Depression is a common mental health problem said to afflict one in four or five people at some stage in their life. It can be caused by biological, mental, and social factors, or a combination of all three.
Although the word ‘depressed’ is commonly used to describe the temporary emotion of feeling low or downcast, the medical term ‘depression’ refers to an illness, also known as clinical depression or major depressive disorder. As opposed to temporarily feeling down, depression is a condition that pervades every part of a person’s life, and symptoms include loss of interest in life, overwhelming sorrow, obsessive fearful thoughts, fear that it will never end, having no hope for the future, and many other disturbing physical, mental, emotional and spiritual symptoms.
Depression is called the silent epidemic because unlike other diseases, it is not easy to recognise when someone is afflicted by it. The depression sufferers themselves also tend not to reveal or express what they are going through.
This could be because they do not know what is wrong with them or what could have caused such a wide variety of disturbing symptoms. The depression sufferer also may not want to talk about issues they find too embarrassing or painful due to concern that others will think less of them. There is also pressure, especially amongst Christian circles, to give the impression that we have got our act together. It is a difficult step for a Christian to admit that they are being swamped by fear, anxiety, guilt, and doubt. “What will others think of me if they knew I was like this?”
And unfortunately, in not knowing who to turn to for help, when a depressed person does attempt to share what they are going through, others, also lacking knowledge about depression, may tell them to get their life together or pull themselves out of it, or in Christian circles, “you just need more faith” or “you just need to rebuke the enemy.”
Many Christians focus obsessively upon the spiritual symptoms and therefore make the mistake of concluding that depression has a spiritual cause only. Therefore, instead of seeking the help they need, they try to escape from depression by reverting to spiritual solutions only.
I spent the first four months of my depression hiding from the world as far as was possible, not knowing what was wrong with me, reluctant to share what I was going through, and hesitant to seek help.
From my diary, 12th April ’90 –
"What is this storm that rages within me?
Why won’t it abate, why won’t it subside?
It comes in like a storm, and devours me.
And it won’t go away. It’s nearly four months now.
Four months of doing nothing, just hiding and hiding and waiting."
It is the lack of knowledge of depression and the way it operates that gives it so much power. The prophet Hosea warned us of the dangers associated with a lack of knowledge in Hosea 4:6. “My people are destroyed from lack of knowledge.”
If during my teenage years I had been taught about the fear-adrenalin-fear cycle, panic attacks, and practical coping techniques for dealing with fear and anxiety, my descent into depression in 1989 would not have been so severe or long-lasting.
Unfortunately, although I had attended thirteen years of school, teachers’ college with child psychology, and Bible College with a counselling component, none of the courses taught me specific details about depression or provided practical coping strategies.
Hence, when I slipped into severe depression at the end of 1989, I had no idea what was wrong with me. I spent hours recording my woes and symptoms in my diary in a futile attempt to work out what was going on. Here is an early entry:
31st Jan ’90 – I feel like the Melbourne weather. I regularly get extremely angry, very angry, even with God. And then, half an hour later, I want to cry, in despair and loneliness…I feel extremely sad for some reason. I even feel extreme momentary excitement every now and then. What has happened to me?
As the days turned to weeks and then to months, I feared I would never be able to escape the ‘thing’ that had overcome and crippled me. This diary entry from July ‘90, aptly summarises the bewilderment I was experiencing.
A Difficult Road
"How should I view my current condition?
This constant state of being ill at ease.
Is it an emotional condition causing physical stress?
Or a physical condition causing emotional stress?
I cannot work it out.
There are so many physical side effects that it could be physical.
Sometimes my shoulder muscles ache to abandon,
The aching pain in my jaw drives me crazy.
My face and arms get a burning, prickling sensation.
My stomach feels trapped, as though it needs to burst,
Or simply feels disturbed.
My chest feels like its going to explode,
And like my stomach, often feels ill at ease.
I’ve also suffered from flu symptoms since April.
These physical problems alone would be enough to cause emotional stress.
And as there are physical problems, so there are emotional ones.
I feel uncomfortable all the time, most notably while at work.
Frustration, irritation, anger and uncontrollable depression are ever present.
Words are inadequate to explain the emotional effects that afflict me.
They vary from a feeling that something big and dark will consume me,
To endless mental churnings that only makes me worse,
To those times where it is so faint that I can only just detect it.
These emotional problems alone would be enough to cause physical stress.
I wish I had a word to describe this ‘illness’ that assails me,
Is it ‘depression?’ I really don’t know."
I was eventually diagnosed with depression, but it was not explained to me in sufficient detail. What a relief it would have been to know that all of the symptoms I wrote in the diary entry above, as well as many others, were all caused by depression and anxiety.
In late July 1990 I read a very detailed description of depression and its symptoms. It was so liberating to learn what was wrong with me, how the fear-flight cycle was responsible for creating the disturbing symptoms, and that by changing how I reacted to those symptoms they would eventually cease. It encouraged me to learn that I was suffering from a common affliction, that I was not a freak.
Knowledge had replaced my ignorance, understanding had chased away my despair, and my hope had returned.
Here is an example of how truth and knowledge can set us free from fear. When my son was born at 1.30am, he was placed in a humidicrib because he could barely breathe. The nightshift nurses gave me little information regarding his ailment and I was greatly distressed. The following morning, however, another nurse explained to me that my son’s lungs had filled with fluid during the caesarean operation, a normal occurrence, and would drain naturally within three days. My fears abated and relief flooded through me, and sure enough, fifteen hours later his lungs had cleared and he able to leave the humidicrib.
It is my desire that all may be able to recognise depression’s symptoms in themselves or others, and know practical coping strategies to cope with and recover from it.
And then depression will no longer be a silent epidemic.
(All verses from NIV)
Peter Stone, a Bible College Graduate, has an international marriage and two children. Suffers from epilepsy and otosclerosis. He teaches Sunday school and plays the piano in church.
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