Dr Bernard Shiu, well-known Geelong general practitioner, shares his professional opinion on depression:
In my career, I’ve come across and treated many patients suffering from depression. And, contrary to popular beliefs, it is a pretty common medical condition.
Among those who come and seek help, significant proportions are people who are in authority. This is because they are people who have high expectations of themselves and expect the same from others. And they, surprisingly, include ministers and pastors of churches.
However, worryingly, most of the patients I see who are ministers and suffering from depression did not initially realise that to be the situation. Or rather, they realised they might be depressed but did not think it necessary to seek medical help. The argument that the love for the Lord and his people would help them conquer all has failed to prove itself over time.
Well-known Bible characters too
In the Bible there are many characters that could be identified as clinically depressed. Just to name a few: Abraham (Genesis 15), Jonah (Jonah 4) Job (Book of Job), Jeremiah (Book of Jeremiah), David (Psalms).
Even we, as Christian believers, are definitely not immune from this condition.
Symptoms of depression include persistently low mood over a few weeks, along with declining motivation, memory and concentration. Thoughts can be quite negative to the point when anhedonia (unable to enjoy things one used to enjoy) starts. Appetite and sleep quality along with sex life can also be affected too.
No wonder Proverbs 15:13 says, ‘A happy heart makes the face cheerful, but heartache crushes the spirit.’
If you find yourself, or someone close to you, acknowledging even a few of these symptoms, please seek appropriate help. I recommend readers to speak to their own GPs or seasoned leaders from their respective church first.
Treatment of depression is complex and must be personalised. It often starts by addressing the cause of depression, not just the symptoms. Indeed, some depressions do have an organic cause eg hypothyroidism, chronic disease, complex pain and such – yet we cannot ignore many issues of sin and emotional conflict that can affect mood.
The approach must be multifaceted and leave no stone unturned until a reasonable cause is found. Some cases of depression may be caused by chemical imbalances in our bodies. Trial of an antidepressant may be warranted, especially when no specific reason or cause is identified. It is not a sign of failure or worsening of the symptoms but simply a different avenue on treating the condition.
Each medication has its own merits and side effect profiles. Most require at least 2-4 weeks before the benefits are seen. Stopping them abruptly will cause rebound symptoms. The use of medications must be carefully selected and monitored by the treating doctors.
I would certainly recommend exploring all other options first before medications are considered. Speaking to a trained counsellor or psychologist is highly recommended and should be considered in all cases.
Some would ask, isn’t faith alone enough to be healed?
I must say I have seen, time and time again, that God definitely works in mysterious ways, that he is a God of miracles. Certainly the element of faith may be enough in some cases. Trusting his words and his healing power rather than medications or therapy is certainly a practical and realistic approach for all believers!
Let’s look at a prime example from the Bible – Paul in 2 Corinthians 11:23b-28 (NIV) ‘…I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have laboured and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.’
Paul had every reason to be depressed, yet he looked up daily to the Lord to renew his strength and God enabled him to go on and, in return, Paul praised him even more. He focused on the eternal rather than the temporary. He reminded us to remain faithful and to keep our focus on God’s agape love and the eternal hope he has given us. As he said in Galatians 2:20 (NIV), ‘I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.’
Looking ahead, not back!
In Philippians 3:13-14 he says, ‘Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.’
Paul pointed out that runners in a race never look back to see where the other runners are, for if they do they may stumble or lose track of what they have accomplished.
A runner always looks ahead and stretches forward, making the focus the finish line, not what may be behind. Paul helps us to put the past and future in their proper perspective.
I have come to understand a lot more about the amount of pressure ministers and church workers are under, the unbelievably high expectations they have of themselves and are imposed on them, both in performance as well as faith.
We need to work hard and work even harder to be joyful at all times. It is easy to fall into depression when things are challenging but please remember that it is completely okay to feel sad/depressed /upset. Do seek help from church elders /GP and such.
And, remember, even in the darkest times, God is still in control and there for you.
Dr Bernard Shiu, BSc, MD, FRACGP is a General Practitioner, Geelong, Victoria, Medical Educator, Southern GP Training Program and a Senior Clinical Lecturer, Deakin University, School of Medicine. He attends Waterfront Christian Church
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