Depression and Religion: How Major Religions View Mood Disorders
Many of you have talked about how your spiritual faith has helped you through some emotionally turbulent times. Others talk about having a rough time trying to reconcile their religious beliefs with accepting treatment (particularly medications) for depression. Still others have expressed that their religion makes them feel stigmatized for having a psychiatric illness. I began to wonder how the major religions viewed depression. Does religion perceive depression to be a biological illness or is there a perception that depression is a crisis of faith? Are there some religions that consider depression nothing more than "spiritual laziness?" Does religion place any faith in science to explain and treat depression? This post is an exploration to answer some of these questions. We would greatly appreciate your input as to how your faith has helped or hindered your journey towards mental wellness.
Gentle Reminder: I realize we are delving into delicate subject matter. Discussion of faith and religion can provoke strong reactions. The one thing I ask of you is to be respectful of others who may differ in their faith or their views about religion. Think of this as an exploration to learn more about how different faiths deal with mental illness. Every individual and every religion will deal with depression in a different way. Remember too that the following are but glimpses into how some people interpret their religion’s stance on the topic of mental illness. There will always be different views and perspectives within the same religious community. We ask that you give your personal interpretation or talk about your experiences in the form of a comment to this post.
Although there are many religions I have chosen a handful to begin our discussion including Christianity (particularly Catholicism), Buddhism, and Judaism.
In a 2009 Christianity Today article entitled "The Depression Epidemic", author Dan G. Blazner explores depression as it relates to religion. Blazner cites statistics which show that: ""in a typical congregation of 200 adults, 50 attendees will experience depression at some point, and at least 30 are currently taking antidepressants." These high numbers cause some to question as to the cause of so much depression.
According to this article Christianity has recognized that depression can have biological roots but some question the validity of looking at depression as solely a product of our biology. Blazner points out that our high-paced life style and disconnection from fellowship and community can be contributing to this increasing trend towards developing depression. Blazner comes up with a new theory for depression which relates more to society and spirituality when he states:
"Embodied emotional pain can be an appropriate response to suffering in a world gone wrong."
The Christian remedy? Some Christians believe that church can help by providing hope and emotional healing within the context of religious community.
God sends us trials and afflictions to exercise us in patience and teach us sympathy with the sorrows of others. —St. Vincent de Paul
One of my fellow mental health bloggers named Marja Bergen writes in her blog about her trials and tribulations of having Bipolar Disorder and her attempts to de-stigmatize mental illness within the catholic faith. She has written about some of the misconceptions about mood disorders in a post for our site. Marja has had the experience of being told that she does not need medication to treat her bipolar symptoms that instead, all she needs to do is speak with someone from the church. It is from these experiences that she has written a book to help others, especially Christians, cope with mental illness. Marja’s main goal in writing her book "A Firm Place to Stand," is to let people know that they can have a close relationship with God yet also have a mental illness.
A 2010 artiicle, “Through a Glass Darkly: How Catholics Struggle with Mental Illness,” validates the struggles Marja has described. Author Anna Weaver cites a Baylor University study which found that almost a third of a group of 293 Christians who sought help from their church about mental illness were told that they or their loved one did not have a mental disorder. They also found that depression and anxiety were the two most common mental health issues readily dismissed by clergy as not having validity.
It seems that although there have been strides made within Christianity to understand the biological causes of depression, there is still a ways to go to convince some clergy and church members that depression is a real illness and does not represent a character flaw or lack of faith.
The greatest degree of inner tranquility comes from the development of love and compassion. The more we care for the happiness of others, the greater is our own sense of well-being. —Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama
We have explored Buddhism with relation to mental health in prior posts here on MyDepressionConnection including:
One of the Buddhist theories about depression is that suffering arises from delusion. Some of these delusions include feeling that there is no possible enlightenment within you, that you are in total isolation, and that you can find happiness in objects or temporary things.
