Tread Carefully Around Depression 6 August 2013

Depression. This big ‘D’ is an uncomfortable topic for many of us. There is something about the word that just makes us ‘not want to go there’. I have to admit the feeling of awkwardness that has sometimes come across me when the ‘D word’ is mentioned in conversation with people who suffer with depression.

Yet depression affects 1 in 5 people in the UK – you probably know at least a handful of people who have been or are depressed; you probably interact with people who are depressed on a daily basis without even realising. And the fact is that depression affects people from all walks of life – young or old, black or white, male or female, religious or not religious.

Faith and Depression
I was glad to hear the Archbishop of Canterbury’s daughter, Katharine Welby, publicly discussing her experience of depression last May. It was comforting because many believers in my experience seem to think that believing in God makes you immune to depression. Just a few weeks ago, I attended a religious class where the teacher calmly explained that Muslims ‘don’t get depressed because we have God’. This sentiment is echoed by other faith communities – Katharine Welby (who sardonically refers to herself as ABCD for short) explained that many of her Christian acquaintances would tell her that she wasn’t depressed or that she didn’t understand God’s love for her. It is almost as if religious communities sometimes think of depression as the product of an atheistic mindset – caused by a lack of meaning in life, an absence of God and a deficiency in faith. But Katharine’s story, and the experience of many more religious people across the country, proves that this is not the case.

There is, in my eyes, no religious basis for blaming depression on a problem with one’s relationship with God. The Qur’an describes the desperation and sadness of many of the prophets in times of difficulty – for example, Jacob’s sadness at the loss of his son, Joseph; or Jonah’s pleading with God when he found himself in the belly of a whale. The Prophet Muhammad – the perfect role model for Muslims – cried at the death of his only son. Would any believer say that these highly-esteemed figures got sad because they did not love God enough or lost hope in Him?

Understanding and Compassion
Sadness, anxiety and depression are not sins and do not signify a lack of faith. Rather, emotion is an important and beneficial part of the human experience. Anger, sadenss, joy, fear – all these feelings can motivate us to positive action and can bring one closer to God. Katharine Welby said of her experience “I experienced the love of God more in my darkest period that at any other point in my life”.

As people of faith we must not be judgemental of those who are suffering depression. We should be careful of our language too. We must not think that being free of depression means that we love God more or that the sufferer has a problem with their faith. Nor can we blur the lines between feeling sad or unhappy and depression, which is a clinically diagnosed illness. These simplistic ideas are damaging to those afflicted with depression and discourage them from admitting their problems and seeking support, particularly among their fellow believers. These stereotypes also damage the reputation of faith communities, and portray a sense of arrogance towards the non-religious.

9 in 10 sufferers of depression say they have faced stigma or discrimination due to their illness. Faith communities should utilise the social and spiritual capital at their disposal to challenge the taboo. Depression should be discussed openly and maturely in our communities and places of worship in order to allow faith to fulfil its therapeutic role. There are so many spiritual coping mechanisms that can help at such times of crisis – but only by talking about depression openly can we allow sufferers to benefit from these.

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About Laura Jones

Laura researches and writes on religion and Muslims in the UK. She recently completed a Masters in Islam in Contemporary Britain, has previously worked as a Muslim chaplain, and is contributing editor for On Religion. She has a particular interest in inter-faith relations, mental health and Muslims in the public sphere.

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