By Dr. Audrey Davidheiser, Crosswalk.com
March 3 is the National I Want You to be Happy Day. Any reaction to this news?
Pardon my stark honesty, but this national holiday bothers me.
Wanting others to only focus on happiness is in line with how the culture at large—and the body of Christ—idolize happiness. Or joy. Meanwhile, emotions that don't warm us on the inside get minimized and preached against.
At least in America. A Stanford professor's paper tracked cultural differences between American and German students when expressing sympathy. She found that the Americans were more eager to avoid negative states of mind than their German counterparts.
Unfair treatment against emotions disheartens the psychologist in me. More than that, it's also problematic. Consider the following destructive cycle: When people suppress their emotions, including those instigated by trauma, they unknowingly set those feelings up for an explosion later.
But guess what? When these negative emotions erupt, they get slapped with a bad rap, which motivates people to suppress them all over again, ensuring the cycle will continue.
That's why the name of this little-known holiday peeved me. But then I researched its purpose and learned how the founder of this holiday intended 3/3 as a reminder to help one another.
Now, this is the kind of mission I can stand behind. Dedicating one day to shower others with kindness seems to be what our culture needs, especially given how isolating COVID has been.
But let's also be real—about 5% of the world battle depression.
Can I be extra honest with you? Sometimes, the Christian community lives in so much denial you'd think we all reside in Egypt (where the Nile river is. Get it?) We dismiss signs of depression. We insist on everyone wearing a smile at church. We interrogate those who don't.
To be fair, however, society uses the term depression too casually, diluting its real meaning. So let's discuss what depression is not.
Depression Is Not:
1. Another Word for Sadness
Normal sadness and grief do exist. For instance, just because your brother said he's depressed because his team lost the Super Bowl doesn't mean he's clinically depressed.
This is especially true because according to the DSM V, the handbook used by mental health professionals worldwide (but primarily in the US), clinical depression requires at least two continuous weeks of a depressed mood.
2. Synonymous with Feeling Blue
Depression involves a loss of interest or pleasure in daily activities. But just because your daughter seems lethargic after her best friend moved five time zones away doesn't necessarily mean she is depressed, especially if she's still invested in her regular routines.
3. An Atypical Calm
Trauma survivors, by definition, survived horror. Some grew up in a customary cloud of chaos; they have been trained to tolerate the absence of peace. This is why a subgroup of trauma survivors feels troubled when things are relatively calmer.
All this to say, if a stable environment seems to make a family member feel dejected, and you know that this person is a trauma survivor, it doesn't necessarily mean they are depressed.
What Depression Is:
1. A Mental Disorder
This means depression won't resolve on its own as time goes by, no matter how many times the depressed individual hears uplifting messages—whether in a cliché or Christianese.
2. Withdrawal from Pleasurable Activities
People diagnosed with clinical depression exhibit a tangible departure from their usual nature. If your husband has routinely waxed his muscle car every morning for the last 17 years but stopped doing so since he got fired, it's possible he might be depressed—especially if this new behavior has lasted longer than two weeks.
3. Emotional Symptoms
Are there any other shifts in your loved one's behavior? Pay attention to these mental and emotional signs:
-feelings of excessive guilt or low self-worth
-hopelessness about the future
-thoughts about death or suicide.
4. Physical Changes
A depressed person can also complain about the following:
-having disrupted sleep
-changes in appetite (which can translate into weight loss or weight gain)
-feeling perpetually tired or having low energy.
In some cultures, depressed individuals may more readily complain about bodily symptoms like pain, fatigue, or weakness. But for the depression diagnosis to apply, these physical symptoms cannot result from a medical condition.
Care for Depressed Souls
Please note that reading this article does not substitute a visit to a professional. Follow through with your hunch and set that appointment. Only professionals trained in gathering symptoms of a troubled soul can diagnose whether depression is present.
As a clinical psychologist, my bias is to steer you toward seeing a mental health professional. Sitting down with your pastor is great, but let's also include a psychologist or therapist in the conversation.
Here are a couple of reasons why.
First, as I've written elsewhere, medical professionals received extensive training on the body but not necessarily the soul. That's why taking a depressed loved one to your primary care physician will likely net you a prescription if the doctor agrees that depression is at play.
Mental health professionals, on the contrary, received training in psychology. Depending on the credential of the professional, they will have gone through anywhere between 2-7 years of graduate school with courses focusing on the human soul, healthy developmental stages, as well as deviations and exceptions.
Let me pause for clarity's sake. I'm not against psychotropics or medications in general. But when it comes to medicating a minor, I propose a hearty caution. Antidepressants pose serious side effects, including an increase in suicidal ideation. That's why I'd rather research healthier approaches than douse a growing brain with mood-altering chemicals.
Secondly—and please take this from a practicing Christian herself—don't limit yourself to just spiritual strategies.
Why is it that Christians can trust mechanics to fix our broken carburetors and dentists to fill our cavities, but when it comes to mental or emotional challenges, we balk at seeing therapists, even if they're fellow believers?
Christians have crafted many versions of "no" when it comes to seeing a psychologist:
-"I just need to pray more."
-"What you do with depression is to resist it."
-"You don't need counseling. All you need is the Bible and Jesus."
However, relying on spiritual strategies alone to combat depression can be disastrous. Take a study with Pentecostals as an example. This research resulted in a fascinating result, albeit with an alarming implication.
Let's start with the result. The study participants endorsed faith-based approaches as the most effective remedy for depression. Since Pentecostal doctrine teaches a reliance on the Holy Spirit, including and especially during times of sickness, nothing is surprising here.
But the researchers drew a startling implication. They argued that if these spiritual solutions failed to resolve depression quickly, Pentecostals might assume that the depressed individual lacked spiritual devotion.
Which could allow shame to sully the situation.
But shame doesn't alleviate depression. Neither does blame.
In other words, if you employ only spiritual means to resolve depression and they don't immediately produce the outcome you intended, you might feel bad about your faith.
How about if we follow Paul's example instead?
The great apostle instructed his protégé, Timothy, to consume wine for the sake of his stomach issues (1 Timothy 5:23)—a very secular prescription if there ever was one.
Even though Paul's advice wasn't spiritual in nature—he didn't tell Timothy to meditate on the Torah or fast and pray, for instance—the Holy Spirit included Paul's prescription in the written canon.
Can we interpret this decision by God as Him implicitly approving the use of other nonspiritual methods, such as psychotherapy, for healing?
Absolutely. That's my answer. I have seen God heal my clients through therapy, especially Internal Family Systems (IFS). As a certified IFS therapist, I have seen the transformative power within the model to alleviate suffering. And when we invite the Lord into an IFS session, watch out. What can take months of therapy using other modalities can be accomplished in a fraction of the time using IFS.
Whether or not you end up with an IFS therapist, however, my prayer is that healing will come to your depressed loved one.
Audrey Davidheiser, PhD is a California licensed psychologist, certified Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapist, and IFSI-approved clinical consultant. After founding and directing a counseling center for the Los Angeles Dream Center, she now devotes her practice to survivors of trauma—including spiritual abuse. If you need her advice, visit her on www.aimforbreakthrough.com
The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of Salem Web Network and Salem Media Group.
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