fter the sudden death of her 20-year-old only daughter, Sharon, a Seventh-day Adventist registered nurse, realized her life was never going to be the same again. How could she eat when the child she so lovingly raised and who loved to cook would never taste anything again? In the months following her daughter’s death, Sharon lost 25 pounds. She would lie awake at night for hours, or awaken long before the alarm went off in the morning. As she describes her emotional pain she notes, “I seemed to see myself on the rim of a bottomless dark hole ready to fall in. I felt that if I went there I would never get out, and I pleaded with God to help me.”
The Depression Epidemic and the Adventist Church
Sharon’s loss and grief opened the door for depression—but she is not alone in her struggle. Indeed, depression is increasing dramatically today and turning into an epidemic. The World Health Organization (WHO) predicts that by 2020 it will be the second most debilitating disease and the second leading cause of disease and suffering worldwide, surpassed only by heart disease.1 It is estimated that 350 million people worldwide suffer from depression, and more than 20 million of them live in the United States. It costs the U.S. more than $70 billion in treatment, disability, and lost productivity each year. In addition, studies show that women are two to three times more likely than men to have depression, and one in four women will suffer from clinical depression sometime during their life, versus one in eight men.2
Some Adventists may mistakenly think these disturbing statistics represent only those “in the world”—not in the Adventist Church. After all, Adventists are known to be among the healthiest people around and outlive many others.3 Sharon’s story, however, is not an isolated case in our church today. Ironic as it may seem to some, depression does not discriminate against race, color, or religious affiliation, and many faithful children of God today are suffering from this disabling disease.
General Conference (GC) Women’s Ministries director Heather-Dawn Small and associate director Raquel Arrais travel throughout the world meeting and talking with faithful Adventist women of all races. They have noted that most women are afraid of talking about their depression and emotional pain.
“I’ve met with many of my sisters who suffer from depression, and yet no one wanted to talk about it,” Small says. “It seems there is a misconception that those suffering from depression and other mental problems are suffering due to spiritual problems, as if a lack of a good spiritual life leads to mental problems.”
Arrais agrees and adds, “Admitting to depression is difficult for them, because they fear having their spirituality judged.”
Small herself has struggled with depression for 11 years, and she observes that as she shares her own journey of depression with others, they become more comfortable with discussing their own painful journeys, as well.
The reality of this great need in our church has prompted GC Women’s Ministries to focus on helping women deal with depression and other mental and emotional health issues.
“Because many are suffering in silence, afraid to share their problems, Women’s Ministries decided to address this issue,” Arrais explains. At the Global Health Conference in Geneva this past summer, depression and a healthy mind were the focus of the women’s health track planned by GC Women’s Ministries, launching a mental health initiative for the next five to 10 years.
Removing the Stigma
Depression, however, is not gender-exclusive, and the statistics on depression should force all Adventists to realize the need to become educated regarding recognition, prevention, and better management of this common illness so hope can be shared beyond the pain and the tears that accompany the disorder. If we ourselves are not personally struggling with depression, most of us likely interact daily with someone who is—a relative, friend, coworker, or fellow church member. So what can we do to help them?
We should start by removing our own misconceptions about depression and understand that it is a disease. We must recognize and treat depression with the same compassion and nonjudgmental manner as we treat any other disease.
Sharon’s symptoms of deep sadness, sleep disturbances, weight and appetite changes, and even morbid thoughts are hallmarks of depression. Someone who experiences at least five of the major symptoms of depression for at least two weeks (see sidebar) would likely be diagnosed with major depression. The person who experiences two to four of these symptoms may have a mild case of depression.4
Beyond its debilitating symptoms, depression and anxiety also bring about complications that impair quality of life. Autoimmune disorders, certain kinds of cancer, strange fevers, skin lesions, hypertension, diabetes, migraines, and body aches can all be psychosomatic and related to depression and anxiety. Indeed, more than 100 years ago Ellen White noted: “Many of the diseases from which men suffer are the result of mental depression. Grief, anxiety, discontent, remorse, guilt, distrust, all tend to break down the life forces and to invite decay and death.”5
Finding Hope for Depression
Several types of depression can be categorized as mild or chronic. These can be caused by endogenous (genetic) factors and/or reactive processes that create a chemical imbalance in the brain. Normally, the most difficult to treat and most severe form is chronic depression, which has genetics as one of the underlying causes. No matter which type, if you suffer from depression, it is essential to seek counsel from your physician or health-care provider.
But is there treatment beyond pharmacological agents? Is there any hope for people suffering from this illness, or will they have to suffer with it throughout their life?
Neil Nedley, a physician specializing in internal medicine, founder of a depression recovery program, and author of the book Depression: The Way Out, has been very successful in treating depression. The success of his program appears to be rooted in looking at the true causes of depression while applying biblical, evidence-based interventions. Like any other disease, depression has real causes that create a chemical imbalance. Once the causes are treated, one can find healing and regain their life back.
Health-care providers do not always look for the causes of depression, and often antidepressants are readily prescribed without an attempt to treat the cause. Certainly, medication is sometimes essential to stabilize the patient, but if the causes of the chemical imbalance are not appropriately treated, many may suffer from depression their entire life.
Evaluating the Root Causes of Depression
According to research, science has documented more than 100 causes of depression, which can fall into various categories.6 During depression recovery programs such as Nedley’s, people examine those causes and incorporate more healthful lifestyle practices and better nutrition. They also learn new thinking patterns as they begin to apply cognitive behavioral therapies. A high percentage of those who complete such a program report significant improvement. Sometimes the need for antidepressant medication is alleviated.
