Common Myths About Depression

by Cliff McManis

We live in a day and age where we have too much information. Modern technology has enabled us to publish a deluge of books at an unprecedented rate on every conceivable topic. And the Internet provides more information than anyone can read in a lifetime. In addition, virtually anyone can write and say anything they want on the Internet, whether it is true or false. There is a proliferation of contradictory opinions online, much of which is passed off as factual or authoritative. This is especially true on the topic of depression.

Do a Google search of “depression” and one is overwhelmed with a mass of articles, links, blogs, stories, and opinions—too much information through which to wade and absorb. Very little of it is from a biblical perspective and much of it is misleading. Who can you trust when it comes to getting advice or help on the topic of depression? For the Christian the Bible is the starting point for reliable answers regarding life’s problems, including matters related to depression. Before exploring Scripture, however, it will first prove helpful to expose some of the more popular and common myths about depression. This will help us navigate our way through the morass of endless opinions and contradictory pontifications on the issue of depression.

Myth 1: There is a clear, universally agreed upon definition of what depression is among professional psychologists and psychiatrists. A cursory overview of popular secular medical and psychological journals, some of which we looked at in the previous article, will quickly reveal that there is no universally accepted definition of depression, nor are the “experts” in sync about its cause or cure. This fact is important, because with any real sickness or disease—a genuine organic, biological, physiological illness such as strep throat, the mumps, chickenpox, or leukemia—there is a universally agreed upon definition. But that is not the case with depression—there is no universally agreed upon definition.

Myth 2: Depression is to be diagnosed and treated from only a medical perspective. This is stated in most of the professional secular journals available on the topic. These journals push the notion that the diagnosis of depression should be strictly from a medical point of view and, philosophically, considered from a naturalistic or Darwinian point of view. Depression is seen as nothing more than a physical disease. The myth here is that depression should be diagnosed and treated only from a medical perspective and not outside of that—like from a religious, spiritual or biblical perspective. Sadly, many in the church have bought into this unbiblical and humanistic perspective.

Myth 3: Depression is an illness or disease. This is a corollary to Myth 2. I would posit that depression is not an illness or disease, technically speaking. This is how the world, since the time of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) in the early 1900s, has been successful in diagnosing many of the common plights of humanity and couching them in medical terminology. Historically, however, that wasn’t always the case. For example, until modern times drunkenness was considered a sin and an immoral behavior. But since the time of Freud, it has been re-diagnosed, re-categorized, and labeled as a disease. That is what the world says. The Bible says that drunkenness is a sin (Eph 5:18; cf. Prov 20:1). It is common for the secular world to redefine behaviors the Bible labels as sin and slot them into new categories in the attempt to recast that which is inherently immoral as amoral and that which is evil as virtuous. In reality, depression has been around for a long time. It was not until the twentieth century that depression was, for the first time on a popular level, categorized in medical terms as an illness or disease. We will see from Scripture, however, that depression is not a physical disease. By saying that depression is not an illness or a disease, I’m not dismissing it, nor am I saying that it isn’t real. Depression is real, and it affects a lot of people. And at times it is related to illness or a disease. For example, long-term, chronic depression can contribute to, or exacerbate, other illnesses and diseases. And other diseases can bring on bouts of depression in certain people. So depression and actual diseases are not always unrelated.

Myth 4: Depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. Whether it is from too much serotonin, not enough serotonin, dopamine, or whatever else, all we have to do is figure out a person’s level of dopamine and serotonin and just add a little or take a little away and—poof! The experts believe we can heal depression by merely prescribing medication. I would argue that chemical imbalances can contribute to the problem and exacerbate the problem, but they are not the sole cause of the problem. Too many so-called “experts” today hold to this myopic view and are, as a result, making false promises to countless patients, telling them, “Just pop a pill and you can manage your depression.” The marijuana craze has reached a fever pitch in our day as well, and sadly many are saying that depression can be treated effectively with medical weed, which is the opposite of the truth since it has been scientifically established that marijuana is a depressive, addictive drug containing the psychoactive, mind-altering chemical, THC, which is detrimental to the brain.

