The Causes (and Cures) of Depression: 1 in a Series

This is the first of several sermons on this subject.

I want to talk to you about depression. A neuropsychiatrist from UCLA says that, “If you want to imagine what depression feels like—just imagine that you have jet lag, combined with an overwhelming grief.”

A major depression occurs daily for more than two weeks—sometimes a lot longer. Symptoms include:

  • Poor appetite and weight lost, or increased appetite and weight gain.
  • Sleep problems, whether too much or two little
  • Restlessness or sluggishness
  • Loss of interest in or pleasure in one’s usual activities, including work
  • A decreased sex drive
  • Feelings of worthlessness and/or guilt
  • Problems with concentration or memory
  • Thoughts of death, including thoughts of suicide, or wishing one was dead

Some people think that depression is special hell reserved for a troubled few.

This is not so. Depression affects a great many people. Some have suggested that we already live in “an Age of Melancholy.” On any given day some form of depression—from major to minor, affects c. 20 million Americans. One study projects 50% of Americans with major depression go untreated, and only 21% get the properly accepted treatment. The World Health Organization says that by the year 2020, depression will rank second only to heart disease as a disabler of persons. In America It already ranks first among women and fourth overall. One in five people will experience a major depression in our lives.

Depression has a number of causes.

People are often depressed when we think we have lost something—a promotion at work, a job, an investment, almost anything one perceives to be of great value.

Today, many Baby Boomers are depressed over the loss of youth. The loss of youth is harder on our generation than it was on our parents generation. We were reared in a pop-culture that has idolized youth and beauty, and youth and beauty fade with the years. We are reminded of it each time we look in the mirror. Speaking of youth and beauty. It was my pleasure to know Mary Frances Sides’ father, the late Gaither Transou. Mr. Transou told me a joke I will never forget. He was in hospital. He said, “Worth there are only three kinds of people in the world, the good, the bad, and the ugly. If you want to know what kind you are, just look in the mirror.” At first I did not get it. I had already walked out of his room and down the hall before it hit me that one cannot tell if one is good or bad by looking in a mirror!

The culture of youth and beauty is even worse in the emerging generations. The youth of today worship the body, but few have the body image that they want. No wonder depression is striking at a younger and younger age, effecting teenagers and preteens.

People are often depressed when they lose someone that they love.

This is perfectly natural. The Bible never teaches that people of faith will not grieve. Rather, in 1st Thessalonians 4:13 we read that “we do not grieve as those who have no hope.” (1st Thess. 4:13)

One of my favorite movies is “Shadowlands,” staring Anthony Hopkins as C.S. Lewis, the great Christian theologian who taught at Oxford in England, and Debora Wringer, as Joy Davidson, the American divorcee who fell in love with him. Lewis first married Joy Davidson at her suggestion, so that she could legally remain in England. At first it was a marriage of convenience, then Lewis fell head over heels in love with Davidson. Then they discovered that she had a terrible cancer, one that would claim her life. In one scene they have driven into the English countryside to find “The Golden Valley.” They know it from a picture that has hung in Lewis’s house since he was a boy. They have looked for it, and found it. There, in the Golden Valley, Lewis anticipates his grief. He weeps. He tells Joy Davidson through his tears that he does not know what he will do when she is gone. She responds saying, “The grief you will feel for me after I am gone, will be but an extension of the love you feel for me now.” That is profound. It may take time to get over the loss of someone that we love. Many things are made better by the passage of time, but eventually a Christian discovers that his or her tears are not just bitter, and hopeless, they are bitter-sweet, because they remember the good, and they are filled with the prospects of a brighter tomorrow, in a land where there is no death, and no tears, and no sunset, and no dawning, but only the Eternal Light and Life of God.

Depression can be mental. It can be caused by something that happened long ago, that torments us not just consciously, but unconsciously.

In his book, Prince of Tides, Pat Conroy tells the story of a man who was the victim of a violent homosexual rape when he was just a little boy. He managed to bury it deep in his sub-concious. It was only after his marriage started falling apart that he turned to a therapist who helped him to uncover the deep cause of his depression. (Yep, there is more, but the more is not relevant to our discussion.)

