I confess that I get nervous every time I hear a spiritual teacher or preacher announce that they are going to speak about depression because depression is a medical condition that, I believe, does have a spiritual component – especially when it comes to recovery – but isn’t completely one or the other. When spiritual teachers and preachers “teach” about depression it is most often done with a startling lack of medical knowledge required to intelligently discuss the issue. Here’s an example, with identifying details removed:
Are you depressed, despondent and troubled about an uncertain future? Scripture admonishes, not to conform to the pattern (pathos) of this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of your mind. How does conforming to this world impede or impact mental transformation or for some, cause depression and anxiety? Join me…we will discuss overcoming depression and how to renew your mind when facing disappointment.
Those are all very good questions, but they aren’t the whole story when it comes to depression. We need to realize – and work to change – the truth that contemporary culture is very confused about the difference between having a bad week and being clinically depressed.
One of the possible results of long-term stress is actually a reduction in the level of brain chemicals such as serotonin. When this has happened, you can engage in all of the cognitive reframing in the world and listen to all of the New Thought gurus in the world tell you that the problem is your thinking (which is true, as far as it goes), but the volitional decision to change your thinking simply cannot win the battle with depleted brain chemistry any more than my choice to believe I can run a four-minute mile is going to make it happen, no matter how much training I do.
Those of us who suffered abuse for years don’t become depressed because we lack perspective, we become depressed because we can’t see any way out – at least partly because of altered brain chemistry. It’s only the combination of medicine and therapy that are going to have an impact – and some of us, like me, may have to be on maintenance doses of medication the rest of our lives. That’s not weakness or lack of perspective, it’s being a responsible steward of our bodies and health. When spiritual teachers or pastors wade into the complex reality of depression without adequate knowledge and start peddling home-made solutions based on superstition and misinformation, they do everyone who comes in contact with their nonsense a disservice. In fact, one of the things I emphasize with the clergy I am responsible for over and over again is that we cannot be reluctant to refer people to other specialists as appropriate. We wouldn’t tell someone having a heart attack to just generate thoughts that they are fine (I hope), rather we would call 911 for them. Our response to depression should be no different. After all, it can be just as life threatening as that heart attack.
We need to be very wary of pat answers to any of life’s problems, and the more complex the problem the more wary we should be. Well meaning but ill equipped folks offer all kinds of solutions to all sorts of problems. As consumers, we need to do our research and exercise due diligence before following anyone’s recommendations – even mine!