Myth 5: Psychologists and psychiatrists are the only qualified experts in dealing with depression. This myth is based on the faulty premise that humans are animals—the by-products of evolution—and, for this reason, exist merely as material beings, not spiritual beings. This myth also stems from the false presupposition of Myth 2 above that says depression is to be treated strictly from a medical perspective. The truth is, humans are made in God’s image (Gen 1:26-27) and are physical as well as spiritual beings who need to be diagnosed accordingly. Secular psychologists and psychiatrists are inept when it comes to diagnosing the hurting spirit and soul of humanity.

Myth 6: Pastors are not qualified to deal with serious depression. I would say that Scripture expects pastors to be qualified to deal with the average case of depression. A pastor who is gifted, trained properly, and who has experience in ministry, can give quality help to the depressed. Sadly, there are those who call themselves pastors who have no business counseling the depressed, and they give good pastors a bad reputation. Much depression stems from how a person thinks, and the Bible has much to say about our thought life. Competent pastors, armed with the knowledge of God’s Word, therefore, can be experts in dealing with certain kinds of depression.

Myth 7: Depression is not a spiritual or theological issue. It is very common to hear this argument—that depression is strictly a medical issue, it is strictly a physical issue, or it is strictly a physiological issue. Ironically, this myth is often propagated by psychologists and psychiatrists who would like to maintain a monopoly in the treatment of depression. After all, it is not uncommon for psychiatrists to charge their depressed “patients” anywhere from $200 to $800 dollars a session and to maintain the same depressed patients for decades…a very lucrative trade indeed.

Myth 8: Depression is not in the Bible. This is a myth we would expect to hear from unbelievers; amazingly, I have had many Christians tell me this over the years, including several people who have come to me for counseling seeking help…for their depression! The truth is depression is found all throughout the Bible. I would argue that the Bible is the authority on depression.

Myth 9: Depression is a recent phenomenon. This is a common notion among the secular experts like clinical psychologist Laura Smith, who alleges, “Depression rates continue to increase. And most experts believe the increase is real.”[1] Actually, depression is not just now on the rise. The misnomer results from the ever-changing definitions assigned to depression by the ever-morphing humanistic disciplines of psychology and psychiatry. Freud did not diagnose depression for the first time in the 20th century. Depression has been around since the first human beings fell into sin.

Myth 10: If you had everything you wanted, you would not get depressed. This is a common American myth. “If I just had that…if my spouse just behaved this way…if my children just behaved this way…if I just had this amount of money…if I just could achieve this goal…if I just wasn’t single…then I wouldn’t be depressed.” Those notions are false, but are nonetheless common. 

Myth 11: Christians agree on the definition, cause, and care for depression. On the contrary, there is great disharmony, disunity, infighting, arguing, and debate that goes on in the Christian world about how to deal with depression, how to define it, how to approach it, and whether or not the Bible addresses it. We highlighted this in the Introduction.

Myth 12: Biblical counselors do not believe in “mental illness.” There is a large population, in and outside the church, who routinely misrepresent Nouthetic counseling (also known as “biblical counseling”). The phrase “Nouthetic counseling” was coined by Dr. Jay Adams and is thoroughly explained in his landmark book called Competent to Counsel (CTC), released in 1970.[2] “Nouthetic” is a compound word in the Greek New Testament (nous = ‘mind’ + tithemi = ‘to place into’) that means “to place into the mind” by speaking truth to someone by way of encouragement, exhortation or rebuke (cf. Rom 15:14). The word nouthetic has proven over the decades to confuse people, so the preferred phrase representing this approach is simply called “biblical counseling.” Jay Adams has been mischaracterized on the issue of mental illness for almost fifty years, for he in fact does believe there is such a medical condition called “mental illness.” Listen to him in his own words in 1970: “Organic malfunctions affecting the brain…validly may be termed mental illnesses.”[3]

