There are three myths about depression. When I was first diagnosed, I faced a lot of criticism from the people I expected the most understanding–people at church. I was told “If you just had enough faith and truly wanted to get better, you would,” “I think you need to go off your medications and trust God for your healing,” and “Depression is straight from the Pit of Hell.” I realize now, years later, that the church people believed three myths about depression.
Myth One: Depression Is Just Self-Pity.
The best argument to this myth I’ve ever seen is in Carolyn Holderread Heggen’s book Sexual Abuse in Christian Homes and Churches. Heggen quotes an abuse survivor as saying:
If I were merely feeling sorry for myself, I wouldn’t be paying hundreds of dollars to work through the trauma. I wouldn’t be on medication to stabilize the chemical imbalance in my brain. I wouldn’t be waking up several nights a week frightened and sometimes not recognizing my husband. I wouldn’t be consulting expensive specialists. I wouldn’t have gone into the hospital. This process is too costly and too painful to go through out of mere self-pity. Self-pity is weak, not courageous as I am to face what I have.
Depression is a treatable medical condition. Self-pity is a transient emotion. Depression can respond to medication. Self-pity can not. Depression is not something one can just get over by positive thinking. Self-pity is. The two are not the same thing and should not be treated as though they are.
Myth Two: Depression Is Not a Disease.
This is a popular one in religious circles, largely because of the Biblical example of King Saul in 1 Samuel 16:14-23. The Bible literally describes Saul’s depression as the Spirit of the Lord departing and an evil spirit from the Lord afflicting him. What is overlooked is that his successor David, described as “a man after God’s own heart”, also suffered from outbursts of depression, lamenting in Psalm 22:1 “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” So if faith or lack thereof is not responsible for depression, what is?
Depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, usually an imbalance of serotonin (Biological Evidence For Depression: Mental Illness Exists). While we do not currently have the technology to measure chemical imbalances while the person is alive, we can do so by biopsying the brain post-mortem. Depression can be treated in a number of ways, ranging from counseling to electro-convulsive therapy (ECT, or electroshock). Treatments that would not work on a person without a mental illness are effective at correcting the chemical imbalance depression is.
Because we are still in the dark about how the brain works, treating a mental illness such as depression is as much art as science. There are several different antidepressant medications, and each medication affects different people in different ways. Make no mistake–depression is a disease. But it is a treatable one.
Myth Three: Depression Is Just a Bad Day.
Before President Barack Obama eliminated the pre-existing condition clauses common with most health insurance companies, I was uninsurable. I remember becoming desperate and trying to join a Christian healthcare pool which was targeted toward Christians who didn’t want their money to pay for insurance companies to support “immorality” (for example, they wouldn’t support sexually transmitted disease treatment unless it was due to a rape reported to law enforcement). I asked if they covered treatment for mental illness. They said no, because everyone hads a bad day, and maybe I should try some herbs.
Depression is not a bad day. Depression is the consistent inability to enjoy good days for no apparent reason. If we can have a bad heart or a bad kidney, why can’t we have a brain that doesn’t work right? Why is our brain expected to not get sick? As I once said to someone making this argument, “On my bad days I hallucinate.”
Depression is an illness shrouded in myths, such as that it is self-pity, that it is not a disease, and that it is just a bad day. In reality, it is a clearly defined medical condition that is highly treatable. We need to speak out against these myths when we hear them so that other people understand what we’re dealing with and become more accepting (Stopping Depression Stigma Starts With You).