Depression, Mental Illness and Compassion

Earlier this week, I learned of the tragic suicide of Rick Warren‘s 27-year-old son, Matthew, who had reportedly suffered with mental illness for many years. Furthermore, I learned of the compassionless responses of some Christians. I’ve since read a few articles on the issue (linked to at the bottom of this post), and have been pondering the issue of mental illness.

I would like to begin by confessing that I either have struggled or am currently struggling with the following:

(NB: I don’t love labels, and don’t generally identify myself using the terms above. I’m also NOT sharing this to try and garner sympathy. I’m a little embarrassed to be posting it for the whole world to see, but also feel that it’s important to show you where I’m coming from in writing this post.)

In my struggle to overcome the issues listed above, one of the hardest things to deal with has been the sense of spiritual failure. The idea that I’m depressed because I’m just not resting in the joy of the Lord has often made me even more depressed. Hearing (and reading) the thoughts of some other Christians on the issue of mental illness/psychological issues has usually not helped matters. That said, I’ve learnt a lot along the way, and would like to share my thoughts with you.

Frank Viola posted today about the three viewpoints held by Christians on the issue of mental illness. Please go and read the post to get a clearer understanding of the different theories.

When I was a very new believer, I was convinced that all mental illness was due to spiritual oppression of some sort. I no longer hold this few (and haven’t for a few years). I do believe (as Frank does), that the body, soul and spirit are interconnected, and that each can influence the others in profound ways. I also believe that depression (and other mental illnesses) can be caused or exacerbated by a variety of different factors.

For example, I found that when I radically changed my diet and lifestyle, I was less susceptible to major depressive episodes. This led me to believe that depression can be, at least in part, physiological (i.e. related to the body).

Additionally, I found that taking control of my mind, will and emotions decreased my susceptibility to major depressive episodes. This led me to believe that depression can be, at least in part, psychological (i.e. related to the mind, and thus to the soul).

Additionally, I found that spending time worshipping Jesus, praying, focusing on God’s word and fellowshipping with other believers all decreased my susceptibility to major depressive episodes (and were often a powerful antidote in moments of acute despair). This led me to believe that depression can be, at least in part, spiritual.

When I don’t eat well, I find it harder to take control of my emotions. When I choose to dwell on negative thoughts, I feel physically ill. When I feel ill, I often feel less inclined to worship God. When I neglect to worship God, I find it easier to dwell on negative thoughts (and sink into depression). When I’m depressed, I find it harder to take care of myself in basic ways (such as eating well). And so on!

I hope you get my point. I’m trying to illustrate the fact that the body, soul and spirit can all influence each other, and that the cause(s) of depression and mental illness can differ from person to person.

The greater point I’m trying to make is that we should not treat our brothers and sisters as spiritually inferior when they are struggling with depression and/or mental illness (nor should we cast blame on parents who have just lost a beloved son to suicide). We need to extend compassion and withhold judgement, so that people can feel safe in being open and honest about their struggles. Let’s treat each other the way Jesus commanded us to: with unconditional love.

Have you struggled with depression or mental illness? What are your thoughts on the origin(s) of such issues? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below!

Further reading:

4 Thoughts on “Depression, Mental Illness and Compassion

  1. Dear Mali. Thank you so much for opening up on this very sensitive matter and for sharing your battle with these paralyzing illnesses.

    As I’m sure you are aware and those close to me, I too suffer from Panic Disorder and a fair sprinkling of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Over the past 5 years I’ve experienced the most terrifying panic attacks in public places. I usually find that these episodes occur when:

    1.Self-esteem is low
    2.Excessive worrying
    3.Irrational fears
    4.As Miley Cyrus sings- my faith is shaking (it’s actually playing on radio now as I started typing- The Climb!)

    You can have all the pills in the world but without faith in God, your situation won’t improve. Stop trying to cope on your own, for God is above all these crippling mental illnesses. See it as a test… Of faith and character. I live to tell.

    • Thanks for sharing, Eon! I do agree that having faith in God (and in Jesus Christ) is hugely important when it comes to dealing with such issues. Without the love and grace of God I would still be captive to all of the problems I mentioned in my post. I do think that there are things to be learned through our struggles, and perhaps that’s why healing sometimes occurs slowly and incrementally (or not at all). Although I don’t take psych meds myself (anymore), I do think that they have their place – for some people, they literally mean the difference between life and death.

  2. Ben Bitter on 11 April, 2013 at 1:05 am said:

    I struggled with panic disorder for many years myself. I’ve only had a small handful of depressive episodes in my life, and I’m happy to say that those seem to be far behind me. There are some that say that the Word of God really IS all sufficient, and that he can heal through his word. In some cases, I believe this. But I also believe that there are certain physical abnormalities (i.e. chemical imbalances) that are the underlying cause of major depression. God gave us his word, but he also gave us medicine. Now, don’t think I’m about to say that psych meds are always the answer to mental illness, but I’ve seen them work. And you’re right about diet impacting as well. In fact, it was when you were trying out GAPS that I first looked into the connection between diet and mental wellness. Thanks for keeping this discussion going. So many people suffer in silence, and we don’t even know.

    • Thanks for your comment, Ben! Sorry to hear of your struggle with panic attacks. I certainly agree that God CAN heal us of any mental illness, because I believe He can heal any problem, be it physiological, psychological or spiritual. I myself have experienced complete healing from eating disorders, which is amazing considering they are generally considered to never truly leave a person. But, just because God’s Word is sufficient, that doesn’t mean the problem is purely spiritual in nature. It’s also interesting to note how closely the body, soul and spirit interact with each other. For example, I’ve read that a chemical imbalance in the brain can cause depression and negative thinking, but I’ve also read that the inverse is true – negative thinking can affect brain chemistry. It’s such a complex issue, and I don’t think we will ever fully understand it!

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