Depression and Black Dog Beliefs

What We Think Matters

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Yes, clinical depression is a serious medical condition. But what we believe also has a big role to play. I’ll explain, next on BreakPoint.

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I’ve got to admit, I was surprised—and touched—by the number of positive emails and comments I received from BreakPoint listeners in response to my commentary on the death of Robin Williams and the scourge of depression.

In that commentary, I focused on the fact that clinical depression is a serious medical condition—and if you or a loved one suffers from it, you need to get help.

Today, I want to talk about another aspect of depression: the role that our beliefs can play in our moods. As someone who’s suffered from depression, I can tell you, it’s complicated. In addition to infelicitous brain chemistry, it can also be a product of our personal circumstances and the beliefs through which we interpret those circumstances.

Let me be clear from the start: People can believe all the right things and it still might not be enough, as the tragic story of Matthew Warren illustrates. Why this is the case is something that we will not understand this side of eternity.

But this is not the same thing as saying that our beliefs are immaterial when it comes to depression and suicide. Therapists treating people for anxiety and depression often use what’s known as “cognitive behavioral therapy,” which starts from the assumption that the illnesses are due, in part, to “maladaptive thinking.”daily_commentary_09_03_14

Anyone who has struggled with depression knows what “maladaptive thinking” feels like: a “tape” of sorts running in your head filled with largely untrue messages of helplessness and hopelessness. Since people believe that what they think is true, the thoughts influence our actions and our moods. Overcoming depression requires turning the tape off, which is easier said than done.

If untrue thoughts play a role in depression, doesn’t it stand to reason that we should be concerned about the cultural messages and trends that can shape the content of those thoughts?

Obviously, brain chemistry and our personal history are more influential, but it would be unwise to ignore the impact of culture.

Case in point: at the recent Emmy Awards, comedian Sarah Silverman half jokingly told the audience “we’re all just made of molecules and we’re all hurling through space right now.”

It’s hard to imagine a more succinct summary of the nihilism and materialism that dominates cultural discourse. Hardly a week goes by without a story telling us that “science” has found that qualities that make us human—love, altruism, the appreciation of beauty—are just molecules doing their thing in our heads.


This kind of thinking reduces human existence to, as Shakespeare famously put it, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.” It makes “not to be,” to reference Shakespeare again, a reasonable response to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and the sea of troubles.

What it doesn’t do is give us a reason to choose life even in the midst of pain.

For that you need hope. A good friend of mine who also suffers from depression has taken to praying certain Psalms when he feels what Churchill called “the black dog on my shoulder.” For instance, such as Psalms 42 and 43 with their refrain “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? ” and the Psalm which our Lord prayed on the cross, Psalm 22, which opens with the great cry of abandonment, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

He prays them because, while they do not deny the pain, they don’t let pain have the last word. We are told to “Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,” and also “I will live for the LORD; my descendants will serve you.”

This is what hope looks like. It’s the tape we all need running in our heads.

Next Steps
Depression and Black Dog Beliefs: What We Think Matters

There is no one-size-fits-all cure for depression. But there is help for those who need it. The links below are to a few of the many resources and organizations available.


The Asphyxiation of Hope: Robin Williams, Suicide, and Depression
Eric Metaxas | BreakPoint.org | August 20, 2014

A series of articles on depression by Dr. Bruce Hennigan and others is introduced at this link
Focus on the Family

What is Depression?
National Institutes of Health

Depression Support Center

Depression Resource Center

Available in the online bookstore

What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Do: Discouragement & Depression
Henry Cloud, John Townsend | Thomas Nelson Publishers | September 2009


Thanks so much for your comments. I, too, have struggled with depression my whole life, as has most of my immediate family. It was so bad for me that, in 2007, I attempted suicide (thank God it was unsuccessful). It is very encouraging to know that a prominent person like yourself has also battled that 'black dog', and come out on the other side. Thank you for recommending the Psalms you referred to, and for helping to lift the stigma of mental illness that's still too prevalent in the Christian community. God bless you!!
Depression Fallout
Grateful for your piece on Robin Williams and for this personal piece as well. Your vulnerability in sharing some of your story gives me personal hope and a hunger for more theological reflections on mental health. I live this daily with my beautiful wife and I think our son is headed on a like journey as well. A friend has coached me through some of the depression fallout by encouraging me to "not rush to Easter morning", like Fr. Richard Neuhaus wrote, but "to stay awhile on Good Friday". I have been learning to not rush to superimpose God's victory over my own pain or my wife's story, but to "hold it" (feel it, acknowledge it) and to allow God to "hold us" in all of our brokenness because our hope is in Him. And what I'm learning and experiencing day by day is God's healing and sustaining grace. My arduous journey has been like helping an ostrich remove his head out of the sand.
Thanks for this piece on depression. What you said at the end is SO true! The Psalms have that power to take us from despair to hope, I've found that out, and am grateful that somebody else does too. It counters what we hear in Christian circles that Christians don't get depressed, but are happy all the time. They've never read the Psalms, which are full of laments and doubts by godly people.

I went through a deep time of despair and doubt where I was even doubting God's goodness, when I stumbled across Psalm 77, which echoed those very doubts, and took me from that deep pit to a place where I saw that God hadn't left me as I thought. It gives such a realistic view of the Christian life that they should be our regular meditation. I almost said medication, but that is true as well.
Thanks so much for this piece and the previous one on Robin Williams. I am so thankful that I had several wise therapists to help me through my battles with depression. I try to encourage others to go seek help sooner rather than later, but am always so disheartened by the continued stigma people--even grace-filled believers--have against seeking help for struggles with mental health. I always tell them therapy is like getting a new pair of glasses for their heart and mind--if their physical vision is blurry, wouldn't they want that fixed? So too, we need our heart's vision of how we interpret life corrected on many occasions. So, many thanks again for continuing to talk about this,
Julie Sumner