Just for a moment, imagine yourself at a local shopping center. A friend of yours walks up to you and has a stressed look on his face. He is sweating even though the temperature in the shopping center is quite cool. You ask him if he is ok. He states “I don’t think so. My chest is tight and hurts; I have a weird pain in my left arm, and I am having trouble catching my breath.” Hopefully, you recognize these as the primary symptoms associated with a heart attack, and would quickly call 911.
According to the Center for Disease Control, an estimated one in ten adults suffers from some form of depression. This type of depression is not just a “down” mood. It is an illness that has symptoms just like a heart attack has symptoms. Depression can also be fatal, if it continues without treatment. Some people do not see depression as an illness. In fact, some Christians assert that seeking counseling or taking medications to treat a real depressive disorder is unnecessary, evidence of a lack of faith, or even sinful. The healthiest approach to a depressive disorder involves a balance of faith in God’s presence and guidance, faith-integrated counseling, and medical intervention when necessary. God can heal depression just like God can heal cancer. However, sometimes God uses medical interventions, like faith-integrated counseling and medications, in that process.
First, recognize that an individual’s depressed mood may or may not be connected to a difficult experience. Certainly, when an individual has a loss or unexpected negative experience, it is healthy for that person to experience and express emotions associated with that loss or experience. In that situation, the first course of action might be to talk with a trusted friend, a close family member, or a pastor. Even if there is not an easily identifiable loss or experience that one can connect with the “down” mood, talking to one of these persons is still a positive first step. Depression, like heart disease, cancer, and other illnesses, tends to run in families.
If those conversations do not create significant relief, it is important to clearly look at a list of symptoms and determine if medical attention is the best course of action. Here is a list of the primary symptoms for a depressive illness:
• Depressed mood nearly every day for 2 weeks or more;
• Diminished interest in most activities that were previously enjoyed. (note: not a change in interests);
• Weight loss or weight gain that represents more than 5% of body weight without dieting or attempting to gain weight for a healthy purpose;
• Sleeping very little or sleeping more than 10 hours per day nearly every day;
• Observations by others that the impacted person is physically moving slow or shaking;
• Fatigue or loss of energy nearly every day;
• Feeling worthless or feeling excessive guilt without clear causal connection;
• Diminished ability to concentrate or make decisions nearly every day; and
• Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide.
Five or more of these symptoms indicates that the depressed mood may have become an illness. The reasons why are beyond the scope of this short article. The important factor is to know when to ask for help. The first step is to be evaluated by a licensed mental health professional. Most Christians prefer an individual who integrates the faith values of the individual into the conversations. If needed, that professional can refer to a physician who can evaluate for possible medications. Medication is not always needed.
Many Christians based their experience of their relationship with God on their feelings of connection with God. All Christians have periods where it feels like their prayers are hitting the ceiling and bouncing back. This is particularly true with individuals who are depressed. Feelings do not indicate God’s faithfulness. One’s understanding of God’s faithfulness should come from God’s Word and not one’s feelings. Likewise, one’s feelings about a particular illness or group of illnesses should not prohibit them from seeking medical treatment when it is needed. Depression, and some other mental illnesses, can be as serious as a heart attack.