By: Dr. Gregory Popcak
The news of Robin Williams’ suicide has brought the insidious nature of depression front and center.
I know too many Christians who believe that they should be immune from depression because they are Christian. While research shows that some believers can be more resistant to depression and have a somewhat easier time bouncing back when they do get depression, it is also true that some approaches to religion can be associated with higher rates of depression and emotional problems. When evaluating the power of belief to protect against emotional problems, the research seems to show that the question isn’t “do you believe?” but rather what do you believe, how, and why?
The bottom line is that, by and large, Christians experience depression at rates that are similar to the general population. Twenty-Six percent of adults in the US have depression. The World Health Organization estimates that by 2020 depression will be the second leading cause of disability after heart disease.
Does Treatment Work?
The good news is that depression is very treatable. Sadly, many comments I am reading on the internet seem to suggest that seeking help must be pointless because if Robin Williams, who arguably had every resource in the world available to him, couldn’t get adequate care who can? First, we don’t know all the details of Robin Williams situations and we never will. Secondly, what we do know points to a much more complicated clinical picture than what most people experience. Robin Williams’ history was not with depression but with Bi-Polar Disorder, which can be characterized by dramatic mood swings and is somewhat more difficult to treat than depression. This, combined with his long struggle with substance abuse and the unique pressure a person in his position faces, should remind everyone to resist the temptation to draw broader conclusions about the effectiveness of depression treatment based on the tragic outcome of William’s particular story.
What’s the Best Treatment?
As I mentioned, depression is very treatable. 80% of people who seek help report that they experience significant or even total relief from their depressive symptoms. That’s a tremendous success rate.
What is the best treatment for depression? Studies of evidenced-based approaches to treatment show that psychotherapy alone should be the primary method of treatment. This approach has the highest success rate, the longest-term recovery rates, the lowest negative effects and the lowest drop-out rate. For patients who need additional support, adding medication to psychotherapy is the best approach.
Interestingly, despite what all the TV commercials tell you, research seems to show that the least effective approach is medication alone because of the relatively lower rate of effectiveness (about 50%), lower rate of symptom relief (about 30%), higher side-effect profile, greater likelihood of post-treatment relapse, and greater treatment drop-out rate. Bottom line? If you have been diagnosed with depression and are not in ongoing psychotherapy, you are not undergoing the best course of treatment. Period.
How Do You Know If It’s Time to Seek Help?
Everyone experiences sadness, but its important not to dismiss depression as mere sadness. If you are experiencing a period of sustained sadness that lasts for at least 2 weeks and is accompanied by any of the following: a change in eating habits (either eating more or less), sleeping habits (either more or less), withdrawing from social engagements, decreased enjoyment of previously enjoyable activities, feelings of worthlessness or guilt, or especially, thoughts of dying, death, or harming oneself, it’s time to seek help.
How Do We Cope?
Our ability to resist depression or recover efficiently from it tends to depend a great deal on the coping strategies we use to deal with stress in general. For now, just know that if you or a loved one is struggling with feelings of sadness or despair that you think might be depression, getting help early is key. If you aren’t sure if it’s depression, that’s a good enough reason to get an evaluation (i.e., If you have to ask…). Talk to your doctor or contact a licensed psychotherapist who can help you clarify the nature of the problem you are facing and the best means of resolving it. Getting help early is the best way to increase both the likelihood of a full recovery and your ability to experience the life God has given you as the gift that it is—even when that gift gets complicated.
For more information on faithful approaches to treating depression and other emotional problems, check out the Pastoral Solutions Institute’s Catholic Tele-Counseling Practice by visiting us online or calling 866-724-1196 to make an appointment to speak with a professional Catholic counselor. Let us help you integrate the wisdom of our faith with contemporary insights from counseling psychology to help you develop the most comprehensive response to the challenges in your life.