Myth 13: Biblical counselors believe depression is simply sinful behavior. Biblical counselors are frequently mis-represented, and this is the second most popular caricature I hear from fellow Christians, usually pastors. For years fellow pastors on occasion have told me that Jay Adams and his ilk believe depression is always the same—always a sin, and always requiring the same remedy. They aver that Jay Adams’ remedy amounts to a callous, trite rebuke to the faithless, self-depressed counselee: “Suck it up; stop being depressed; memorize a Bible verse!” Nothing could be further from the truth. Depression is real, complex, has many causes, and is not always sinful. And a superficial, rote memorization of a Bible verse is not the solution. And Jay Adams never had such a shallow, heartless approach toward people.

Myth 14: Biblical counselors do not believe in using medications. Here is another red herring, smearing the reputation of true biblical counselors. There is a balance. Real diseases and organic problems may require appropriate medication. At the same time, the rule of the day is to over-medicate and give a pill for every problem with little discretion and routinely with no scientific diagnosis. Jay Adams said that we should treat true “sickness with medical means accompanied by prayer.”[4] He also states, “not all medication is unnecessary”[5] and in fact, biblical counselors should not work with their patients in isolation for “Medical problems demand close cooperation with a physician.”[6] So this oft-repeated mantra is a myth. I, along with many other biblical counselors, believe in using medications when appropriate for legitimate medical problems, as determined by a real medical doctor.

Myth 15: Spirit-filled and mature Christians do not battle with or suffer from depression. This false idea is peddled in many different ranks among the Christian community from health, wealth and prosperity teachers to Word of Faith teachers to mainstream evangelicals who say we need to be “happy, happy, happy all the time” and even write songs saying so. Christian Science holds the extreme position on this myth as that cult teaches that there are no real diseases—it’s all in the mind.

Myth 16: Depression is always a bad thing. This is possibly the most controversial myth of all. I would posit that depression is not always a bad thing. According to experts, one of the main causes of depression is guilt. As such, the easiest way to get rid of depression is by smothering any guilt that one might have and retraining or even searing the conscience so that all remaining guilt is hidden and drowned out. In other words, guilt is “bad.” I would say just the opposite: guilt is not always bad. As a matter of fact, guilt can be a gift from God.

Myth 17: Telling a Christian who is depressed to pray and read the Bible is just a canned, ineffectual platitude. I’ve heard this quite frequently. Some Christians get upset and frustrated with biblical advice regarding their depression. But the fundamentals of Christianity include talking to God in prayer and listening to God by reading His Word—that is where it starts. It is not a platitude, and it is insulting to God and His Word to suggest such a thing. 

Myth 18: Having depression is an excuse to justify sinful and wrong behavior. If some senseless man goes and shoots seventeen school children to death, it is not uncommon for news stations and other secular media outlets to basically justify or water-down the cold-blooded killer’s behavior because of an apparent struggle with severe chronic depression. And in such cases, they usually blame the society, the killer’s parents, the weapon, or politicians they don’t agree with for the murder—blame-shifting, the kind that began with Adam and Eve (Gen 3:12-13). In reality, the killer is fully responsible and accountable for his actions. Being depressed is never a reason to commit sin or to justify sinful behavior.

Whether you are thinking about this topic because of your own bouts with depression or because you are talking with or counseling a friend, it is vital to have a biblical perspective. Now that we have looked at the most common myths regarding depression, in the coming articles we will look at how the Christian should view this important subject in God’s unchanging, sufficient, glorious Word!


NOTES

[1] Depression for Dummies, (Wiley Publishing: Indianapolis, Indiana 2003), 1.

[2] Jay Adams, Competent to Counsel (MI: Baker Books, 1970).

[3] Ibid., 28.

[4] Adams, Competent to Counsel, 108. 

[5] Ibid., 142.

[6] Ibid., 268.   


You can read more on this topic in Cliff’s book, What the Bible Says About Depression.

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