The Frontal Lobe Factor
Although all depression causes need to be treated, the most common cause, which is often overlooked, is the impaired activity of the frontal lobe. Research suggests that the lack of activity in the frontal lobe occurs first before the depression, so when frontal lobe activity is improved, depression also improves.7 It’s important, therefore, to learn what things may hinder or improve frontal lobe activity. This is especially significant because of the close connection between the frontal lobe and spiritual matters.
The frontal lobe has more neuron connections than any other lobe in our brain. Studies show that the frontal lobe is the center for our will, our thinking and reasoning, and our moral values and personality. Evidence indicates that the frontal lobe is where God communicates with
us through the Holy Spirit, helping us to have accurate thoughts that enhance our mental health. Things that improve circulation to the frontal lobe also improve its function, and most of them have to do with our choices.
Right Thinking Can Defeat Depression
Depressed people tend to have distorted thoughts without being aware of them. The process of identifying distorted thoughts and replacing them with accurate thoughts is a scientifically sound form of psychotherapy called cognitive behavioral therapy. This therapy is helpful in the treatment of not only depression but also phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder, and dependencies.8
For instance, when we keep the promises of God in our mind and dwell on them, accurate thinking replaces thinking that is distorted by our limited reasoning. For Heather-Dawn Small this continues to be a successful intervention.
“I am stronger because of my belief in the promises of the Bible, even on my darkest days,” Small says. Focusing not on the problem but on the promises is helping to enhance her frontal lobe function.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is not new. The Bible talks about it in Romans 12:2: “Let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think” (NLT).* And in Philippians 4:8 we read, “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” God built into our brain a system for healing and renewal, and He assures us that if we make the choice to improve our frontal lobe by choosing healthful thoughts and letting Him renew our mind, He will heal us.
Many factors influence frontal lobe activity, but personal devotions, Bible study, and prayer are at the top of the list. Scientific studies by Harold Koenig, an associate professor of psychiatry at Duke University, and others indicate that people who are not religious are at greater risk for depression than people who belong to a religious faith. Studies show that even when suffering from depression, people of faith recover more quickly than those who are not religious.9
Hope Beyond Tears
During her daughter’s funeral Sharon was approached by a woman who was suffering from depression because of a similar loss. In a bitter tone the woman said to her, “Your life will never be the same.” As time went by, Sharon found herself becoming depressed and losing interest in living. She then remembered the bitterness and depression evidenced by the woman at the funeral, so she prayed to God for help. She felt led by God to do three things: (1) spend more time with Him through reading His Word and prayer, (2) exercise by walking two miles every morning, and (3) volunteer her time to help others.
Sharon began volunteering on Sabbath afternoons—a particularly lonely time for her—to help feed those in need at her church-run soup kitchen. “God impressed me to find ways to help others and be active in my church,” Sharon says. “This helps me to get the focus off myself.”
She adds that the extra time she is spending with God helps her to stay “mentally balanced” and that her “connection with God is deeper than ever before.”
It has been seven years, and Sharon still misses her daughter, but she found a cure for her depression by trusting in God’s promises and following His plan for healing despite her tragic loss.
El Rapha—The God Who Heals
God specializes in creating, re-creating, restoring, and healing. He created our brain cells with an anatomy for change and renewal. This concept helps us grasp how depression and mental disorders may be healed, bringing us hope for improved mental and emotional health.
In the Bible are stories of many children of God who suffered from depression and found healing. Take the classic one: Elijah. He was so depressed he asked God to take his life. If we look closely, God treated Elijah’s depression not with judgment or shame, but with patience, love, and understanding. He encouraged him to focus on nutrition, rest, and exercise. But that was not all. Elijah had distorted thoughts, so God helped him to replace those thoughts with true, accurate thinking (see 1 Kings 19).
As a result, Elijah’s mind and faith were restored and the depression cured. He was finally translated to heaven after accomplishing God’s mission and became an example of God’s power of restoration for the entire universe to see.
Each of us has a mission to fulfill, and sometimes losses and depression keep us from using all our abilities to complete our mission. But there is hope beyond the tears—hope for relief from depression. God knows and feels our pain, and His prescription will improve our mental and emotional health.
Lovingly He whispers: “I know your tears; I also have wept. The griefs that lie too deep to be breathed into any human ear, I know. Think not that you are desolate and forsaken. Though your pain touch no responsive chord in any heart on earth, look unto Me, and live.”10
*Scripture quotations marked NLT are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright ” 1996, 2004. Used by permission
of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Wheaton, Illinois 60189. All rights reserved.
1World Health Organization, Conquering Depression, 2001, p. 14.
2Neal Nedley, Depression Recovery Program Workbook, 2006, pp. 26, 27.
3Dan Buettner, The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest.
4Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General, NIH, NIMH, 1999, p. 247.
5Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing, p. 241.
6Neil Nedley, Depression: The Way Out, 2005, pp. 31-59.
7Ibid., pp. 178, 179.
8NIH-NIMH 2008 publication number 08 3561, “Depression,” p. 16.
9Harold Koenig, Handbook of Religion and Health, 2001, p. 135.
10White, The Desire of Ages, p. 483.
Katia Garcia Reinert is a family nurse practitioner and health ministry/ fcn coordinator for Adventist Healthcare. She specializes in working with people struggling with depression. She lives and works in the Washington, D.C., metro area. (Published October 8, 2009)