Good Adventists don’t get depressed! If only this claim were true, wouldn’t researchers rush to investigate the secret of their immunity? And wouldn’t those prone to depression want the same protection?
Yet very good people and their pastors do suffer this affliction, and the “remedy” that many of them choose is denial. By turning a blind eye to telltale symptoms, they try to convince themselves that they really are not depressed.
Part of the inducement to hide one’s depression from view is the “happiness test” that some use to measure spiritual well-being. After all, wrote Ellen White, “those who love God and His truth should be the happiest people in the world.”1 So if happiness isn’t constantly apparent in the pastor’s experience, one may be tempted to wonder if a sagging spiritual experience didn’t cause the depression.
While a decline in a person’s spiritual state may coincide with, or follow, a depressive episode, more often the depression is caused by factors other than the lack of spiritual vibrancy.
In Elijah’s case extreme physical fatigue combined with fear and bitter disappointment precipitated his profound depression and his desperate wish to die.2 For Isaiah, “it was the perversity of the people that brought upon the Lord’s servant the deepest depression.”3 In Paul’s case, “the depression of spirits from which the apostle suffered was . . . attributable in a great degree to bodily infirmities.”4
“With the memory ever before him of his own transgression of the law of God, David seemed morally paralyzed; he was weak and irresolute.” However, “in his great peril David shook off the depression that had so long rested upon him.”5
Too little is known about the depressions suffered by these heroes of faith to conclude that current diagnostic criteria for clinical depression could be applied to them. Two other cases, however, provide further insights about causes and about the comforting assurance that there is an end to times of depression.
Ellen White wrote about her husband, James, “I was shown that God did not design that my husband should bear the burdens he has borne for the last five months. . . . This has brought perplexity, weariness, and nervous debility, which have resulted in discouragement and depression.”6 “He does not suffer bodily pain but his great trouble is battling with depression of spirits.”7 At another time she reported, “My husband is cheerful and happy. All depression is gone.”8
Her own experience is informative. “It is not a common thing for me to be overpowered and to suffer so much depression of spirits as I have suffered for the last few months.”9 Referring to a different situation, she wrote, “I received letters of a discouraging character from Battle Creek. As I read them I felt an inexpressible depression of spirits, amounting to agony of mind, which seemed for a short period to palsy my vital energies. For three nights I scarcely slept at all. My thoughts were troubled and perplexed.”10
Ellen White’s deviations from her normal level of functioning are in sharp contrast with the relief she described when she was delivered from her depression. “On the night of April 30, 1871, I retired to rest much depressed in spirits. For three months I had been in a state of great discouragement.” “When I awoke, my depression was gone, my spirits were cheerful, and I realized great peace. Infirmities that had unfitted me for labor were removed, and I realized a strength and vigor to which I had for months been a stranger.”11
Identifying the exact reason for depression is often difficult, especially when several causes are involved. For instance, ministers may have a family history of depression, their personality structure may predispose them to the illness, they may have deeply engrained patterns of negative thinking, or there may be some dire triggering event that precipitated a depressive episode.
There is no shame in accepting assistance when suffering a debilitating physical illness such as depression.
Whatever the combination of causes in a particular case, a pastor has several possibilities to consider that can help alleviate the distress of both the symptoms and the root causes of the depression.
An enticing option is to do nothing. On average, spontaneous remission of an untreated depressive episode will occur in about eight months. But the depression can take more than twice as long to go away. It seems most ill-advised to extend the suffering of the person needlessly—and to inflict the spin-off misery upon that person’s family—when relief can come much sooner.
A second possibility is for the pastor to focus on reducing the distress caused by the symptoms. Intentionally practicing the “healthy opposite”12 of symptoms can strengthen one to meet the challenge of addressing the underlying causes of depression.
A third option is to mobilize resources. There is no shame in accepting assistance when suffering a debilitating physical illness such as depression, which is typically characterized by decreased neurotransmitter levels in the brain.13 With medical help, combined with evidence-based counseling, improvement will likely come in about eight weeks instead of eight months!
During their darkest hours it is reassuring for pastors to remember that Jesus understands, from personal experience, what it means to be depressed. The disciples “had frequently seen him depressed, but never before so utterly sad and silent. . . . He groaned aloud as though suffering under the pressure of a terrible burden. . . . His frame was convulsed with anguish, and his pale countenance expressed a sorrow past all description.”14 When Christ was strengthened by the angel in Gethsemane, His “agony did not cease, but His depression and discouragement left Him.”15
Without question, our Savior is touched with the feeling of our infirmities (see Heb. 4:15, 16). Even though some depressed pastors may feel that God is distant and unresponsive, in reality, Jesus “cares for each one as if there were not another on the face of the earth.”16 “The desire of God for every human being is expressed in the words, ‘Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health.’ ”17
Depressed pastors’ faded hopes can be rekindled by these bright assurances that their depression may indeed be healed in direct answer to prayer,18 through heaven-approved natural means that bring about miraculous results,19 or through the health-promoting effects of medical treatment.
Peter Swanson, Ph.D., is an associate professor of pastoral care and counseling at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. He served as a pastor for 12 years in his home country of South Africa.