[To clarify, before reading this post, I do understand that ‘depression’ is a symptom of many different illnesses, and that there is a difference between physical and emotional depression. For the purpose of my point, I’m using the term ‘depression’ to refer to Major Depression as a mental illness in itself, and Grief as a separate affliction, of which physiological depression is a symptom]
One of the greatest misconceptions about depression is it being used as a synonym for, or interchangeable with, grief. This is why so many people seem to believe that you can “snap out” of depression, or perhaps that you’re not putting in a great enough effort to “get over” it.
We need to set this straight: Grief and Depression are not the same.
One of my old gym clients was previously a neuropsychologist, who had then retired to work as an assistant to a neurosurgeon. We got onto the topic of the prevalence of depression and anxiety in western societies, and she explained to me that a major part of the problem is that our culture has lost the ability to grieve.
The symptoms of grief, or prolonged mental trauma, are not to be belittled. They are the symptoms of depression, and carry the weight and hopelessness of the mental illness. And to clarify, many people who struggle with this cannot simply “snap out of it”, either. They may be grieving due to an event that they cannot even recall, or they may be grieving and trying to overcome a physical or emotional trauma in a world that has not taught us how to, and does not accept nor allow the necessary processes for grieving and healing.
However, there are processes for identifying (which can often be the most difficult part), understanding, accepting, and moving past these traumas – and this is good news! I’ve known many people who battled with anxiety and ‘depression’ for many, many years, who were able to (or are in the process of) restoring their mental health through appropriate processes. And it’s amazing to see how they’re taking their lives back and excelling in their relationships and work!! Though, it must be said, for some people this process can take years, and can be excruciatingly slow and uncomfortable. So, though their depressive symptoms may be attributed to unidentified and/or unresolved grief or trauma, their struggle cannot be belittled and should not be stigmatised.
This may not sit well with some people, but I would say that of everyone who struggles with the symptoms of depression, very few have faced true major depression. Whereas grief is like an infection from an open wound, which can be fatal if left untreated, depression is like cancer.
If you’re afflicted with true depression, you cannot reason it away. There is no identifiable cause, and no emotional resolution that will allow you to overcome it.
Some people can exercise, eat well, get enough sleep, take time off for themselves, socialise, reflect, and write out their innermost thoughts, but all to no avail.
The problem is, people – including health professionals – refuse to try different strategies or to accept that there is no underlying cause to identify and work through. This may be why those who have struggled with depression and have done all the right things in terms of health care still take their own lives; no one has given them hope for another way out.
I never really connected with the experiences of those around me when they talked of their battle with mental illness. To some extent, yes, but I consistently found that my views, understanding, and afflictions seemed significantly different to most accounts.
I saw value in my life and hope for my future, but I still felt worthless and hopeless. I saw the benefit of work and enjoyed my job, but I still felt that it was pointless. I saw the good things in me, and appreciated the things I did well, but I still hated myself and saw no good in me. I knew I was intelligent and switched on, but I still felt that I was incredibly stupid. I knew I was a hard worker, and that I had integrity, but I still accused myself of laziness and corruption. I knew and believed that God had forgiven my sins and that there was nothing I could do to earn His grace, but I was still crushed with shame, and told myself I was unworthy to be loved and blessed by Him.
I could see the paradoxes. I could identify them, and I knew that the positive aspects were truly me, while the negative parts were… well, something else. Something not me, that was in me – in my mind, trying to take me over.
To be fair, in my case it was a little tricker. There were very clearly traumatic circumstances from my childhood and adolescence which were likely to have caused symptoms of depression or post traumatic stress if not dealt with. And again, to be fair, a lot of the reflection strategies and techniques they gave me did help a lot, to an extent. My frustration was that I kept trying to tell my doctors, psychologists, psychiatrist, friends, and teachers that I had done everything they were suggesting. I already knew everything they were trying to tell me.
The probable causes were not, in the end, the cause of my mental illness (although they exacerbated the symptoms); and if I had kept listening to the people who persisted in telling me they were, I might not be here today at all, but I definitely wouldn’t be here at seminary, writing this post.
While people who are battling depression should treat it as a result of unresolved grief, there are people who will come to the end of all the recommended procedures and processes, and will not find any resolution. For some, the more they try to accept the past, and move on and forward in life, the more they feel the weight.
Society needs to realise that these people exist, and that sometimes they will struggle with depression indefinitely – not for lack of desire or attempt at health, but because of the nature of mental illness.
The only advice that I can give to those who have gone through all the right processes (and I mean truly gone through them, not just through the motions of them) and tried their hardest to overcome depression but cannot seem to see an end, without bringing God into it, is to find the right medication with the help of a good doctor.
It won’t resolve the depression. It will provide you enough control over your emotions and thoughts to fight through each day, and be able to start finding beauty, joy, and reason to live. There may still be times when you have to fight. Some days will be harder than others, but that’s the life of a soldier – you make war against the darkness, and you keep fighting as long as there is the smallest amount of strength in you. You live each day, knowing that you fought for it, and knowing that you possess an unimaginable strength; a strength that this world needs.