Depression and spirituality, religion and God

Being spiritual or religious meant different things to different people, including believing in a higher purpose, a higher intelligence, a reason for existing, or God. Some people also belonged to a religion and church. The spiritual and religious people we talked to in particular sought a deeper reason for their depression.

Religion and spirituality could either support people's wellbeing or undermine it, depending on how people thought about their spirituality. Those who felt supported and helped by their spirituality believed in a loving, forgiving, benevolent higher power. This could be a wonderful source of comfort in depression. The trouble is that just as it is hard to feel connected to other people while depressed, it is difficult to feel connected to God. A leap of trust and faith is frequently needed to be spiritual while depressed.

When religion or spirituality worked against wellbeing, it contributed to negative thinking patterns, anxiety and depression. As children, some people had picked up the religious message that 'good behaviour leads to heaven, and bad behaviour leads to hell.' This idea had been frightening and unhelpful when they were children. Nevertheless, such early messages could be challenged as part of becoming an adult, and recovering from depression. For instance, one young man in his thirties decided to turn away from Christianity because of his difficulties with the notion of 'sin,' as well as the fact that he never actually felt a personal connection to Jesus.

Some believed that prayer could have a healing effect. Through prayer, one woman gained a sense of comfort and a feeling that God would always 'sustain' her and not prolong her suffering, even though she had experienced severe and long episodes of depression. While people could say formal prayers, they did not have to know particular prayers. Some people simply talk to a higher power/God as if they were talking to another person or an absent therapist. Some asked others to pray for them, such as when they were too unwell to pray themselves. While depressed people did not necessarily feel there was any benefit to praying at the time, they felt it was helpful in the long term. One woman used a metaphor of an iceberg melting in the sun to explain how she thought prayer helped people.

One question that concerned many people was this' “Why does God allow people to suffer so much in depression”? People with spiritual beliefs who were recovering had found answers that supported them to better care for themselves. Trusting in God when all was a mess and unclear was a common approach. For one evangelical Christian woman who pleaded with God in the depths of despair “Tell me the song and I'll sing it”. Her eventual understanding was to trust in God's purpose for her life.

Some people said their churches could be very supportive, while others felt depression was stigmatised in churches, and even seen as a sin by some. One woman believed that in biblical accounts of Jesus, there is evidence that he suffered anxiety and depression before his crucifixion - so it was OK for her to have depression, and depression was not a sin.

People with spiritual beliefs sometimes acknowledged that people may never actually find out the reasons behind their suffering. Depression could seem senseless and cause them to distrust 'God'. Yet, one young woman who had little faith in God believed that by the laws of karma, things would have to get better for her after what she had endured since childhood, and she did subsequently have many fortunate experiences. It is also worth noting that a number of people, with and without spiritual beliefs, felt they had changed for the better having gone through long and horrendous experiences of depression.

Last reviewed September 2017.


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