By Shawn McMullen
The title of the BBC News Magazine article caught my attention: “Is depression good for you?” The author noted, “A leading psychiatrist says that depression is not a human defect at all, but a defense mechanism that in its mild and moderate forms can force a healthy reassessment of personal circumstances.”
Depression is a serious problem affecting nearly 20 million Americans at a cost of more than 30 billion dollars annually. It impacts young and old, rich and poor, Christian and non-Christian. Given depression’s widespread impact on the population, it would be wise for Christians to look for opportunities to mature in the midst of such a common affliction. As we look for ways to cope with depression, we should also look for ways to grow from it whenever possible.
In some cases, depression—at least certain aspects of it—may benefit the discerning Christian. That’s not to say it isn’t a real problem, or that we should not seek help in dealing with it. But at times we can learn from it. Here’s what I mean.
Depression may help us deal with our imperfections. None of us can boast perfect psychological health. We might say because of the fall, everyone—to one degree or another—suffers from mental illness. Taking stock of our imperfections can be helpful—especially when it enhances humility and leads to a greater dependence on God. We can’t say the psalmist was dealing with depression when he wrote, “When you are on your beds, search your hearts and be silent” (Psalm 4:4). Still, the call to take a long, hard look at one’s heart in the quiet should not be lost on any of us—even during quiet and lonely moments of depression.
Some who have experienced depression report that it helped them revise unrealistic expectations. When depression is brought on by disappointment, it often helps to consider the source of the disappointment and ask whether or not our original expectations were reasonable. The writer of Proverbs noted, “Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the lord’s purpose that prevails” (19:21). I know people who have battled depression and later realized their experience led them to change direction in life—alter plans, adjust goals, and consider new opportunities. Today some of those folks are more content than ever, and they believe their motivation to change grew out of a period of depression.
People who’ve dealt with depression are often more empath-etic toward others who struggle with it. The apostle Paul described how God “comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2 Corinthians 1:4). Although depression is never pleasant, it can prove to be a blessing—if those who go through it draw on their experience to minister empathetically to others.
In one way, there’s nothing good about depression. In another way, it can (at least indirectly) move us forward and empower us to help others. I wonder if that’s what the psalmist anticipated when he wrote, “You have taken my companions and loved ones from me; the darkness is my closest friend” (Psalm 88:18, NIV, 1984).