As a general physician, I was interested in mental health as a speciality and a theological foundation for approaching mental illness. I used to teach and help others view mental health issues in a holistic way; not only from a biomedical point of view. But I never imagined I would be facing this myself.
During a season of stressful work, I started waking up in the morning with no motivation to work. Often I could not sleep at night and woke up feeling extremely low. I knew that I was going through a cycle of depression for the first time, but not the last.
Despite the depression, with my workaholic and driven personality, it looked like I was managing well. But I began to feel that if I do not address my internal challenges, I might put others around me at risk. It made me turn for help and to receive support.
Shame and Ignorance about Depression
In India, depression often goes undiagnosed. There are many reasons why people with depression do not know they have it. Firstly, traditional gender socialisation creates different expectations. As a result, females internalise pain and males externalise pain.
Externalising pain can manifest as introversion for some and constant activity for others. If there is an underlying mental illness, it is suppressed.
Secondly, there is a stigma surrounding mental illness in India and ignorance about it. There are many challenges of journeying with depression. But the three major challenges I faced personally are a preoccupation with self, challenges in decision-making, and confusion in my personal spiritual journey.
The Challenges of Living with Depression
Preoccupation with Self
In seasons of depression, your mind is preoccupied with various thoughts about the self. This can manifest itself in several ways—a poor self-worth, lack of self-confidence, and self-loathing or self-hatred. The mind interprets distressing things happening around you and leads you to think you are the cause of it.
As a Christian, you do not feel spiritual when living with depression.
Externally, this can manifest itself in a desire to protect or to promote the self. We seek self-protection by isolating ourselves from other people and any social situations that seem distressing. We seek self-promotion through indulgence in things that provide pleasure, burying ourselves in work, or taking control of people and situations.
Depression affects all kinds of decisions and choices we must make. Even the simplest decisions can seem impossible in depression. An overreach of the neurotransmitters and hormones cloud the mind, heart, and soul. Our intellect and emotions are affected and it weakens our decision-making capacity.
The Personal Spiritual Journey
Though understood well as an illness or a personality trait, it is challenging to feel a deep sense of torment, low moods, the feeling of worthlessness, and the general feeling of not being well.
As a Christian, you do not feel spiritual when living with depression. You feel you are of no worth. God’s presence seems distant and far. You cannot make sense of why you are going through such a season when others are healthy.
You have a relationship with God and are trying to walk with him. But when you go through such seasons, even the life of faith seems far and distant.
How do we live and survive through such seasons? Three key things that help in my journey are community, spiritual habits, and returning to the truth of the gospel.
The Gifts of Grace for Living with Depression
Communities of Grace to Undermine Preoccupation with Self
Real relationships and deep community should be the primary support structure in living with depression. Faith communities can help in returning us to the reality of our worth in Christ.
Spiritual friendships can support us in reminding us that we are created in the image of God, accepted, and loved by God. These communities serve as people of remembrance. In them, we remind each other how God has come through for us in the past. Even though our emotions are always changing, these people remind us he is an unchanging God.
Spiritual Grace to Strengthen Decision Making
There are three kinds of important decisions we must take in life. Firstly, the daily routines of life. These involve habits that we need to keep, no matter what the mind or heart is telling you. We need a will that acts independently of feeling.
In depression, the truth might not make sense to the mind. But it still needs to be spoken to the heart.
Secondly, the regular life activities of everyday life. This might involve more effort and planning. Without depression, these things could be done with much ease. But in depression, you start imagining the worst possible scenarios.
Thirdly, there are big, one-time, life decisions. While going through depression decisions have the tendency to make you freeze. You are afraid you will make mistakes that you will regret later. In such times, we need the discipline of community.
The Gospel to Deepen Our Spiritual Journey
In true Christian fellowship, we can find people who will support, provide accountability, and become partners in your journey. A faith community that can give you the direction, courage, and support you need to make decisions with depression.
In depression, the truth might not make sense to the mind. But it still needs to be spoken to the heart. When there is an overreach of chemicals and hormones, you cannot trust your emotions and thoughts. This is what David did when he spoke to his downcast soul: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God” (Ps. 43:5).
In spiritual journeys, even when rituals and disciplines feel meaningless they serve a purpose. It was Martin Luther who said, “You cannot keep birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.” Spiritual disciplines and rituals can protect us from the cloud of despair taking permanent residence in us. It can provide you with relief from the constant state of feeling low.
Groaning with God in Depression
When your emotions are challenged by the overreach of neurotransmitters, it does not mean you are unspiritual. Your spirituality is beyond what you feel, what you experience, or what makes sense to you. Even in depression, who you are in Christ, does not change because of how you feel.
We might be unable to pray. Our prayers may only be groaning. But the apostle Paul reminds us that when we groan, we do so with the rest of the creation.
He says, “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:22-23).
The Redemption of Depression
What good can come out of such a journey? If managed well, seasons of depression can strengthen and build our faith and our lives.
As we recognise our psychological brokenness, we can grow in strength to embrace it and learn to live with. We learn the need to be authentic and live with openness and vulnerability. As we grow to depend on the grace of God, real fellowship, friends, and family, we become sensitive to others who struggle the same way.
In all the darkness of depression, we can walk with courage because we will never walk alone. For the gospel assures us that, “. . .we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15).
Even when we feel insecure, we can remain confident in Christ because through him. So, as the Scriptures say, “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16).