Many of us have wrestled with depression at some point in our lives. I felt it stalking me when my son was stillborn several years ago. Amid the grief and pain, I sensed it nearby—a kind of deeper despair that threatened to strip me of my ability to care for my then two- year-old daughter. It loomed like a pit that I feared I would fall into if I got too close. Clinical depression, as defined by the DSM-5, is more than feeling down about your circumstances. It’s marked by at least two weeks of low mood, a lack of interest in normal activities, a loss of appetite, indecision and sometimes even thoughts of self-harm or suicide.
Not just an isolated challenge
Many high-profile names have battled depression, from Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill to Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie. According to the Black Dog Institute, one in seven Australians will battle depression at some point in their lives, with the Ministry of Health reporting one in five adults in New Zealand. And yet, somehow there is still a stigma attached—as there is with any mental illness. Sadly, stigma often becomes the lock on the cage of depression that prevents us getting the help and support we need. In some circles we encounter the perception that depression is a “personal failing”. We feel that we just need to “snap out of it” or that we perhaps just need a little more faith. However, these attitudes overlook the reality that depression is more than just a response to negative events or personal struggles. Clinical depression involves an imbalance in brain chemistry.
Our modern society often fails to grasp the physical aspects of depression. Many of us forget that we can’t just “pep talk” a person out of it. Yet, writings from thousands of years ago reveal incredible insight into the dynamics of brain chemistry and physical needs in relation to depression. One such example comes from the book of 1 Kings which appears in the Old Testament of the Bible. The story centres around a man named Elijah. Elijah is an Israelite prophet and is portrayed as a hero of faith and courage. In chapter 18, Elijah has a dramatic, public showdown with his opponents. The nation of Israel has been worshipping the pagan god Ba’al. The confrontation happens on the top of a mountain with Elijah on one side and 50 prophets of Ba’al on the other. Elijah comes out victorious after a breath- taking demonstration of the power of God so by every account, Elijah should have been on cloud nine!
The only problem is that Queen Jezebel—bitter and embarrassed over losing in such a humiliating fashion—is out to have him murdered.
King Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done (including how he personally killed all 50 prophets of Ba’al). So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them” (1 Kings 19:1,2).
After the incredible experience Elijah has just had, the reader might expect him to trust God rather than worry about the queen’s malicious plans. But that’s not what happened. Elijah wasn’t coping. Overwhelmed and depressed, he ran for his life into the wilderness.
The wilderness was a refuge for the outcast; a place of hiding for those who were being hunted. Elijah was no stranger to the desert—it had been his home for three-and-a-half years while he hid from the wrath of the king during a prolonged drought. Perhaps the lengthy time of stressed conditions had affected his mental wellbeing. In recent times, studies have shown that when we endure stress for a prolonged period the balance of our brain chemistry can be affected. When cortisol levels are elevated for a significant time and then we gain reprieve, our serotonin and dopamine levels can take time to recalibrate. The result is that prolonged coping can plunge some individuals into depression.
Maybe this is what happened to Elijah. Whatever the case, in chapter 19 we find Elijah sitting under a tree in the middle of the barren wilderness asking God to end his life.
He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep (1 Kings 19:4,5).
Such was his state of despair and depth of his depression that he could see neither joy nor value in living. It seems that even heroes of faith can lose the will to live. What is surprising though, is God’s response.
All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again (1 Kings 19:5, 6).
God did not offer a rebuke, nor did He lecture Elijah on having more faith or being more resilient. Instead, God sent an angel to deliver him a couple of hot meals and some cool water. He acknowledged the toll that the journey had on Elijah and let him get some well-deserved rest. Some of us in our well-meaning attempts to help a friend struggling with depression might try to talk some sense into them or offer a motivational monologue. But the God of the universe took a completely different approach. He saw Elijah’s desperate state and met his physical needs first. Then, He acknowledged Elijah’s struggle and waited for him to be ready to take the next step. God’s response is centred on compassion rather than condemnation.
Our brain chemistry is profoundly affected by our physical environment. Food, light, sleep, music: all these things can have a dramatic effect on our mood and ability to cope. Here are three simple things you can do to balance your brain chemistry:
- Get as much natural light as you can
Ideally spend at least 30 minutes outdoors each day. Natural light, especially morning sunlight, has been shown to positively impact natural biological rhythms and brain chemistry. Many studies have observed a correlation between light and healthy brain function.
- Exercise regularly
We can struggle with motivation when we are depressed but getting regular exercise has been shown to reduce depression symptoms across all age groups for both men and women.
- Eat well
What you eat has a profound effect on mental wellbeing. While we might be tempted to reach for the comfort food and junk food when we are feeling down, studies show that eating balanced meals are much more effective at improving our mental and emotional state. A plant-based diet may offer particular benefit.
Whether you are personally struggling with depression or are trying to support someone who is, meeting basic physical needs is a good first step. Being aware that depression has a significant physical and chemical basis can be helpful in guiding our response and temptation to offer well-intentioned advice. And finally, as with any mental illness, compassion, or self-compassion, makes a world of difference.
If you or someone you know is struggling with severe depression it is important to seek professional help. You can call Lifeline anytime on 13 11 14 or speak to a medical practitioner for support.
Rebecca Cheers is a freelance writer with a Graduate Diploma in Ministry and Theology. She previously worked as a solicitor for more than 10 years having completed a Bachelor of Laws/Bachelor of Arts (Psychology) in 2010 and a Graduate Diploma in Psychology in 2017. She is married with three precious daughters and resides on the South Coast of NSW.