Monday, May 19, 2014

Depression, the Silent Epidemic

Depression is a common mental health problem that is said to afflict one in four or five people at some stage in their life. It may be caused by biological, mental, and social factors, or a combination of all three.

Although the word ‘depressed’ is commonly used to describe the temporary emotion of feeling low or downcast, the medical term ‘depression’ refers to a mental illness. It can also known as clinical depression, major depression, or major depressive disorder.

As opposed to feeling down temporarily, depression is a condition that pervades every part of a person’s life. Symptoms include loss of interest in life, overwhelming sorrow, obsessive fearful thoughts, fear that it will never end, having no hope for the future, and many other disturbing physical, mental, emotional and spiritual symptoms.

Depression is sometimes called the silent epidemic because unlike other diseases, it is not easy to recognise when someone is afflicted by it. Also, those suffering from depression have a tendency to conceal what they are going through.

This could be because they do not know what is wrong with them or what could have caused such a wide variety of disturbing symptoms. Furthermore, those suffering from depression may not want to talk about issues they find too embarrassing or painful to talk about, largely because they are concerned that others will think less of them as a result.

There is also pressure, and this is especially true amongst Christian circles, for a person to give the impression that they have their act together. It is a difficult step for a Christian to admit that they are struggling with fear, anxiety, guilt, and doubt.

It is also unfortunate that in not knowing who to turn to for help, when a depressed person does attempt to share what they are going through, others, also lacking knowledge about depression, may give them advice such as: ‘get your life together,’ ‘pull yourself out of it,’ or ‘just snap out of it.’ And in Christian circle, they may be given advice such as: ‘you just need more faith,’ ‘you just need to rebuke the enemy,’ or ‘you just need to pray and read the Bible more.’

Since their walk with God is the most importance part of their lives, many Christians suffering from depression focus primarily upon the spiritual symptoms accompanying depression and therefore make the mistake of concluding that depression has an entirely spiritual cause. Therefore, instead of seeking the help they need, they try to escape from depression by reverting to spiritual solutions only.

I spent the first four months of being clinically depressed hiding from the world as far as was possible, not knowing what was wrong with me, reluctant to share it with anyone, and hesitant to seek help. In fact, I had no idea what was even wrong with me or where to find help.

From my diary, 12th April ’90 –

What is this storm that rages within me?
Why won’t it abate, why won’t it subside?
It comes in like a storm, and devours me.
And it won’t go away. It’s nearly four months now.
Four months of doing nothing,
Just hiding and hiding and waiting.

It is the lack of knowledge of depression and the way it operates that gives it so much power. The prophet Hosea warned us of the dangers associated with a lack of knowledge in Hosea 4:6. “My people are destroyed from lack of knowledge.”

If I had been taught about the fear-adrenalin-fear cycle, panic attacks, and practical coping techniques for dealing with fear and anxiety during my teenage years, my descent into depression in 1989 would not have been so severe or long-lasting.

Unfortunately, although I had attended thirteen years of school, teachers’ college with a child psychology component, and Bible College with a counselling component, none of the courses had taught me specific details about depression or provided practical coping strategies.

Hence, when I slipped into severe depression at the end of 1989, I had no idea what was wrong with me. I spent hours recording my woes and symptoms in my diary in a futile attempt to work out what was going on. Here is an early entry, dated 31st Jan ’90 – I feel like the Melbourne weather. I regularly get extremely angry, very angry, even with God. And then, half an hour later, I want to cry, in despair and loneliness…I feel extremely sad for some reason. I even feel extreme momentary excitement every now and then. What has happened to me?

As the days turned to weeks and then to months, I feared I would never be able to escape the ‘thing’ that had overcome and crippled me. This diary entry from July ‘90, aptly summarises the bewilderment I was experiencing.

