I have struggled with anxiety and depression on and off for years (depression and anxiety are so inter-related that doctors are increasingly using the term ‘depression-anxiety’ when referring to depression). I have to say that I have many things in my life to be thankful for, and I can honestly say that I have seen God’s hand in my illness.
Before Christmas I had a small breakdown, and at the start of the year I went through a number of weeks of dark depression. This caused me to want to review what I had written on this topic. I am thinking about the question ‘is it unspiritual to be depressed?’ But before I address that question I want to look at some of the causes of depression.
The one thing that I want you to take away from this post is that depression and anxiety are multi-faceted, and therefore their treatment will involve a number of complimentary remedies.
What causes depression-anxiety?
Ed Welch explains that, ‘Depression is a form of suffering that can’t be reduced to one universal cause. Many factors may cause depression, and often more than one of these factors is at work in the depressed person’ (Ed Welch). I will mention some of the causes of depression-anxiety.
Depression is the result of living in a fallen world. The book of Genesis teaches that because of human rebellion, God has subject humankind to decay and death. Our bodies ache and deteriorate, and we are prone to physical and mental illness. David Murray points out that many people have a genetic predisposition to depression. The physical root of much mental illness is part of the reason why it is appropriate to take physical treatments like medicines. The fact that there are generally other factors contributing to depression is why medication alone will not be sufficient for its treatment in the long-term.
Depression can be the result of other people. People hurt us in a variety of ways. Many victims of abuse struggle with mental health issues in later life. I know a number of victims of childhood abuse, and the scars they live with lie very deep. Similarly, a friend of mine experienced terrible bullying when he was at school, and this has contributed to lasting mental pain. Another friend of mine was regularly woken by her mother in the middle of the night, simply so that the mother could tell her how much she disliked her. Many emotional problems can be traced to harsh, distant or unloving parents. When someone tells me that they struggle to relate to God, I often begin by asking them how they got on with their father.
Sometimes we are the cause of our depression. For example, anger is a notorious cause of depression. We can’t expect a joyous life if we are critical, bitter and unforgiving. However, it is not just sinful patterns of thought that contribute to depression. Lifestyle issues can trigger depression. You may be overworked and under-rested. There may be issues of illness and grief that you can do nothing about. I have noticed that many depressed friends have a tendency to feel an exaggerated sense of responsibility. They blame themselves for everything and take the concerns of the world on their shoulders. Some are prone to self-doubt and insecurity. Another feature I have noticed in the depressed is a tendency to be overly harsh or critical of themselves.
Related to this is the role of false-beliefs. If you think you are of no value, you will be prone to feeling depressed. The reformer Martin Luther struggled with depression. He claimed that his depression always focused on doubts about whether God is good or if he is good to me. Another false-belief that the depressed can suffer is the fear that they will never emerge from the darkness. That was something that terrified me in my recent bout of depression. I thought, ‘maybe this is the way I will be for the rest of my life.’ You will get better!
Satan is a factor in depression. Not in a wacky way, but in the fact that he will remind you of your past guilt, tempt you towards bitterness and seek to implant in you doubts about the goodness of God.
In Psalm 32, David links a time of depression to God’s discipline. He refused to face up to his sin, after his adultery with Bathsheba. So God’s hand was heavy upon him until he acknowledged his guilt. However never assume that someone’s depression is God’s discipline, but always examine your heart to see if God might be drawing attention to issues he wants to deal with you. My experience is that many sensitive souls are far too quick to think that God might be disciplining them as they go through their depression.
Finally, there is a sense in which God stands behind all our depression. After all God rules over all that takes place in the universe. Enemies may wound us but God could shut their mouths. Similarly, our brain chemistry is not beyond his control. I have been greatly helped by words of the hymn-writer, John Newton, who said that ‘everything is needful that he sends; nothing can be needful that he withholds.’ The fact that God is in control may leave us with painful questions, but it is also one of the greatest sources of comfort. He has a purpose in this, though we may never know what it is. While God never does anything that he needs to apologise for, I do like the perspective of the person who said, ‘God does have an eternity to make it up to you.’