THIS book is a philosophical and theological examination of the nature of depression and Christian responses to it. These range from linking intense experiences of isolation and languor to sin, demonic possession, and dark nights of the soul. By teasing out the implicit assumptions embedded in such claims, and linking the analysis to facets of Christian theology such as whether God suffers, the author clarifies the terrain and arrives at recommendations. They may be particularly useful for those seeking to minister to those who are depressed.
The author recognises that depression is still often surrounded by stigma: Christians are often confused about, say, whether depression is a failure, and struggle with the feeling that there should be a specifically Christian response to it. The discussion also guides the reader through some subtle subjects such as the notion of the dark night according to St John of the Cross. I appreciated, too, the paragraphs on the many distressed saints commemorated by the Church, with whom the depressed might identify and find relief.
Biomedical models of treatment and their limitations are subject to a critique, but it is recognised that drug treatments can be helpful and, on occasion, transformative. Approaches that treat the condition in relation to more holistic understandings of being human, and the wider socio-economic environment, are preferable, Scrutton argues. This is in line with trends such as “social prescribing”, when a sufferer may be offered various kinds of treatment, from art activities and group learning to swimming and gardening. Going to church may be helpful in this respect.
Some assumptions of the author limited the discussion, in my view. For example, Scrutton majors on the links between deprivation and depression, following the theological tradition that believes Jesus demonstrated an “option for the poor”. But depression is no respecter of political and socio-economic differences. If it were, it could not be so widespread in modern society. The trouble with this spiritual materialism is that it is almost blind to what Carl Jung called “the urgent psychic needs of our age”. It can, therefore, become unwittingly complicit in the conditions in which depression thrives, not least of which must be the spiritual vacuity of a secular age.
I also believe that the psychoanalytic discussion of depression has much to offer, from the attachment theory of John Bowlby to the insights of figures such as Melanie Klein and Donald Winnicott. I am a psychotherapist; so I would say it is crucial. But it matters, I think, because it also offers rich terrain for advancing Christian responses to depression — not least because one of the remarkable features of the Jesus of the Gospels is his penetrating interest in the inner dynamics of our lives.
Dr Mark Vernon is a psychotherapist and writer.
Christianity and Depression
SCM Press £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £16