Depression: Ways To Win The Battle

How widespread is depression? What are its causes? Most important, what are the weapons in the struggle against depression?
by Noel Hornor

Depression has troubled people everywhere, in every age. The ancients wrote about it, often calling it melancholia. "Aretaeus, a physician living in the second century, A.D., described the melancholic patient as 'sad, dismayed, sleepless ... They become thin by their agitation and loss of refreshing sleep ... At a more advanced state, they complain of a thousand futilities and desire death' " (Norman Wright, An Answer To Depression, Harvest House, Irvine, California, 1976, p. 8).

DDepression is one of the most prevalent afflictions. Health practitioners encounter it so often that it has been called the common cold of psychopathology. Psychologists have estimated that during any month 5 percent of American adults suffer from depressive illness. Health magazine estimated that one in eight U.S. citizens has been treated with Prozac, a popular antidepressant.

DAmericans suffer depression more than residents of most other countries. Research shows that, as Asian countries adapt Western culture, they show a corresponding increase in diagnoses of depression.

A Problem Without Bounds

DDepression, however, knows no territorial or national bounds. William Manchester aptly described the outlook of someone who is depressed: "Every day he chisels his way through time, praying for relief" (The Last Lion, Dell, New York, 1983, p. 23). Mood fluctuations are normal, but severe melancholia "resembles the passing sadness of the normal man as a malignancy resembles a canker sore" (ibid.).

DThe depressed person's perspective alters. He views life through a distorting lens. He often imagines that he will never be well.

D"Pervading everything is hopelessness, an irrational sense that, regardless of effort, nothing will change or that things will only get worse" (David B. Cohen, Out of the Blue, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1994, p. 76). The depressive's belief that his life will never return to normal exacerbates his ailment, casting a pall over the future. A gloomy outlook leads some to contemplate suicide.

DDepression is not a problem only for the sufferer. The strain on friends and family can be brutal. A depressed person may be easily angered. A parent's depression is especially hard on young children. "It is probably not possible to calculate the degree of pain and the exhaustion such families feel" (Demitri Papolos, M.D., and Janice Papolos, Overcoming Depression, Harper Perennial, New York, 1992, p. 249).

The Causes

DDepression is an illness so complex that the professionals don't really understand it. For some, depression is triggered by chemical imbalances and is best treated with medications. Sufferers are wise to seek help to determine any underlying physical cause. Without addressing the underlying cause, other steps will not be of much help.

DFor others, the roots of depression may be psychological and social. These factors include "genetic transmission; personality characteristics; early life experiences, particularly childhood loss ...; and stressful life events" (The New Harvard Guide to Psychiatry, edited by Armand M. Nicholi Jr., M.D., Harvard University Press, 1988, p. 323).

DLife's major stages may bring on episodes of depression: the transition from teenage to adulthood, the approach of menopause, the arrival of the retirement years, the loss of a mate.

DThe loss of something of great importance is a major reason for depression. "Significant losses have long been viewed by clinicians as precipitating causes of depression" (Papolos and Papolos, p. 202).

DAlmost all professional counselors agree that "depression is a human ... response to painful life circumstances, frequently in the form of losses" (Peter R. Breggin, M.D., Talking Back To Prozac, St. Martin's Press, New York, 1994, pp. 203-204). In other words, depression is a common response to pain.

DAnger may be a cause—as well as a symptom—of depression. Hostility and resentment are a psychological threat to those who are brooding and resentful.

DHolding a grudge is particular harmful. "If we hold grudges, we will eventually become clinically depressed" (Frank B. Minirth, M.D. & Paul D. Meier, M.D., Happiness Is a Choice, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, 1996, p. 39). Some counselors believe that residual anger can adversely affect the chemical balance of the brain, resulting in impaired mental functioning.

Good News About Depression

DThe good news is that the majority of suffers from depression can recover. Professional practitioners estimate that 80 percent of people can gain substantial relief.

DRoutine—but important—steps that anyone can take can assist in avoiding depression in the first place. Maintaining a productive, useful life is important. The experts agree that an active life is beneficial therapy.

DAn example of a man who overcame depression and led a productive, fulfilling life is Theodore Roosevelt, 26th president of the United States.

DRoosevelt suffered crises that might have ruined someone less determined. As a young husband, he was pounded by a double tragedy. His mother and wife were stricken by unexpected illnesses. At first their afflictions did not appear to be serious, but they grew worse, and both died within a few hours of each other on the same day, in the same house. To make matters worse, Roosevelt's wife had given birth to a daughter only two days before. He attended the double funeral in shock.

