There is no question that religion and spirituality can help pull us out of darkness and provide the hope and inspiration that is needed to persevere through despair. Several studies over the last decade have confirmed the positive role of faith in recovery from depression.
How Faith Helps Depression
A 2016 study from the University of Utah School of Medicine demonstrated how religious and spiritual experiences activate the brain reward circuits. In the study 19 young-adult Mormon church members performed four tasks in response to content meant to evoke spiritual feelings. Based on the brain imaging scans (fMRI), researchers found that when participants experienced spiritual emotions, there was activation in the nucleus accumbens, a region of the brain critical for processing reward, and in the medial prefrontal cortex, responsible for judgment, moral reasoning, and focused attention.
In a 2014, researchers at the Columbia University’s Teachers College documented other brain changes caused by religious experience that contribute to emotional resilience. Lisa Miller, professor of psychology, and colleagues found that the participants in the study who valued spirituality showed thicker portions of brain cortices that may protect against depression, especially in those at high risk. A previous study by Miller and her team published in The American Journal of Psychiatry showed a 76 percent decrease in major depression in adults who said they highly valued spirituality or religiosity, and whose parents suffered from the disease.
Religion not only provides hope, it assigns meaning to suffering. Stories of redemption encourage us to look at the bigger picture and find consolation in the wider, spiritual perspective of our hardships. In other words, they place our pain in the context of other faith heroes, which makes us feel less alone in our dark night.
Stigma and the Church
But what about when we spend hours on our knees and feel no respite or consolation at all? What about when our faith fails to heal us? Are we bad Christians? Bad Catholics? Do we not believe enough?
Just as religion and spirituality can lift us out of despair, a simplistic approach to faith can worsen symptoms of depression and interfere with treatment and recovery. When some believers don’t get better, they feel as though they have failed at one more thing – that they aren’t the disciples that Jesus called them to be. Unfortunately, this kind of stigma is reinforced in many congregations.
A while back, a reader left this comment on one of my blogs:
I am a Christian and I truly believe in Jesus Christ, the son of God, and He has helped me through many dark times, but just as the diabetic, the heart patient, the patient with high blood pressure I must have medicine to treat my illness. Unfortunately, many pastors and other Christians say that I am on happy pills, never thinking how sad that makes those of us who struggle with this illness.
Her experience is hardly unique. Consider the following statistics (which I edited for clarity) from several LifeWay research studies:
- A third of Americans say mental illness could be overcome with Bible study and prayer alone.
- Almost half of pastors say they rarely or never speak to their congregation about mental illness.
- Less than 5 percent of churchgoers who lost a loved one to suicide say church leaders were aware of their loved one’s struggles.
When I was a sophomore in college, I attended a Mass in the chapel of one of the dorms. I was struggling with suicidal thoughts at the time and had just agreed to start taking an antidepressant after fighting about it for a year and a half with my therapist.
“Psychologists’ offices are starting to replace confessionals,” the priest said. “We need to bring sin and spiritual warfare back to church, where they belong.”
I stood up and walked out. With those two irresponsible sentences, he discounted the 18-month struggle I endured to arrive at a place where I was finally okay seeking treatment. That was the beginning of a recovery that last 15 years, the start of a new life for me. Had I listened to him, I may not be here today. I continue to hear variations of his words today in homilies today. Each time, I walk out.
Let me be clear. I do believe in miracles, very much so. And I believe our faith can bring on miracles. I have witnessed the line of crutches hanging over the grotto in Lourdes, France, proof of hundreds or thousands of disabled persons whose faith somehow allowed them to walk away. A year ago, a friend of mine claimed that she was “healed” of her depression during a prayer service and has been able to reduce her meds.
Most of the time, though, I believe that God offers us certain tools for intervention — medication, psychotherapy, support networks. It is by employing them that we are healed. The work isn’t separate to our faith. We don’t just sit back and wait for Jesus to relieve our symptoms.
I suppose my God is more high maintenance, demanding a little action and cooperation from me, much like the joke about the guy who dies in a flood despite his prayers for God’s rescue:
As the floodwaters rise, a man named Sam calls for God’s help.
First a neighbor offers him a ladder.
“Nope, my God is coming,” Sam replies.
Then the police arrive with a rescue boat. “Hop on board!” they instruct him.
“Thanks, but no thanks,” Sam says, “God will save me.”
And finally, the national guard provide a helicopter, and he tells them to go away, too.
Sam dies, goes to heaven, and asks God, “Why didn’t you rescue me?”
“I sent a ladder, a lifeboat, and a helicopter…what more could I do?” says God.
When it comes to depression, don’t be Sam. Get on your knees. Derive a sense of hope and meaning from your religion or spirituality. However, if your faith doesn’t cure you immediately, don’t beat yourself or become idle in your recovery. Continue to do the hard work. Because most miracles demand a little sweat.