In the past, on several occasions, I have known people who were abused as children or as young adults—in a range of ways. Some of these people buried the abuse for years, sometimes hiding it under layers of depression. Sometimes, their empathy for others in a similar situation forced them into therapy and into healing. Sometimes, they were shocked into remembering by something in their own lives. In either case, they started to unpack the long, heavy bag that our shadow selves drags behind us. I say “us,” for all of us put things that we find unpleasant away if we can. Depression can be mental.

Depression can be a result of stress.

Stress comes from living life at a pace that is better suited to the machines that should serve us than to the human beings that we are. I often fear that our lives are losing a human scale.

Let me tell you a story about culture shock. Some years ago I visited Sam and Lorena Gray in Ahuas, Hondouras. At that time, there were no roads and only two vehicles in the area, a tractor, and a jeep with no brakes. One night, after supper, and after a wonderful hymn sing with some of Sam’s students, I sat on the porch of Sam and Lorena Gray’s house and watched a man approach across the plain for ten minutes. He traveled several hundred yards. When he reached Sam’s gate, he threw up his hand in greeting and smiled. I returned his greeting. Then I watched for ten minutes more as he walked out of sight. Two weeks later, I returned to civilization in a small airplane. That did not shock me, in an airplane everything on the ground moves in slow motion. Then, I arrived in Tegucigalpa and got into a taxi. Suddenly, everything was moving so fast that I thought I was caught in a Keystone Cops movie. Everything was going 100 miles an hour. I experienced culture shock, and the culture that shocked me was my own.

Pastors have an unusual amount of stress. The average person maintains 40 close relationships. A pastor, especially a pastor in a large church, often feels as if she or he is maintaining hundreds of close relationships, or none. We are constantly a part of people’s lives during times of crisis, yet, except for weddings and baptisms, and an occasional birthday or anniversary celebration, we are seldom a part of their lives in the good times. Perhaps you find yourself in a similar situation. It is so easy for people in our world to lose life on a human scale.

Here is a bonus for those of you who are reading this: Researchers say that much of the worst long-term damage from depression can be linked to cortisol, a stress hormone. It is harmless in small doses, but ravages the body when pumped continuously into the system by depression or anxiety. It can rob us of our energy, our mobility, our sex drives, our memory, and (mark this well) our ability to feel basic human emotions. Some years ago a man came to me and said, “I no longer feel anything for my wife, my mother, my father, or my children. I used to lie awake at night and cry about this, but I have lost the capacity for tears.” He reminded me of the hero in Camus’s The Stranger, who is convicted of murder, largely because he had lost the capacity to feel basic human emotions. Perhaps the author was depressed? How could he not be. He once defined hell as “other people.”

Depression can be physical. Depression can be cause by a chemical imbalance in the body.

There are all kinds of chemical imbalances that affect us, some easier to identify and easier to treat than others.

I had an episode of depression when I lived for an extended period of time with hypo-thyroidism before it was discovered. I know what it is to depressed, and I know what it is to get help. It was my friend, the late Dr. F.I. Dorsett who discovered my problem. He visually diagnosed what several specialists were unable find with a battery of the wrong tests. Then he ran the right test, and I was feeling better within a couple of weeks.

Depression can also be caused by many of the things that we think of as symptoms:

  • Improper diet,
  • Inadequate rest
  • Lack of exercise
  • An extended illness, or a constant pain

I read recently that, in America, back-pain is a leading cause of depression.

Left untreated depression can contribute to an early death.

Depression can adversely affect the course and outcome of common chronic conditions, such as arthritis, asthma, cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, and obesity. Depression is one cause of suicide. Other depressed people allow themselves to dissipate gradually, over a period of years. The mention of “gradual dissipation,” reminds me that depression can also be a spiritual condition.

Depression can be spiritual. Now let us issue a word of caution here. Some religious people think that depression is caused by sin. This is not always so.

