Dealing with Depression

First we must recognize the problem. Then we'll find the solutions.
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Snowy sludge. Gloomy noon skies. Christmas credit card debt. No new movies that are any good. By the time January arrives, many Christians are depressed. That means they wonder what's wrong with them—or their faith.

Neither mere January blues nor clinical depression has much to do with flawed faith. From the prophet Elijah to C. S. Lewis, people of deep faith have battled depression. For Elijah, it was more than post-holiday letdown: He'd called down fire from heaven on an unruly crowd of idol worshipers, leading to massive spiritual revival, before succumbing to suicidal thoughts (1 Kings 19:4).

C. S. Lewis, for his part, became more outgoing after his conversion, but that did not end his bouts with depression. Armand M. Nicholi Jr., author of The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life (Free Press, 2003), notes that the Oxford don's relationship with God became the foundation for all his happiness. Nicholi commented to Christianity Today editor David Neff that Lewis once remarked that God cannot give us "happiness apart from Himself, because it is not there, there is no such thing."

Freud, of course, had a different take: Apart from pleasures (and sex the greatest of these), there is no happiness. Thus equating happiness with pleasure, and pleasures often being scarce, Freud said humans basically were not designed to be happy. Lewis, meanwhile, took joy in everyday pleasures—a hot bath, great music, a sunset—as gift from God.

Inability to enjoy a sunset anymore, though, may owe to those wintry clouds blotting it out. It's that time of year when a shortage of daylight leaves people with SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). The National Mental Health Association reports in a Gannett News Service piece that about 25 percent of populations that suffer drastic seasonal lighting changes experience some kind of winter blues—and 5 percent of those develop serious SADness requiring medication and even hospitalization. More people will be affected by a milder form of SAD as less daylight sets off the hormone melatonin—mellowing energy level and mood, while making stomachs hungrier than usual. Any Christmas candy left?

Many Christians have been taken in by a subset of the health-and-wealth gospel. Dwight L. Carlson, author of Why Do Christians Shoot Their Wounded? (IVP, 1994), calls it the emotional-health gospel. Like the health-and-wealth preaching that those who are truly faithful will invariably prosper physically and financially, the emotional-health gospel declares those of true faith will be ever free of mental problems.

At least 15 percent of us are suffering serious emotional problems at any given time, according to Carlson. Many in the church feel they must hide their wounds from the brethren. Should the church be a place of healing? Yes, but Carlson avers that it's not unbiblical for Christians to look for healing outside the church. "If my car needs the transmission replaced, do I expect the church to do it?" he asks.

The answer to that would be yes, though, if you were attending Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, which just happens to have a car repair ministry. But generally Christians need not be shamed away from seeking professional help for serious automotive or mental conditions. Carlson says 40 percent of all people who need emotional help seek it first from the church, and that some of these will require mental-health professionals. He'd like to see church leaders (not just pastors) become informed enough about Christian therapists to knowledgably refer suffering brothers and sisters to them.

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