A website called A View on Buddhism offers a Buddhist perspective on what we call depression: "The Buddhist perspective is that an underlying selfishness/egotism is often the basic cause of feeling depressed."
Granted, the author does go on to explain that the sufferer should not be blamed and that we all have this psychological trait but that depression can be the result. They also recognize that there is a difference between severe depression which may require medication and "lighter" forms of depression, although the descriptor of "lighter" is not well defined.
According to such literature the Buddhist remedy for some types of depression include meditation and an emphasis on compassion and loving-kindness.
Suffering is precious; it is a divine covenant. ----Jonathan, Mekilta, to Exodus
In one "Ask the Rabbi" forum a reader questions what is Gods and the Torah’s (Judaism’s religious texts) take on depression. Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman answers that if one has depression caused by a biochemical imbalance of the brain it can be treated like any other medical disorder possibly with medication. But if it is depression caused by things that upset us then this is a different matter requiring different remedies.
In this article the Rabbi cites a Talmudic objection to depression:
“Judaism never considered pain, sorrow, self-affliction or sadness to be valid goals. The opposite is true one should pursue happiness, bliss, cheer, joy, and delight. For the Shechina (Divine Presence) does not dwell in a place of sadness; it dwells only in a place where happiness reigns.”
Some of the remedies suggested by the Rabbi for the type of depression caused by things which upset us include: Singing, dancing, exercising, engaging in the fine arts, setting realistic goals, and contemplating the good even in bad situations.
On a website called AskMoses someone asks what is the Jewish view on antidepressant medication. The answer given was: "The Torah is not opposed to the use of legal medication when necessary in treating certain emotional conditions; however, it is certainly not considered the ideal choice." However, in the footnotes it is stated that this position is not intended for those who suffer from clinical depression.
One of the interesting commentaries from this site is on the similarities of the Hebrew word for laziness, atzlut, and the word for depressed, which is atzvut. The scholar who wrote the answer to this question states that laziness is often the predecessor for (non-clinical) depression and that keeping busy and feeling accomplished can make the feelings of depression vanish.
Other faiths such as Islamic religion also try to reconcile religious beliefs with the issue of mental illness including depression. In a 2005 article entitled "Depression is not weak faith" writer Irfan Yusuf shares his view that depression does not get the attention it deserves within Muslim communities. This writer believes that depression quite often gets dismissed in the Muslim community as "weak faith." The author warns that untreated depression may be fatal. Yusuf contends that some people who suffer from clinical depression may be at risk for suicide and especially if they receive no psychiatric help.
This author points out the confusion in differentiating between a crisis of the soul and clinical depression within Muslim faith:
"How can we tell the difference between sinful despair (giving up on the mercy of Allah and failing to recognise the truth of the last verse of Surat al-Baqarah)* and the symptoms of depression?"
In writing this article some definite themes emerged with regard to how most religions view mood disorders. Suffering seems to come up a lot as a type of virtue or “cross to bear.” It seems that the struggle for many religions is to differentiate between a medical cause for depression and a spiritual one. The remedy offered by most faiths in cases of "non-clinical" depression seems to be the practice of religion itself. It seems within religious communities there are two perceived types of depression. One is medical and the other is not so well defined. Some religions denote this "other" type of depression as a spiritual laziness, weakness, or in some cases even a sin.
Yet despite this confusion many people of all different religions have reported that their faith has helped them through their darkest times. The question that many scientific and theologian scholars ask is "How?" How can things such as meditation, prayer, and faith help someone who is depressed?
I will leave these questions to our members to answer from your personal experience. Has religion helped you to heal from depression? If so-how? Did you find acceptance for your mental illness or depression within your faith? Has anyone found that their religion tends to stigmatize depression and other related psychological disorders? Have you had any difficulties in reconciling your religious beliefs and receiving help for your depression? Please share your experience with us. We are grateful for your thoughts, opinions, and stories.
Here are some additional resources you may find of interest on the topic of depression and religion:
- Washington Post: On Faith