Depression: It’s Spiritually Incorrect


A favorite from my archives …

I’ve been politically incorrect for as long as I can remember. I really should wear a sign around my neck that says “I apologize if I say something offensive,” because it feels like I am eating the soles of my shoes a few times a day.

But when it comes to my mood disorder, I think that “spiritually incorrect” is the better term.

There are lots of “spiritual” approaches to treating depression, each of which has a devoted following. There are “The Secret“-loving folks (and half of Oprah’s viewers) telling me that all I have to do to feel good is think positive thoughts–to throw the intention of personal sanity and well-being into the universe and fetch it when it returns to me. Then there are the Tom Cruise disciples warning me about those toxic pharmaceuticals I’m putting into my body (they say fish oil and vitamins are enough). Then there are the New-Agers claiming that mental health is only one yoga class, acupuncture session, or hour of Tibetan meditation away. (FYI: I believe in all these things–positive thinking, fish oil, vitamins, yoga, acupuncture, and meditation–but they alone could not treat my clinical, suicidal depression.)

And then, even more dangerous (in my opinion), I have intelligent, theologically-trained pastors, priests, and ministers of every denomination advising me that God alone is what I need–that if I read the Word, and lay my head on Jesus, then I can stop seeing both my psychiatrist and therapist.

Because prayer alone will be enough heal me.

In the face of such ignorance I say this, a prayer a priest friend recently taught me: “Jesus, save me from your followers.” (Or, my secular version: “I’m sorry. My fault. I forgot you were an idiot.”)

If I sound angry, it’s for a good reason. These attitudes not only perpetuate the stigma of mental illness–they worsen the depression of millions of people around the globe because, in addition to their other symptoms, the depressives now feel responsible and guilty for having brought on the pain themselves. And in trying to overcome it by themselves (with the help of their prayer beads), they stay stuck in the Black Hole, or resort to suicide.

I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that religious leaders who are uninformed about mental health are plentiful.

Back when I was a sophomore in college, a priest preached in his homily that “the world needs God, not Valium, and that the place to go with problems is the confessional, not a psychologist’s office.” I stood up and walked out. Every now and then I’ll hear a variation of it, and I’m tempted again to walk out again (but with kids, that’s not so easy).

In the psych ward–where I thought I was free of judgmental, evangelical lunatics–I was accosted by an ignorant pastor. After the chapel service, where we read psalms and sang “Amazing Grace,” he told me to stay put (because I couldn’t stop crying?).

Pointing his holy finger at me he said, “Honey, all you need is the Word. I was right where you are. I was down and out too, and then I picked up the Bible and God cured me. Praise the Lord! All you have to do is believe.” I was so doped up on sedatives at the time that I don’t remember what I said to him, but I don’t think it was nice.

The other day I found another warm fuzzy when (what was I thinking?) I Googled my name. It was a response to an article about depression I wrote for Catholic News Service. I have no idea who this guy is, and I’m not anxious to meet him, but this is what he said on his blog:

It wasn’t easy dealing with crazy people a hundred years ago, and it still isn’t. Medication helps a lot of people and it is kind of an “Oh, crap what do I do now” kind of solution. But here’s the kicker: melancholy is a gift that this culture desperately needs. Those of melancholic temperament tend to be a little bit deeper than the average person. It is a gift and a cross that the depressive has to bear. So what do you do on the days that you just can’t do anything at all? When you are so damn sick that you can’t get out of bed? You ask for the strength to go on. Look at Jesus, who is on the next cross over, and cry to Him. Tell Him this really sucks and you don’t want to do it. Maybe He will tell you to stay in bed. He’s really cool like that and He won’t push you too hard. But maybe His love will give you the strength to go on. And that’s what makes a hero.

I hope his heroes stay alive longer than the ones I know. Because plenty of folk–like Holocaust survivor Primo Levi–have perished on their knees.

Somehow Christians and God-fearers of all religions are programmed to believe they are “above” mental illness and depression. Faith conquers all.

Even though these devout individuals don’t feel morally weak when coming down with a stomach bug, or something more serious like a viral pneumonia or arthritis, they absolutely do feel morally bereft if anything (genes, stress, illness, trauma) disrupts the structure and function of brain cells, destroying nerve cell connections–resulting in neural roadblock to the processing of information (which happens with depression).

Thank God for the few examples, like Archbishop Raymond Roussin of Vancouver, British Columbia, who have gone public with their struggles.

I remember the afternoon my guardian angel Ann forwarded me the news clip stating that Roussin was taking six months off in order to treat his depression. I was buried in the Black Hole myself, and, empowered by his courage, asked for a six-month leave myself from my writing responsibilities–especially from the regular column I write for Catholic News Service.

I felt as though I had another believer in this with me, and we were going to rest and get well together, even maybe using this horrible pain to teach and instruct others who may experience it later in their lives.

The spiritual bond I felt with Roussin has deepened as I’ve seen him emerge publicly as an unbelievable honest, vulnerable, caring, and brave religious leader. Because of him (and others like him), I am proud to be Catholic.

Roussin’s recovery from depression reminds me of the wisdom of that joke about the guy who dies in a flood despite his prayers for God’s rescue.

As the floodwaters rise, a man named Sam calls for God’s help.

First a neighbor offers him a ladder.

“Nope, my God is coming,” Sam replies.

Then the police arrive with a rescue boat. “Hop on board!” they instruct him.

“Thanks but no thanks,” Sam says, “God will save me.”

And finally the national guard provide a helicopter, and he tells them to go away, too.

Sam dies, goes to heaven, and asks God, “Why didn’t you rescue me?”

“I sent a ladder, a lifeboat, and a helicopter…what more could I do?” says God.

Today it seems to me that anyone who suffers from depression (and admits it) is a tad spiritually incorrect. And especially if she accepts the help of the ladder, lifeboat, and helicopter (medication, psychotherapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and so on). But hopefully, with enough people like Roussin educating religious leaders, that will soon change.

Or maybe I’ll just have to hang on to the sign around my neck.

Originally published on Beyond Blue at

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Therese Borchard
I am a writer and chaplain trying to live a simple life in Annapolis, Maryland.

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