DOne of his friends wrote that Roosevelt was so grief-stricken that "he does not know what he does or says" (David McCullough, Mornings on Horseback, Touchstone, New York, 1981, p. 285).

DRoosevelt later wrote: "When my heart's dearest died, the light went out of my life for ever" (ibid, p. 288).

DHe put himself to work. Three days after his wife's death, he was back at his desk as a state legislator. He immersed himself in activity. His philosophy for life might be best expressed in his own words: "Black care rarely sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough" (ibid, p. 15).

Contact and Support

DCultivating relationships is vital to one's well-being. Psychologist Dorothy Rowe wrote: "You have to find ... people to confide in, and you have to overcome the habit of keeping things to yourself" (Depression: The Way Out of Your Prison, Routledge, London, 1996, p. 199).

DWe recognize that sometimes we need a hand to hold. "Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, one will lift up his companion. But woe to him who is alone when he falls" (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10). Strong bonds are crucial to happiness.

DThe passing of time is also an important ally. "Time by itself—and probably the personal resources and new experiences that surface as time passes—seems to cure the vast majority of depressions" (Breggin, p. 204).

What About Professional Help?

DWhether to seek professional help is, of course, a personal decision. The resources people use to tackle everyday problems may not work against depression. In such cases, professional help may be called for.

DCounselors know how to deal with depression. They know the dynamics of the malady and can help people realize that their problems are manageable.

DChristians and others can benefit from counseling that includes a biblical approach to fighting depression: the positive effects of trusting in God.

DTherapeutic practice relies on three primary means of treating depression: medication, counseling and electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). Professionals often use medication or counseling therapy, or a combination of both. When they place their patients on medication, they usually quickly feel better. How the treatment works is still partly a mystery. "The cold, hard truth is that even when these drugs work, no one really knows how or why" (Health, April 1997, p. 122).

DProspective patients should be aware medications do have side effects.

DMany clinicians recommend a combination of counseling and chemical treatment. Some believe that medication therapy is a simple matter of replacing a depleted brain chemical that is responsible for proper neurotransmission in the brain. A neurotransmitter is a chemical that serves as a messenger between brain cells. Medications generally focus on a specific brain chemical.

DMany of the recent generation of antidepressants affect the level of serotonin, one of the brain's neurotransmitters. But, besides serotonin, researchers have identified more than 60 other chemical messengers (ibid). So to think that depression can always be cured by tinkering with one chemical is unrealistic.

DECT (applying minor electrical stimulation to the brain) sometimes alters a depressive state for the better. As with medications, how and why it works are not clearly understood. This therapy is rarely used, usually only in severe cases.

Why the Increase?

Why is depression on the upswing?

Surely the state of society is partially responsible. David Cohen wrote that "dramatic changes in social conditions—in the promotion of materialism and egocentricity ..., the toleration of incompetent, irresponsible, and antisocial behavior—can produce correspondingly dramatic changes in the rate of depression and other forms of mental illness" (Cohen, p. 58).

No doubt the lack of specific goals, direction and purpose are contributing factors. Many people have turned many away from traditional spiritual values and firm belief in God.

Before the scientific age, people derived a sense of purpose from their spiritual belief system. As scientific knowledge has increased, biblical knowledge has been increasingly rejected, or simply forgotten, resulting in widespread lack of understanding of why human beings exist. Cohen adds: "As the physical world yielded up its secrets, humans became less central in the ultimate scheme of things" (ibid, p. 279).

Lacking knowledge of a clear purpose for life results in a kind of existential anxiety with diminished inspiration about and toward life. Anxiety spawns moods of depression. It is difficult to be positive in a universe void of purpose. It is also hard to be upbeat when science has made it possible for the human race to destroy itself.

Need for Spiritual Guidance

But there is hope. Jesus Christ tells us, "I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly" (John 10:10). To have hope we need to learn God's purpose for human life.

The Bible teaches us about that purpose. God's design includes a plan that offers eternal life to everyone (Romans 6:23). The apostle John wrote about it: "God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life" (John 3:16).

"Everlasting life" will include peace, joy and happiness but no gloom, no depression. "And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed way" (Revelation 21:4).

Scriptural promises like these assure us that God's ways, when properly understood and applied, produce the joy, inner peace and self-control (Galatians 5:22) that so many people are lacking. They can act as a powerful spiritual antidote to the spiritual and emotional pain that lies at the heart of depression.

Be sure to request your free copy of What Is Your Destiny? This booklet will help you discover the awesome purpose for human life and the incredibly positive future God has in store. GN

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