In one of his books, psychiatrist Frankl debunks a false notion of spirituality, namely, that believers in God, people who are faithful or devoted to the Lord, cannot be depressed. He writes,
“A Carmelite sister was suffering from a depression which proved to be somatogenic. She was admitted to the Department of Neurology at the Poliklinik Hospital. Before a specific drug treatment decreased her depression this depression was increased by a psychic trauma. A Catholic priest told her that if she were a true Carmelite sister she would have overcome the depression long before. Of course this was nonsense…. I was able to free the patient of the effects of the traumatic experience and thus relieve her depression over being depressed. The priest had told her that a Carmelite sister cannot be depressed.”1
Catholic nuns, then, and priests, too, can become depressed. The reason is that believers in God are human beings. That is to say, they are “fallen,” finite, fallible creatures. In that sense, no religious person is immune from being depressed. For example, the psalmist or biblical poet is struggling with some kind of depression, probably from being in exile, away from the worship of God in the Holy Temple of Jerusalem. The poet writes,
“Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him” (Psalm 42:5, NIV).
But the poet’s depression did not end all at once by making a declaration of faith and hope. So he says again, “My soul is downcast within me” (Psalm 42:6a, NIV). And still again, the psalmist says, in a poetic refrain,
“Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God” (Psalm 42:11, NIV).
Thus, depression is very real for the person suffering from it. However, in some Christian circles, there is an a priori refusal to believe that Christians can be depressed. For example, a Christian woman, suffering from depression, approached a minister for spiritual help, but he rebuffed her, saying, “I won’t pray for you, because depressed people feel sorry for themselves and God doesn’t condone that.”2
My advice to those struggling with depression — from my own battles with it, reading scholarly and popular books about it and lecturing on it in my medical ethics course — is as follows. First, try to pursue sensible methods of self-healing, such as prayer, taking good care of one’s health, say, in being concerned about a proper diet, adequate sleep and exercising regularly. Talk to a trusted friend about the problem. Second, if there is no relief from the depression, talk about it to a pastor, spiritual counselor or psychotherapist. Third, if there is still no relief, consider making an appointment with a psychiatrist. In particular, find a psychiatrist that either respects or subscribes to your religious world view. Medication may be needed to treat the depression. Fourth, beware of a false spirituality, which makes faith and reason, religion and medicine, “enemies” of each other. After all, the same God who gave human beings faith, which is an act of the will, moved by grace, also gave them reason to discover medicines that promote the healing of the brain and other bodily ailments. Faith and medicine, then, properly understood, are “friends, not “foes.” Fifth, do not allow pride (e.g., “I must be a weak in going to see a professional counselor or psychiatrist”) to get in the way receiving help and, ultimately, healing. Sixth, remember the religious principle of “love your neighbor as yourself,” realizing that true self-love will always care for the self it loves.
Thus, depression is no respecter of persons. It afflicts people from all religious persuasions or no religion at all. But there is help for those who are searching for it. Therefore, “Seek and you shall find” or, perhaps more accurately translated, “Keep on seeking and you shall find.”
- Cf. Viktor E. Frankl, The Will to Meaning: Foundations and Applications of Logotherapy (New York, N.Y.: New American Library, 1969, 1st printing 1970), pp. 131-132.
- Dwight L Carson, M.D., Why Do Christians Shoot Their Wounded?: Helping (Not Hurting) Those with Emotional Difficulties (Downers Grove, IL.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), p. 14.