Bearing each other’s burdens: what does depression feel like?

What is depression? The simplest definition I can come up with is: a mental illness that negatively affects the way a person feels, thinks and acts.

What are some of the symptoms?

  • feeling sad or down or hopeless.
  • loss of interest or pleasure in activities one used to enjoy.
  • change in appetite, weight gain or loss unrelated to diet.
  • difficulty sleeping.
  • loss of energy and increased fatigue.
  • feelings of worthlessness or guilt or self-loathing.
  • difficulty concentrating or making decisions.
  • feeling that one is a failure and has let’s oneself or one’s family/friends down.
  • no drive or desire to do anything, an expectation that anything one tries will fail so why bother trying?
  • seeing the worst in everything and everybody around oneself. Assuming that other people have the same low opinion that one has of oneself.
  • thoughts of death or suicide.

It’s not unusual to experience some or all of these symptoms after a devastating life experience such as losing one’s job, the end of a relationship, or losing someone we love. That is not depression. That is simply a natural reaction to a terrible circumstance in life, part of the process of grieving or coming to terms.

These sorts of experiences can be a trigger for a person entering a period of depression, yet most people can go through the grieving/coming-to-terms process and come out the other side without falling into depression.

Depression is a long-lasting phenomenon. Waking up feeling dreadful or miserable for a day doesn’t count. The American Psychiatric Association says that the symptoms must last for a minimum of two weeks before a diagnosis of depression can be given.

Have you experienced those symptoms over a period of two weeks or more?

It may be impossible to recognise depression in yourself if you don’t know what it is or what the symptoms are. A person can easily struggle to cope with life or work or health or relationships, and may even be contemplating suicide, without any understanding of why they are feeling that way.

If that person is a Christian, feelings of self-loathing and guilt can be particularly dangerous. Such feelings can push a person into a pit where they constantly feel so negative that they can’t believe God or Jesus love them or that God has forgiven them for their mistakes.

That person may know that a Christian isn’t supposed to feel like that. A Christian is supposed to feel love and joy and freedom and hope and motivation. If a person who is suffering from depression doesn’t feel those things, he or she may think that they’re a failure as a Christian. They aren’t faithful enough or good enough. They haven’t been forgiven. They aren’t going to be given eternal life. God doesn’t want them. In a way, perhaps being a Christian can make depression worse.

Do you have a friend or family member who suffers from these symptoms?

It may be impossible to recognise depression in other people if you don’t know what symptoms to look out for. You may think that a person is being grumpy or negative or cynical or self-centred or rude or uncaring for no reason. Why don’t they smile back at you? Why don’t they want to speak to you? Why can’t they ever see the good in life? Why don’t they appreciare what God has done for them? Don’t they realise how well-off they are compared to some people in our world? Why do they always make excuses when you ask them to do something?

Depression is more than just a bad mood or a negative outlook on life. It’s not something a person is doing deliberately or can simply switch off if you ask them nicely. It’s an actual illness of the mind. The way that it makes a person feel and think will make very little sense to somebody who hasn’t experienced it.

A person suffering from depression will not feel or think the way you do if you’ve never suffered from it yourself. You cannot expect them to feel or think the same as you. You cannot assume that things which seem obvious or just common sense to you will be the same for them.

Depression is something that people who suffer from it will rarely talk about. Firstly, because they may not even understand what it is or be able to articulate their feelings and experiences.

Secondly, because a church community is often not a great environment for admitting problems. Most Christians don’t like to confess our sins or talk about our weaknesses or to dwell on negative thoughts and feelings.

For the person who is suffering from depression, the overarching ethos of their church community may tend to encourage them to keep to themselves. They may not want to burden anyone else with a problem they barely understand themselves. They may be afraid to say something that will be perceived as negative. They can feel very alone. They may not want to talk. They may not feel safe to do so. They may feel as if there is nobody who is willing to listen or able to understand.

Now scroll back up and read that list of symptoms again. Are they part of your life experience? Have you observed them in somebody you know?

If so, what can you do?

In the next part we’ll consider some ideas for addressing depression in your own life.

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