Christianity and depression: Hearing people’s experiences

Anthea Colledge is a third year part-time PhD candidate in Theology and Religious Studies in the School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science. Her current primary research interests are disability and practical/contextual theology. She is an Anglican University Chaplain, and has previously worked in learning disability and mental health projects, as well as a parish priest.

A systematic review of the effectiveness of antidepressant medication, published in The Lancet, hit the news a couple of weeks ago.[1] Speaking to the Guardian, one of the authors suggested that around a million Britons currently lack access to effective treatments for their depression.[2] These kinds of statistics are evidence, if we needed it, that depressive symptoms are common in the UK. However, not everybody in the UK who meets the medical criteria for a diagnosis of depression shares the same understanding of depression. It’s common to hear depression described as a medical illness, a chemical imbalance, a psychological difficulty, or the consequence of trauma. But some cultures or communities may understand it differently – and religious groups commonly understand depression in spiritual or theological terms. Mental distress may instead be understood as a spiritual awakening, a sign of holiness, as evidence of spiritual weakness, or as an influence by external supernatural forces (such as demons). These kinds of religious perspectives may be held alongside or in competition with other perspectives. For example, someone might follow their GP’s advice to take antidepressants, but also seek out faith healing. People who experience depression and also hold religious beliefs sometimes have to negotiate these different perspectives. Their mood experiences may interact with, or even come into conflict with, their understanding of the world. We can get an idea of these kinds of interactions when we think about, for example, the belief in some Christian communities that joy ought to be a defining characteristic of the Christian life. Since depression is in many ways the opposite of a joyful life, it can be difficult when people from these communities experience on-going depression.

For my PhD research I have been exploring these kinds of interactions and conflicts through in-depth interviews with 21 people living in the UK, who at some time have identified as Christian and have also had the experience of being unusually low to a degree that disrupted their everyday life (whether or not it was diagnosed as depression).  Interviewees came from a range of Christian traditions (Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Quaker, Pentecostal) and a variety of life situations. Every one of them had a fascinating story to tell about their life and their experiences of depression and Christianity. Three themes to highlight are:

  1. The sometimes fraught relationship between faith, church, and mood
  2. The surprisingly good outcomes from depression
  3. A perceived gap between Christian theology and experience

There can be a complicated relationship between faith, church, and mood

In the short-term depression was mostly felt to have a negative effect on faith and religious practice, e.g. by making it difficult to pray or go to church or prompting feelings of guilt or abandonment. It was also common for people to say that church had a negative effect on their mood. Some people found church attendance overwhelming, and many had received unhelpful advice from their church, such as being told they lacked faith, or should undergo exorcism. However, for some people, church and religious practices made the depression easier to cope with, through receiving support, the continued routine, or giving a sense of purpose to life.  Despite these complicated relationships, it was striking that, in the longer-term, faith was often experienced as having a positive stabilising effect. God was repeatedly spoken about as an anchor, a rock, a solid presence, the reason someone was still alive.

Depression has some surprisingly good outcomes!

As humans we have a tendency to make meaning out of the things that happen to us, and perhaps to impose a sort of order, a narrative, on the stories we tell about our history. So maybe it’s not surprising that people consistently told me about the good things that had come out of their depression. It wasn’t that the depression itself was a good thing – no-one was saying that emotional or mental pain are good in themselves – but that it had some good outcomes. The most frequent things people mentioned were empathy and compassion for other people, especially those finding life difficult. Deeper friendships and relationships were also mentioned. People talked about being more self-aware, particularly of their own limitedness, rather than thinking they could take on the world. Some people talked explicitly about these outcomes in religious terms, such as the person who very strikingly talked about depression having brought out into the light (of God) parts of herself that had previously been shut away like corpses.

Mind the Gap – what happens when theology and experience conflict?

Throughout the interviews there was a strong sense of a gap or a disconnect between the experience of depression and Christian theology (with ‘theology’ meaning how people talk or think about God, faith, and the church, not the academic subject.) People’s actual lived experiences did not necessarily fit with their religious beliefs, and they looked for ways to bridge that gap. The disconnect was especially noticeable around attitudes to suffering, beliefs about healing, and how people characterised or understood God. However, people spoke profoundly about the ways in which their theology had changed and deepened in life-giving ways, in response to their experience of depression. They bridged the gap by changing the emphasis of their theology, e.g. by focusing on the humanity and suffering of Jesus, rather than his transcendence or victory over death. Or they bridged the gap by changing some aspects of their theology (e.g. developing a different image of God) or (re)connecting with different parts of their faith traditions (e.g. wisdom from the monastic tradition). A small number bridged the gap by changing their religious affiliation or identity – some left their faith communities entirely, others joined different churches or groups from a different tradition.

These are some of the early thoughts arising from the interviews, but I still have a big task ahead of me to finish analysing the interviews and to write them up so I welcome any comments or thoughts CRPL readers might have!

By Anthea Colledge

Image Credit: Guillaume Flandre

[1] http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(17)32802-7/

[2] www.theguardian.com/science/2018/feb/21/the-drugs-do-work-antidepressants-are-effective-study-shows

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