someone has a broken arm, their injury is noticeable and we know what they are dealing with without asking. When someone struggles with depression, how do we know what is going on? How can we provide support? Further still, where is that fine line between providing healthy support versus enabling a person to remain depressed? There is a big difference between coming alongside as a support while they make the difficult steps towards healing versus doing the difficult steps for them because we don’t want to add more than they say they can handle.
I (Pauline) have attempted to offer support to some very close friends who have battled with depression. I say attempted because at times it seems that I have more questions than answers for them. I am the kind of person that likes to fix things. I’m a problem solver. When I see a need, I am more than willing to step up and get done what is necessary to fill the need so that the “problem” is solved. It is embarrassing to admit that sometimes I have used my fix-it approach as a means of support for those that battle with depression. My intentions may have been honourable, but in my haste to get the problem solved, I have forgotten the importance of just being there. This was shown very clearly to me a number of years ago when my husband was going through a very difficult time. I was at a loss as to how to “fix” things. But I would soon learn a profound lesson on how to care for someone.
A number of years ago, I (Sam) was dealing with some very dark times. I had gone to a morning service in a house church where there was just a small group of men attending. During a time of sharing, I mentioned that I was finding it difficult to get motivated to work and to focus. I was consumed with many negative thoughts and feelings and wasn’t sure how to get better. When I was finished talking about how I was feeling, one of the gentleman spoke up and told of his personal experience with depression. When he finished sharing his experience, he turned to me and said, “I don’t know the answer to your situation but the next time that you are just lying there, give me a call and I will come and lie down beside you.”
When Sam told me that, tears came to my eyes. It was such a picture of pure, genuine care and support. I learned a lot that day.
So how can we help our spouse, a close friend or a family member who is showing signs of depression? Sometimes we can see them going into a situation where they have just been faced with a loss; the passing of a loved one, loss of a job, broken relationship, loss of reputation and the list can go on. Whenever there is a type of loss experienced, be mindful to take note of whether or not there is a time of grieving or mourning. Our society has taught us to be efficient and, unfortunately, we have allowed this concept to define how we should process losses. We try to find the quickest, most efficient way to move on rather than taking the time necessary to own the pain and the hurt and allow the wound to heal fully. Giving our loved ones permission to grieve may be the most helpful gift you can give them.
What happens when you are in ministry and dealing with depression? If you are the pastor, do the people you work with understand what depression is? They don’t need to have a comprehensive understanding, but is there an acknowledgement that something is wrong? Are we considered weak if we are dealing with depression? Do we consider ourselves weak? Would you consider someone else weak if they were struggling? These are some of the questions that we wrestle with. We do tend to be hard on ourselves and it may be that our community of believers would be quicker to come alongside and offer support if we would allow them to.
The Scriptures speak of being downcast, in despair and, in some cases, depressed. The Bible does not clarify between the different types of depression that we are aware of today; however, it does validate the presence of depression among people throughout the ages. King David, the apostle Paul and, more recently, Charles Spurgeon are just a few names that come to mind when we talk about using this type of language.
“Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me?” (Psalms 42:11)
“For even when we came into Macedonia our flesh had no rest, but we were afflicted on every side: conflicts without, fears within. But God, who comforts the depressed, comforted us by the coming of Titus; and not only by his coming, but also by the comfort with which he was comforted in you, as he reported to us your longing, your mourning, your zeal for me; so that I rejoiced even more.” (2 Corinthians 7:5-7)
We may need to walk with someone else; someone might need to walk with us. Remember this happens in the context of life. We don’t know how it will play out, we have to live it. Relationships are very important at this time. Interestingly enough, this is when we may not want to be close to anyone, and that presents its own challenge. It takes a lot of patience.
To be proactive is always better than to react to situations in life. This applies to spiritual, emotional and physical health. This would include proper lifestyle habits of healthy eating, sufficient sleep and regular exercise. Another way to be proactive in maintaining good emotional health is to identify negative habits that we may have developed that contribute to negative thoughts. Having a truth-based, positive outlook is what Romans chapter 12 is referring to. Taking every thought captive and renewing our minds with what is true can provide a solid foundation to process the emotions that surface.
When we are providing support for someone who is struggling with depression, it is very important to develop boundaries so that you can take care of yourself too. If you are, in fact, caring for someone who is dealing with depression, you must give yourself the permission to make sure you take time to be rejuvenated as well. Maintaining your own emotional health will provide a much-needed environment of sustainability.
In the world of emotional health, there is no perfect formula that is guaranteed to work within a specific time frame. After all, we are all different. If you or someone you love is showing signs of depression, speak up, go to a doctor, seek professional counselling. We all need a safe place, a good physician, some spiritual guidance and trusted friends to be able to walk with us.
If you would like to speak to one of our registered counsellors, call 1.888.5.CLERGY, Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Pacific time and get connected.
H. Norman Wright, Recovering From Losses in Life (book)
Dr. Archibald Hart, Unmasking Male Depression (book)
Shelley Beach, The Silent Seduction of Self-Talk (book)
Dr. Archibald Hart, “Depressed, Stressed and Burned Out” (article)
Sam and Pauline Doerksen are the program directors at our Kerith Retreats Manitoba location. For more information on our retreats visit KerithRetreats.ca.