Well, something of a storm developing over today’s 4thought! For those not in the know, 4thought is a short slot at the end of the Channel 4 news given over to discussions of faith, ethics, and similar and where a person is given that time to present one point of view. This week, 4thought has been giving space to views on whether faith can cure depression. This particular episode featured Malcolm Bowden, who described himself as an evangelical Christian, and according to his website is a semi-retired engineer who also writes on creationism, “true Biblical counselling” and against the charismatic movement, along with some other things.
The storm has come here where Mr Bowden among other things states that depression is “deliberately decided by that person”, that it is “pride” and “self-pity”. He also states that a “true Christian should not ever be depressed” and advocates obeying God as the cure for depression.
On his website he states that, except in cases of drug- related or brain damage, “We would contend that there is no such thing as “mental illness”. The bizarre and anti-social behaviour of people is only a cover for their guilt and sin.” He claims an 80-100% successful cure of schizophrenia using his “true Biblical counselling” model – “Evidence is presented to show the inadequacies of present day psychiatric treatments and psychotherapeutic counselling and to show that schizophrenia can be cured simply by training patients to take increasing responsibility for their actions without drugs. In one case a complete ward of schizophrenics was fully returned to the community with very few relapsing.”
So! Is depression simply pride or guilt over sin?
I have to take my own case – was I particularly prideful before I became ill? Not that I recall. I do think the illness has changed me, and it is my belief that I am better because of it, but I do not recall any sin of mine so big that I would be singled out for an illness that only affects 1 in 100. I sinned, of course, but I did not have any massive sins on my conscience. If things were as easy as X is a sinner therefore X has depression, then things would be easy. But we can all think of people who did awful things and apparently this had no effect on them.
I would also point out to Mr Bowden that depression seems to be evident in the Bible. For example, you could hardly say Jeremiah was happy when he wrote Lamentations, and the Psalms are a source of great comfort to depressives simply because they put into words what we feel. Jesus himself wept, and was troubled.
I worry that people like Mr Bowden think the Christian life has to be all happy, or else it is not true. Paul talks about us “groaning” waiting for the Lord to return, and points out that we suffer in this life. I don’t see why suffering mentally is a sin – to me it is an illness like any other illness.
Malcolm Bowden is an extreme case, but there is a stigma about depression in particular that is similar to this. People who think depression is something you can “snap out” of, or can work it away, or can be solved by eating some fruit and getting a good night’s sleep fail to understand clinical depression. It really irritates me that people use the term “depression” so casually, casually enough that there are scores of people who, if you say, I have depression, think that it isn’t anything serious. I do think that sin, and the guilt of sin can cause a depressive-like thing, I would say it is not clinical depression though.
To me guilt is a separate feeling to depression. For one thing it is easily resolvable, and I know that when I am feeling guilty I feel a different sort of emotion to depression. When I am depressed I feel guilty as well often, but about things that are not real. For instance I will feel guilty that I was born. That is the sort of guilt that accompanies depression, the down feeling when one is carrying a load of deserved guilt feels quite different. Perhaps it takes having depression to realise that, and I do not think Mr Bowden has experienced depression, and would not acknowledge it if he had.
Depression is a brain illness that can be helped or cured with medication. Yes there are other things that can help and yes, I believe faith can help a great deal. But I do not believe that depression is simply our pride, our lack of self control, and that repentance will cure it.
I remember many times when I was at my most ill, lying on my bed desperately trying to repent of anything I could think of, hoping to have relief from depression. I was still depressed at the end of it. What helped me more was realising, as Adrian Plass has it, that “God is nice and he likes you”. God stands with us when we are ill, and can help us – whether he chooses to heal us or not, but many Christians have experienced depression, and I do not believe that a true Christian is never depressed. The help for depression I have needed is love, love like that of my dad for me, acceptance by other Christians and the hope of better things to come and of a purpose to my suffering.
I reject Malcolm Bowden’s teachings, and I reject his rejection of medical science. It is one thing to say we do not know fully the causes and treatments for mental illness, it is another to say that we can completely cure severe mental illness by non-medical means. To paraphrase Jesus, the sick need a doctor, not a fundamentalist with an axe to grind.