Misunderstanding Depression: The Clinical versus the Spiritual

Opening a newspaper can be a grim experience right now. There is much to be concerned about in today’s world, yet many of us continue to look for hope. For some, this is not easy because of an illness that is all too real. According to the latest statistics, one in 10 Americans will experience clinical depression. The numbers for women are even starker: one in four women will experience clinical depression at some time in their lives. In the United States the effect of depression costs $33 billion per year due to the loss of productivity (Greenberg, et.al., 1996). Amazingly, the typical depressed person doesn’t get treatment until nine years after experiencing her first symptoms (Kessler, 2005). For many, depression is still veiled in stigma and misunderstanding.

This became all too apparent when I spoke with a client who had suffered a recent bout of clinical depression and needed to be hospitalized to assure her safety. She was suffering in a very painful way. Thankfully, she had a support system – people who understood. Unintentionally, her spiritual leader was one of the least helpful people in her network. He was trying to help, but clearly did not understand clinical depression. He equated depression with disconnect from God, and could not fathom how this person could be depressed if she still had faith and sought God’s presence. The implication was that she was in some way responsible for her plight. She felt chastised for not being faithful enough and, more importantly, as if she was being punished by God for something she had done or left undone.

Yes, there is a spiritual dimension to depression. It is a journey of despair where God may feel distant and little may be possible in the way of spiritual reflection. But, as an illness, the despair comes first and not as a result of distance or punishment from God. This is an important distinction, as depression is already laden with guilt and negative feelings and the suffering – mentally, physically, and spiritually – is acute. Healing comes through understanding and treatment, not through blame and judgment. Indeed, many of the world’s most noted theologians have felt depression and have journeyed through it to discover a stronger faith. Researchers are now exploring all types of post-traumatic growth or growth related to suffering.

As the leader of a spiritual community, Parker Palmer experienced devastating depression. In his book, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, he recounts his journey through depression and his spiritual insights. Of God’s place in all of this he states: “I do not believe that the God who gave me life wants me to live a living death. I believe the God who gave me life wants me to live life fully and well.”

If we believe God is in the midst of the suffering of those who are depressed, then we as humans must be the arms and legs of God for those who suffer. This begins with education, understanding, patience, empathy and compassion. As a counselor trained to help, I feel it is both humbling and gratifying to be a part of someone’s journey to restored health.

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