A Difficult Road

How should I view my current condition?
This constant state of being ill at ease.
Is it an emotional condition causing physical stress?
Or a physical condition causing emotional stress?
I cannot work it out.
There are so many physical side effects that it could be physical.
Sometimes my shoulder muscles ache to abandon,
The aching pain in my jaw drives me crazy.
My face and arms get a burning, prickling sensation.
My stomach feels trapped, as though it needs to burst,
Or simply feels disturbed.
My chest feels like its going to explode,
And like my stomach, often feels ill at ease.
I’ve also suffered from flu symptoms since April.
These physical problems alone would be enough to cause emotional stress.
And as there are physical problems, so there are emotional ones.
I feel uncomfortable all the time, most notably while at work.
Frustration, irritation, anger and uncontrollable depression are ever present.
Words are inadequate to explain the emotional effects that afflict me.
They vary from a feeling that something big and dark will consume me,
To endless mental churning that only makes me worse,
To those times where it is so faint that I can only just detect it.
These emotional problems alone would be enough to cause physical stress.
I wish I had a word to describe this ‘illness’ that assails me,
Is it ‘depression?’ I really don’t know.

I was eventually diagnosed with depression, but it was not explained to me in sufficient detail. What a relief it would have been to know that all of the symptoms I wrote in the diary entry above, as well as many others, were all caused by depression and anxiety.

In late July 1990 I finally read a very detailed description of depression and its symptoms. It was so liberating to learn what was wrong with me and how the fear-flight cycle was responsible for creating all of the disturbing symptoms, and that by changing how I reacted to those symptoms would eventually cause them to cease. It encouraged me to learn that I was suffering from a common affliction, that I was not a freak.

Knowledge had replaced my ignorance, understanding had chased away my despair, and my hope had returned.

Here is an example of how truth and knowledge can set us free from fear. When my son was born at 1.30am, he was placed in a humidicrib because he was struggling to breathe. The nightshift nurses gave me little information regarding his ailment and I was greatly distressed. The following morning, another nurse explained to me that my son’s lungs had filled with fluid during the caesarean operation, a normal occurrence, and would drain naturally within three days. My fears abated and relief flooded through me, and sure enough, fifteen hours later his lungs had cleared and he able to leave the humidicrib.

It is my desire that all may be able to recognise depression’s symptoms in themselves or others, and know practical coping strategies to cope with and recover from it.

And then depression will no longer be a silent epidemic.

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(All verses from the NIV)


  1. Peter will come back to thourghly read later.

  2. So true...signs of depression are overlooked and overshadowed! Thank you for bringing awareness and a ray of light at the end of the tunnel for so many.

  3. Hello Peter,
    Having read some of your earlier articles, I recognize in this rewriting a greater clarity and an increased sensitivity. You are honing in more on what is essential and what will help a person in time of need. Good work!

  4. Peter,
    This is so well-written. Thanks for once again bringing insight and clarity into the fuzzy world of depression. You describe it all with such accuracy. It is a tragedy that there are still so many who suffer silently and unknowingly. And yet there has never been more opportunity to have your depression understood and helped than today. Just this week there was a documentary on Robert Munch on TV, telling about his struggles with bipolar and addiction. Then there was a beatutiful documentary called "With You and Without You" about a husband/father who suffered mental illness silently and eventually killed himself. You are doing your part by talking about it. I will forward this particular article to a friend or two who I know would enjoy reading it. Keep up the good work. Thank you for being so transparent!

  5. I'm writing a paper on depression and would like to use some of your poems. I would love to contact you directly about this! Rachel

  6. Thank You very much for this blog. I was suffering from depression some time, but I sometimes have today big stress and anxiety. Some Christians say that is only spiritual disease, what can be sometimes very wounding for them. Topic of depression is still tabu in some groups of Christians. Thank You for balanced view. Zimbabwe (this is only nick) from Poland.

  7. Peter, as always your insight is so well explained. I learn so much here. Thank you.

  8. Peter, I, too, have found in my practice that people are better able to cope and decrease the depression when they understand it and learn how to recognize its symptoms. Thanks so much for making that info available. God bless.

  9. I just read this page: How true your words are Peter. So much time I have spent in searching: Is it my hormones? my back pain? the fact my kids have left home to college? My lost pet? The list goes on and on.... Maybe it all has to do with it... maybe not, but after much reading and studying on the right topic, I learned .. A LOT, and then I was able to focus on the teachings. What a mental rest that was! Now I can work on geting better!

    1. Amen! Getting past that "searching for the cause phase" by finally understanding what depression is and what causes it, is an important step in the road of recovery from depression.
      God bless