Thu | Oct 17, 2019

Michael Abrahams | An open letter to Christians about depression

Published:Monday | September 16, 2019 | 12:20 AM
Michael Abrahams

Last Tuesday morning, shortly after waking up, I checked my phone to see what was trending on Google. At the top of the list was the name ‘Jarrid Wilson’. I was not familiar with this person and was curious about him and why his name was at number one.

Unfortunately, the news was tragic. Jarrid had committed suicide. He had struggled with depression for years and had apparently reached the end of his tether. One more thing. Jarrid was a pastor.

He was an associate pastor at Harvest Christian Fellowship, a church in Riverside, California. However, in addition to performing pastoral duties, Jarrid and his wife, Julianne, founded Anthem of Hope, a non-profit organisation dedicated to helping churches manage members of their flocks afflicted with depression, anxiety and other mental-health issues. Wilson was outspoken about his own struggles with depression, but even as he fought his battles, he unselfishly helped others cope with theirs.

My reason for sharing this story is to let you know that believing in Jesus Christ does not necessarily insulate you from depression and other mental-health issues. There is a lot of stigma in general associated with mental illness. But conversations with some Christians have left me very concerned. There are many who are dismissive of depression and express beliefs that are erroneous and even potentially harmful.

For example, on a thread concerning depression on my Facebook page, a Christian insisted that if you have Jesus Christ, you cannot be depressed. On another thread concerning the actor and comedian Robin Williams and his suicide, a Seventh-day Adventist was harsh in his condemnation of Williams, insisting that he committed an unpardonable sin, and will be forever tormented in Hell.

The truth is that clinical depression is an illness. I am not talking about someone merely feeling sad. That will usually pass on its own. But clinical depression is a medical condition with well-defined diagnostic criteria.

If you have persisting symptoms such as sadness, changes in sleeping or eating habits, feelings of unworthiness, lethargy, wanting to isolate yourself socially, forgetfulness, impaired concentration, decreased libido, and loss of interest in activities you previously enjoyed, you may be experiencing clinical depression. If you entertain suicidal thoughts, it is even more likely that you are afflicted.

There are many Christians who have depression but suffer in silence. They are surrounded by fellow Christians who are ill-informed about the condition, and they fear judgement by their peers. They hear that all you need to do is have faith in Jesus and you will be fine. So, they are afraid that by admitting they have the condition, they will expose themselves as having weak faith or be told they are possessed by demons.

Research has shown that believers who attend church regularly have a lower risk of being depressed. Faith, a sense of belonging and associating with people who are like-minded and who accept you, is good for your mental health. But decreased risk does not equate to exemption.

You will hear testimonials from people who claim they were depressed and prayed about it and were healed. But please be aware that testimonials are not as objective as clinical research. Sure, some of these people may have recovered after prayer and fasting, but not everyone will have the same experience.

Depression has different causes. Some of us are genetically predisposed, some sink into it after traumatic experiences, some women develop it after delivery, and other people experience it while taking certain medications.

Prayer and faith will not have the same effects on everyone. Someone may have sunk into deep depression after a failed relationship, job loss and financial hardship and recovered after praying and asking God for help, and if they did, good for them. But a person who is genetically predisposed, with a strong family history, and is a survivor of childhood sexual, physical and emotional abuse, may not be that fortunate.

The management of depression involves psychotherapy and, in some cases, anti-depressant medication. Contrary to popular belief, these drugs are not addictive, and can be lifesaving. However, like any drug, some may have side effects, so it is important to let your doctor know if this happens.

Also, pay attention to your lifestyle. Keep toxic people out of your space if possible and avoid being in theirs. Exercise regularly and eat healthily. There is no magic bullet that will make depression disappear, and a holistic approach is essential.

What about prayer? Yes. Pray. Pray and ask others to pray for you. If you feel happy attending your church, keep going, and get involved in church activities, especially outreach programmes that help others. On the other hand, if you are uncomfortable at your church, and its doctrines cause you to feel even more depressed, it may be in your best interest to find another place of worship.

I will leave you with a heart-breaking quote from one of Jarrid’s tweets on the day of his death:

“Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure suicidal thoughts.

Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure depression.

Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure PTSD.

Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure anxiety.”

Michael Abrahams is a gynaecologist and obstetrician, comedian and poet. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and michabe_1999@hotmail.com, or tweet @mikeyabrahams.