Autumn can bring a lot of warmth and coziness as we anticipate holidays and the beginning of Advent. Yet it can also be a time of more busyness and haste. If you are finding yourself suffering from burn-out or depression, you are not alone.
Pope Francis’ prayer intention for this November is that “we pray that people who suffer from depression or burn-out will find support and a light that opens them up to life.” Even some of the saints suffered from depression, a few of whom are written about in Dr. Aaron Kheriaty and Father John Cihak’s book, “The Catholic Guide to Depression: How the Saints, the Sacraments, and Psychiatry Can Help You Break Its Grip and Find Happiness Again.” Their book is offered not as a substitute for treatment, but as an aid for those suffering with depression as well as their loved ones.
Part 1: Understanding depression
Kheriaty shows there are different types of depression as well as various causes. Two major risk factors are heredity and gender. Women are prone to depression two times more than men are. Other factors include medical illness, alcohol dependence or drug abuse, negative thinking, isolation and insecure attachments. The National Institute of Mental Health notes that at least 7% of U.S. adults have experienced a major depressive episode. While this is far more common than we would hope, God did not intend depression as a punishment. It is a result of man’s first mistake in the Garden of Eden, when humanity fell into original sin. Yet God still aches deeply for us and longs to for us to be in communion with him.
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The Bible provides several examples of others suffering the consequences of original sin, like the exile of the Israelites and the sorrow of Job. Yet faith and hope remained: “For I know well the plans I have in mind for you — oracle of the Lord — plans for your welfare and not for woe, so as to give you a future of hope” (Jer 29:11). Even Jesus experienced sorrow, as when he wept over the death of Lazarus or when he sweated blood and cried out to God in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Jesus experienced a very gruesome passion, and Kheriaty notes that “the person suffering from depression may also be experiencing a participation in the agony of the Cross. … The Cross and Resurrection do not abolish sorrow from Christian experience. Sorrow will be present in the life of every believer, but it is something that is used by God to bring the disciple into closer union with him.” It is hard to understand, but the suffering can be redemptive, and Jesus is with you during your passion.
Kheriaty is quick to note that an actual diagnosis for mental illness is vital. Incorrect diagnosis is not only unhelpful, but can trigger more severe symptoms. For example, the typical antidepressant can be harmful to one suffering from bipolar disorder.
Research shows that 95% percent of those who commit suicide have been diagnosed with a mental disorder. Kheriaty notes that for those who do attempt suicide, there is usually only a part of them that wants to end their life. A reporter interviewed the few people who have survived a jump from the Golden Gate bridge. He asked them, “What was going through your mind as you were in the air for those four seconds? As one man put it, ‘I realized then that all of the problems in my life that I thought were unsolvable were in fact solvable — except for having first jumped.’” In another story Kheriaty shared, he spoke about a man who made one last journal entry before jumping. This man wrote, “I’m going to walk to the bridge. If one person smiles at me on the way, I will not jump.”
In this world of walking with down-turned faces, eyes glued to our phones, we could all use a little bit more acknowledgement in our day to day life. A smile, even a smile, can be powerful enough to save a life.
Part 2: Overcoming depression
While medical treatment is often the best choice for those with depression, there are a few other things which have been proven to help.
Extensive research recommends the Mediterranean diet. “Overall, research shows that a diet high in foods with omega-3s, or supplemented with fish oil or omega-3 supplements, can help prevent depression and help stabilize one’s mood in bipolar disorder,” they share in the book.
For those who suffer milder forms of depression, there are many studies which recommend exercise, stating that “exercise may work as well as antidepressant medications, having similar physiological effects to antidepressants.” Exercising alongside the company of a friend is usually the best choice, as it not only provides camaraderie but also motivation.
Prayer and spiritual direction can also help. Studies also show that spending just “fifteen to thirty minutes of contemplative prayer or meditation twice a day has robust health benefits, including lowering blood pressure, reducing rates of heart disease, ameliorating chronic pain, and helping with insomnia.” When it comes to spiritual direction, it is not to be viewed as a treatment for depression, but rather to facilitate the work of a therapist.
Even work can provide meaning and fulfillment and can help prevent depression. The first book of the Bible shows that we are created to work: “The Lord God then took the man and settled him in the garden of Eden, to cultivate and care for it” (Gn 2:15). Pope St. John Paul II recognizes this as well: “Work is one of the characteristics that distinguish man from the rest of creatures. … Only man is capable of work, and only man works, at the same time by work occupying his existence on earth. Thus work bears a particular mark of man and of humanity, the mark of a person operating within a community of persons. And this mark decides its interior characteristics; in a sense it constitutes its very nature” (Laborem Exercens).
Finally, another crucial element for everyone’s life is the virtue of hope. Viktor Frankl, Austrian psychiatrist, author and Holocaust survivor, wrote an entire book on “Man’s Search for Meaning,” which I highly recommend. Here he wrote how hope is absolutely essential for living through difficult circumstances, for it gives purpose and meaning. A life lived in this way is a life that shines. As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI put it, “The one who has hope lives differently” (Spe salvi). The Christian hope is not a kind of wishful thinking nor ignorance. The Christian hope derives from the Incarnation and the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Prayer resources for challenging times
- Psalm 102
- Prayer of Saint Ignatius of Loyola
- Anima Christi
- Lead, Kindly Light by Saint John Henry Newman
- Address of Pope John Paul II on the Theme of Depression
Books for when you’re stressed, anxious
- “Unworried: A Life Without Anxiety” by Dr. Gregory Popcak
- “Overwhelming Pursuit: Stop Chasing Your Life and Live” by Mark Joseph
- “It’s OK to Start With You” by Julia Marie Hogan, MS, LCPC
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