By all appearances, I had everything we Westerners say we need to be happy: a strong marriage, a fulfilling career, and a quaint home with a picket fence in one of the fastest growing communities in the United States. I even had a new car. And yet, there I was, sitting with the doctor discussing my near-debilitating depression. It had taken months to come to this, to admit I couldn’t shoulder the burden alone and I needed the care of a professional.
By all appearances, Robin Williams seemed to have it all, too, in even greater measure: wealth, celebrity, a beautiful home in an exclusive community, and a lengthy, successful career for which he was greatly loved and admired. He exuded a kindness and warmth that touched many—even those he never met. And yet, the manner of his death revealed a profound loneliness and hopelessness. Behind his surplus of wit and good humor was a deep darkness, a burden so great he despaired, finally, of shouldering it. We are stunned, in part, because of this contrast. If Robin Williams can find himself (or lose himself) at the edge of such an abyss, any of us and any we love can also.
The suicide of Robin Williams has stoked a national conversation about how we think about depression, despair, and how we respond to those who suffer. An appropriate response to those and for those struggling with depression depends upon a robust understanding of human anthropology. Humans are both material and immaterial, spirit and substance, and when one of these aspects is emphasized over the other, we end up in responding to depression in ways that are inadequate or even insensitive.
Some responded as though we don’t have bodies. Some have said that suicide is a deliberate, selfish choice driven by cowardice. Fox News host Shepard Smith insinuated Williams’ death was cowardly. Blogger and radio host Matt Walsh stated in a viral blog post that Williams “died by choice, not by disease”. Smith’s and Walsh’s statements, along with others of their ilk, are rooted in a anthropological view that minimizes the fact that humans are embodied creatures. In this view, bodies aren’t as important as the mind or the soul.
This is the mistake I made when coping with my own depression. I thought I could spiritually strong-arm my own depression with more prayer, more Scripture reading, or better obedience to God. Mind over matter. But the harder I fought, the deeper I fell because I failed to understand the role of the body in depression.
Depression is a disease of the body, not simply the soul or the “mind” or however one describes the immaterial aspect of our being. When depression burrows itself into our brain, it is often outside the reach of positive self-talk and rational decision-making. This depression is so deep we feel it (and whatever actions stem from it) beyond our control, outside of our free will, regardless of whether it is in truth.
Others responded as if we have no soul. They liken depression to a disease like cancer or AIDS. This response stems from a common materialistic view about humanity, which theologian Anthony Hoekema describes as a view that sees humans as a “being composed of material elements, his mental, emotional, and spiritual life being simply by-products of his material structure.”
Apart from depression that stems directly from the body, such as through genetics and certain medications, depression is a response. “Depression is telling you something that is wrong,” my doctor said. “And when it goes untreated, it’s almost impossible to cure apart from community support and medication because it creates changes in our brain and body.” In my case, I’d made a wrong vocational turn; I was supposed to be getting a PhD in Los Angeles, not launching a writing career in Frisco, Texas. But any number of things can stoke the hot embers of depression. Drug or alcohol use and abuse. Catastrophizing personal worries through overexposure to world news. An elevated level of empathy for the suffering of others. Divorce, death, conflict, social isolation, and loss.
Reducing depression to simply a bodily disease minimizes the immaterial aspect of our being. Depression is not always—or even often—simply caused by a disease of the body; it begins when we find our selves, our lives, and the world not all we hope. Not as they should be.
Human beings are a fusion of body and soul, material and immaterial, and our response to depression and to those who suffer must reflect this reality.
If you’re struggling with depression, or want to know how support someone who is, here are five essentials:
- Get adequate care. Ensure you are in the care of a physician. Follow their recommendations. If they say you need medication, take it and don’t apologize.
- Be honest. Talk about your feelings, fears, and emotions with friends, family, or a support group. Tell them where you’re at mentally and emotionally. Let them support you. I know it’s difficult to reach out to others, especially when we feel weak for doing so or we believe someone will judge us negatively, but it is essential to not bury feelings or emotions and let them rot and fester.
- Consider the root of your depression. Is there a relational or spiritual cause to the depression? Are you overusing or abusing drugs or alcohol? Or maybe, like me, you’re a sensitive and become overwhelmed with depressive thoughts when following the news for too long. What’s the cause of it? What might you need to change? How might God want to heal you in that area?
- Physical activity. Move. Study after study indicates a reduction in depression—even major depression—with regular physical exercise.
- Look outwards. What can you do to serve others? Depression and anxiety become a microscope by which you analyze, over and over again, your own life and the problems you struggle with. There is a growing body of research that has demonstrated a positive correlation between self-absorption and depression, and a negative correlation between altruism and depression. Meaning, the more focused you are on yourself, the more depressed you become and the more altruistic behavior you demonstrate, the less depressed you are.
You may have to do these things every. single. day. Depression is a daily battle, but don’t give up. Annie was right: the sun will come up, maybe not tomorrow, but someday. Things are not as grim as they look and you’re not as alone as you think you are.