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.
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.”
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.
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
What is Depression?
National Institutes of Health
What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Do: Discouragement & Depression
Henry Cloud, John Townsend | Thomas Nelson Publishers | September 2009