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Surviving and thriving in an age of depression

By Richard D. Dobbins

Depression, as a form of human suffering, has been around for a long time. In 4 B.C., Hippocrates referred to depression as "melancholia" or "the black humor."

In the midst of a battle with depression, Abraham Lincoln wrote, "If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth." Winston Churchill confessed to being "hounded by the mad dogs of depression."

Today in the Western world, however, depression is more prevalent than ever. Researchers are referring to our day as the "age of depression." Since World War II, each successive generation of Americans has shown higher rates of depression. Today, young people in their teens and 20s are 10 times more likely to suffer from major depression than their grandparents were 50 years ago.

Consequently, suicide is the second highest cause of death among teen-agers. (Automobile accidents are the first.) The old and very old are at a much lower risk for depression than are the young. For females in our society, the average age of onset for major depression is 15-19. For males it is 25-29.

Private physicians report that 48 percent of their patients suffer from some form of depression.

What is depression?

Here is the definition given by the national association for mental health: Depression is an emotional state of dejection and sadness, ranging from mild discouragement and downheartedness to feelings of utter hopelessness and despair.

Clinically, depression occurs as a cluster of the following symptoms: feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, a depressed mood due to a loss of pleasure or interest in usual activities, disturbance of appetite, sleep disturbance, loss of energy, feelings of worthlessness and guilt, difficulties in thinking and trouble concentrating.

In cases of severe depression there may be recurring thoughts of death and suicide.

Who suffers from depression?

Among Christians there seems to be a widespread but incorrect notion that emotional suffering of any kind is inconsistent with the Christian faith. That is, many in the church believe if one is reading the Bible and praying as one should, one should never have any emotional problems.

However, some of the most godly people I know have suffered from mental health problems. If you haven’t had any yet, be grateful. And, be compassionate toward your friends who may be going through severe emotional trials.

Even famous Bible characters suffered from depression.

Job, a man whose godliness was unsurpassed, experienced depression. He ends the third chapter of his book by lamenting, "I have no peace, no quietness; I have no rest, but only turmoil" (NIV). When you know the first two chapters of the book, you can understand why Job was depressed.

Even a casual reading of Psalm 42 tells you that David was depressed when he wrote it. You cannot read Samuel’s account of David’s life without being aware that this "man after God’s own heart" frequently suffered from depression.

Picture Elijah under the juniper tree praying, "I have had enough, Lord. Take my life. I am no better than my ancestors." This desperate prayer can only come from a depressed prophet.

Why do people suffer from depression?

Depression is a normal phase of the human emotional cycle. In a healthy person these feelings may last from a few hours to a few days. As a rule of thumb, if your depression does not last longer than four days, consider it to be a normal part of the mood swings of life.

Then, at times, depression may be a secondary symptom of a primary physical problem. In that event, see your medical doctor. When your physical problem is resolved, your depression will go.

Depression also may be a neurochemical problem. One may want a second opinion before accepting this diagnosis. However, in the event your depression is neurochemical in origin, medication will be needed until God provides a more perfect form of healing. When the brain needs medication, one should not discriminate against this marvelous organ of the body. If one medicates the heart, the pancreas, the stomach and the liver when needed … why not the brain? And, when neurochemicals are the problem, proper medication will enable the person to live a normal life.

Frequently, depression is a normal response to serious loss. This kind of depression is often referred to as a "grief reaction." Recovery from this kind of loss usually requires from 6-18 months. During this time, the person will move through four predictable stages of recovery:

Shock. This phase lasts from a few hours to a few days. When one is in shock, nothing seems real. The tendency is to think that one is having a bad dream. One expects to wake up and discover that the tragedy did not occur. However, the bad dream proves to be a reality. One is not asleep.

Storm. This stage may last from several weeks to several months. When one is going through the storm, the emotional conflict seems unbearable at times. During the storm it is important to remember that Jesus is there with you. As you trust Him, He will still the storm. Storms pass. Thank God, they don’t come to stay.

Search. This is the time when one attempts to make sense of what has happened. The big question is, "Where is God in all this?" How one reacts to this phase of recovery will determine whether one comes through the storm a bitter person or a better person.

Sequel. One’s life after the crisis is never the same. Crisis changes a person – for the better or for the worse.

What can I do?

When faced with the challenge of depression, here are some practical steps you can take:

• Find comfort and encouragement from the Word of God and prayer. Focus on the Psalms from the Old Testament and the Book of Philippians from the New Testament.

• Confide your troubles in a trusted friend. Research indicates that talking about your emotional pain is an effective way of dealing with depression.

• Plunge yourself into productive activities. Stay busy. Brooding will only make things worse.

• Plan times of recreation and relaxation.

• Work at adopting a positive worldview. Focus on the change Christ has made in you. See the divine potential in others. Look toward a brighter future. "Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning" (Psalm 30:5).

Remember, depression is common to life. The fact that you may be depressed is not necessarily a commentary on your spiritual maturity. However, when you are depressed, don’t feed your depression. Life is too valuable to spend it in a grove of juniper trees.


Richard D. Dobbins, Ph.D., an Assemblies of God minister, is cohost of the Assemblies of God radio program, From This Day Forward. Dobbins, a psychologist, is also founder of EMERGE Ministries, a counseling center in Akron, Ohio

 

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