Thursday, July 12, 2012

Jesse Jackson, Jr., Depression and Christians

Reading the fevered speculation over the whereabouts of US representative from Chicago Jesse Jackson, Jr., and then seeing today that he may in fact be at a clinic in Arizona being treated for depression or a ‘mood disorder’ or ‘alcoholism’ or some combination thereof has reminded me in a fresh way that our society does not deal very well with people who suffer from depression.  Granted, the term ‘depression’ covers a lot of ground in popular usage, and is often used in contexts that simply imply unhappiness that things are not going the way one might want them to go, or other temporary feelings of unhappiness.  But psychiatry has demonstrated that there is such a thing as ‘clinical depression’.  There are many possible causes and many possible treatments.  Sometimes depression is caused by a pile-on of difficult circumstances, and the resulting inability to cope brings on a kind of mental shut down. Sometimes depression is the result of trauma, either physical, relational or emotional.  The sort of depression that results from external events can often, after the passage of time and without any kind of medical intervention, resolve itself.  But sometimes such depression can partner with other issues or predispositions and become more serious and even dangerous.  When a depressed person, for example, looks to alcohol or drugs for relief of their internal disarray, addictive patterns are quickly created that become very difficult to undo.  And then, of course, depression may be so profound that it leads to suicidal thinking.  And if not identified and helped, this sort of depressed thinking may lead to actual suicide.  See this article for a particularly sad example.

Then there is the depression that results from all kinds of hormonal or chemical issues.  I know a woman who suffered from a difficult post-partum depression.  She attempted several different solutions, but the depression remained until she quit nursing.  After she weaned her baby, she woke up one of the following mornings and discovered that the world was in color again after having been shrouded in grey for months.  It is also known that certain medications increase the risk of depression, as do some medical conditions.  The antimalarial medication Lariam or Meflaquin, for example, is known to induce depression in a percentage of people who take it for extended periods.  The raft of suicides and spousal murders among US service members returning from Iraq in the 2000s was linked in a number of cases to prolonged exposure to Lariam.  (see the article, ‘The Dark Side of Lariam,’ for example)  I myself suffered from what we think was a Lariam-induced episode of depression in 2001.

Genetics may play a role in one’s susceptibility to depression.  While scientists cannot explain yet how the hereditary connection works, studies have documented an increased incidence of depression in the descendants of those who struggled with depression.

The mind also responds to major transitions by exhibiting symptoms of depression.  Job loss or new job, moving house, death of a loved one, marriage trouble and divorce, serious illness, any one of these can push one into a deep dark hole, in which one finds oneself completely debilitated, out of which escape and deliverance feels almost impossible.

And then there is the debilitating onset of chronic clinical depression.  This too has a spectrum of causes and a range of possible treatments, usually having to do with counseling or medication or most often a combination of both.  Efforts are made to understand any contributing factors from one’s past (trauma, abuse, relational trouble) and to identify unhelpful coping strategies used to deflect or manage the pain (addictive behaviors, unhelpful relationship patterns, etc) and to treat medically the symptoms so that one is not crippled by feelings of despair.  But this sort of depression is a cruel disease, affecting one’s perspective on life and relationships and one’s patterns of behavior long after the actual symptoms have been managed successfully by medication.  And often management is all that can be done.  Depressive symptoms that recur after apparently successful treatment indicate that the illness is just that, an illness and that it is chronic and will have to be managed for the rest of one’s life.

That being said, people who struggle with depression and get help do manage to climb out of the dark pit and back into a life where love and joy and light and happiness are once again a part of their experience.  And often the perspective on one’s life gained through counseling is immeasurably helpful in restoring a relational equilibrium that has been missing for a long time.  Recovery can lead to a wholeness in self-awareness and in relationships that were previously warped or even missing in one’s life as one’s energy poured into efforts just to cope.

However, experience shows that most people are ignorant of depression.  People who suffer from depression are sometimes told that they should just ‘snap out of it’.  Christians can be the worst in this regard, imputing a lack of faith or spiritual maturity to those who are depressed.  Depressed people can be treated as if they are somehow defective or damaged goods.  Even in the 21st century, with all we know about depression and other mental illnesses and with all of the advances and successes in treating it, there is still stigma attached to those who suffer.  Fear of this sort of reception, of course, leads many depressed people to hide their depression from colleagues or acquaintances.  Their own circumstances are already painful enough without adding rejection or worse to their burden.  Many depressed people therefore choose to suffer silently, afraid of what might happen if it gets out that they are ‘mentally ill.’  They choose to ‘gut it out’.  They are ashamed of what this says about them.  They refuse to reach out and get help until it’s too late and the depressed person begins to feel that there is no other way out of an impossibly painful situation than to end it by taking one’s life.  This happens more often than any one wants to think.

I know all of this from personal experience.  I suffer from a chronic clinical depression.  My first episodes occurred in 2001, and I was probably enduring cycles of depressive illness for years before then.  I was just in denial.  Once I realized what was going on, I reached out for help, first to a MD friend, and later to a psychiatrist.  I will be on medication the rest of my life.  I have managed to excel in my work, but my illness has taken its toll on my relationships.  And sadly, I have experienced the painful reality that many people, including many Christian people, and especially many Christian people who are in leadership positions and who should know better, do not understand depression nor do they understand how to love and help someone who is depressed.

Some years ago, I was the senior pastor of a very large church.  In an effort to model vulnerability with the elders, I shared with them my struggle with depression, what was being done to help me, and asked for their prayer and support.  Before two weeks had passed, I had a delegation of elders in my office suggesting that I take ‘a long break’ from being a pastor ‘for the sake of my health’.  At that time I was being successfully treated and was feeling fine, and things at the church were going well.  I politely declined and suggested that they read some things on what depression actually was.  I wanted them to know that in my case it was a medical condition, like diabetes, which could be treated and controlled.  I will not go into the long sad story that follows, only to say that two years later these same elders succeeded in pushing me out.  I offered my resignation and they accepted it with immediate effect and would not allow me to return to the congregation.  They never told me why I was being treated this way, nor did they ever tell the congregation why I was there one week and then vanished the next.  According to people who heard him, the chairman of the elders did say in several contexts that I had been suffering from mental illness and that it was ‘for my own good’ that I was gone.  It was all incredibly painful and disorienting for me.  And I still cannot fathom why people who claim to be Christian leaders could treat one of their colleagues in this manner.

So when I read stories about Rep. Jackson’s struggles, and all the rumor and speculation along with the additional cruel innuendo that people feel obligated to contribute, I’m taken back to my own experience.  I can only hope that his own outcome will be different than mine, that he will get the medical and counseling help that he needs, and that even if his life does fall apart, he will be surrounded by people who love him and who care for him and who understand and who will be there for him.  Sounds like what Christian love should be.  Sounds like what the Church should be.  If only.