Some scholars have suggested that St. Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” may have been depression brought on by a combination of factors—poor eyesight, stress, an anxiety over the churches that drove him through “many a sleepless night,” competition with the “superlative apostles;” and, above all, the fact that his kinsmen, his race, had largely rejected Jesus, whom Paul absolutely, positively knew to be the Messiah. (Read 2nd Corinthians 11-12, 1st Corinthians 15 and Romans 9-11).

Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the great 19th Century English Baptist, who has been called “the prince of preachers,” suffered from depression most of his adult life. He treated his illness by smoking big, fat, Havana Cigars. His depression did not stop him from becoming one of the great Evangelists of the 19th Century.

It may even have enhanced his effectiveness. As Paul himself learned, “God’s strength is made perfect in human weakness.” (2nd Corinthians 12:9)

And what about Abraham Lincoln? Lincoln had every right to be depressed. His election divided the country, north and south. His law clerk from Illinois was the first Union Officer to be killed during the Civil War. He was killed in Washington City when he went into a place of business to take down a Confederate flag. Lincoln lost his younger son to a terrible illness. His wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, was depressed, and her depression made life hard for the President. His older Son, Robert, longed to be in the war, over his parent’s objections. At the height of the Civil War, Lincoln said, “If the misery I feel was equally divided among every member of the human race, there would not be a single smiling face among us.” Lincoln, too, had a right to be depressed.

Not all depression is caused by individual sin, but some of it is.

In Psalm 32, the Psalmist, reported to be David himself, writes:

3 When I declared not my sin, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. 4 For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.

David surprised his servants when he was able to recover so quickly after the death of his son. He rationalized his recovery saying, “He will not return to me; I will go to him.” David had much more difficulty overcoming his sin, which included his adultery with Bathsheba, and his murder of Uriah, the husband of Bathsheba.

David did not overcome his depression until he confessed his sin. Psalm 32 continues:

5 I acknowledged my sin to you, O, Lord, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD”; then you forgave the guilt of my sin.

Some years ago I had a young man in my congregation whose depression was so bad that he dropped out of college and committed himself to a mental hospital. In the course of his stay, I visited him. In conversation, I discovered that he was deeply ashamed of and burdened with certain sins he had committed. I said to him, “Listen, ‘Jesus Christ bore our sins in his body on the cross.’ As a Christian, you will always remember your sins, but you must remember them like they happened to someone else.”

He asked me to repeat what I had said. Then he asked me to write it down. Some weeks later he was back at home. Six months after came to see me in my new church. He handed me an index card. On it was written, “I remember my sins, but I remember them like they happened to someone else.”

After coming to the pastorate here, I started to reread a book given my by the late Bishop Herbert Spaugh when I was at The Little Church on the Lane. It was Religion, Psychology and Healing by the late Leslie Weatherhead, the great British Methodist. I read how he said, “Forgiveness is the most therapeutic idea in the world.” Then I went to Forsyth hospital to make a call. I stepped into an elevator with a doctor wearing a badge that indicated he worked in mental health. I spoke to him saying, “Doctor, I just read that “Forgiveness is the most therapeutic idea in the world.” Would you agree?” His face lit up. He responded, “Yes, yes, that is it, forgiveness is the most therapeutic idea in the world, but just you try and get one of my patients to forgive themselves.”

That would be an impossible task. We can’t forgive ourselves. It is not in us, but we can turn to God who wishes very much to do so!

This sermon is the first of several sermons on depression. If you have read it, and think yourself depressed do two things right away:

First, place yourself in the hands of God. Jesus said, “Come unto me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” The burden of depression is one of the heaviest we carry. I know he cares.

Second, and this comes from my personal experience, get yourself to a medical doctor right away. Tell your doctor about your problem. He or she can help you to form a plan for your recovery.

I am praying for you.

Finis

Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.

About the author:

The Rev. Dr. Worth Green is the Senior Pastor of New Philadelphia Moravian Church.. Follow him on Twitter / Facebook.