Angela Tilby: Depression is often not understood

by
18 October 2019

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WHEN I was growing up, our family doctor used to say that depression was reality. She treated it as an illness with drugs and counselling when it was severe, but she also believed that it was an illness that most of us were born with — an almost unavoidable consequence of being alive and being human. Jesus, she thought, had encountered depression in the wilderness.

When the Archbishop of Canterbury said that he had suffered recently from depression, many were grateful for his brave admission. He was right to say that there should be no stigma, no blame for this most common condition.

Yet depression is often misunderstood. To make sense of what it is, we should contemplate the opposite. As those who are bi-polar recognise, the opposite of depression is not “wellness”, but mania: an exaggerated energy and recklessness, sometimes accompanied by delusions.

A therapist I used to go to believed that certain kinds of religion staved off depression, but at a high price. He had in mind the kind of faith that expects people to be constantly joyful and victorious. For my therapist, such fervour represented what psychologists call “a flight into health”: an unconscious suppression of mental symptoms to avoid facing their reality.

I have been at Christian funerals at which grief seems forbidden. Such smiley Christianity can be difficult to live up to; the smiles are sometimes a mask for paranoia, and can suddenly give way to a terror of demonic attack or of God’s judgement.

There is plenty of evidence that mental-health problems are rising, especially among young people. One reason could be an expectation, cultivated by a hyperactive culture, that life is full of promise and opportunity, that we should grab it while we can, that happiness is simply there for the asking, and that all obstacles can be surmounted and overcome. This puts huge pressure on people to deny ordinary human disappointment, or to blame others for holding them back. Even disadvantage has to be weaponised as an “identity”.

There is a manic quality to all this, a constant shouty exaggeration of tone and expectation, along with the delusion that, if something desired does not occur, it is because it has been denied by someone else. What is much harder to do is to accept that depression is a form of mourning, a response to the losses that are no one’s fault.

Our Christian forebears were more realistic. They recognised that there was a continuum between low mood and madness, and that the best that we can hope for is a life of moderation and balance, with medical help if necessary. We cannot be positive all the time. Depression can be a terrible experience, but it is not without meaning. As has often been said, grief is the price that we pay for love.

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