Depression is the world’s leading cause of disability and is felt in all countries, both poor and rich. In many ways, this indiscriminate impact makes it unique, however many continue to conceal it from those around them for fear of the stigma that often follows the condition. On this year’s occasion of World Health Day, we are called to embrace and empower those suffering around us to find the aid they need to overcome it.
The theme for this year’s campaign is “Depression: Let’s Talk.” Depression affects people in all walks of life and in all countries. Despite this ubiquity, acknowledgement of the disease, along with access to treatment remains elusive for many. Many believe depression is just a form fleeting sadness, effectively dismissing the severity of the condition and harmfulness that derives from it.
Depression is mentioned throughout the Bible and was discussed amongst the Church Fathers who were cognizant of its harmful propensities. We see in the Old Testament: “My eye has grown dim from grief, it grows weak because of all my foes.” (Job 17:7). St. Paul similarly references depression and its impact, articulating: “...worldly grief produces death.” (2 Cor. 7:10). Here, the death he speaks of concerns personal, family, and social death, along with spiritual death of the soul, which prevents God’s love from entering the heart.
In ‘On the Eight Vices,’ St. John Cassian describes dejection, a concept similar to depression, as: obscuring the soul, keeping it from performing good works, preventing us from praying gladly and being gentle and compassionate towards our brethren. Additionally, it instills hatred in our hearts, leaving our soul senseless and paralyzed. Likewise, the American Psychiatric Association defines depression as a condition which “negatively affects how you feel, the way you think and how you act, ” including things such as feeling sad, lacking energy to complete daily tasks, feeling worthless, diminished interest in pleasure and increased proneness to agitation, and general difficulty in thinking or concentrating. These characterizations demonstrate the existing mutuality between our present day medical understanding and the spiritual appreciation of the disease.
According to the World Health Organization (“WHO”), there are approximately 322 million people suffering from depression around the world, equivalent to about 5% of the total population and an increase of 18.4% over the past decade. It is the most common disability on the planet, with significant implications for both the individual suffering, as well as the loved ones around them.
Depression is most prevalent among elderly and adolescent populations, and its effects vary from decreased inability to complete daily tasks to suicide, all of which demonstrate the need for increased attention. The WHO has articulated that these conditions are mutually reinforcing. There are strong links between depression and other mental disorders/diseases, substance abuse, and physical diseases like heart disease. The opposite is true as well, that most people suffering from aforementioned ailments are at a higher risk to become depressed.
Despite these known features, the problem persists. According to the WHO, the first step in tackling depression is acknowledging its existence. While at first glance this may seem simple, the truth is that many feel shameful or afraid to do so. The Church suggests a similar remedy. St. John Cassian argues: “Thus it is clear that our whole fight is against the passions within. Once these have been [eliminated] from our heart by the grace and help of God, we will readily be able to live...”
The Church represents the healing Body of Christ, and through that we can fight this condition. Similarly, because we are made in the image and likeness of God, we can use our worldly intelligence and knowledge to better understand and treat the condition.
For example, the Cognitive-Behavioral Model of Emotional Dysfunction describes how people’s perceptions of events affect their emotion. According to this model, depression and depressive thoughts can be produced through irrational beliefs, attitudes, or thoughts based on the perception of or reaction to an event. Therefore, we become upset at the interpretation of events around us, rather than the situation itself. Based on this model, we are able to adequately pinpoint the cause of concern, and treat it both pastorally and clinically, because how we react to events is easier to treat and control than the events themselves.
This is one of many studies conducted which studies the effects and causes of depression, as well as how to treat it. While not meant to be an exhaustive list, I hope to convey a sense of awareness that there is help out there for those who need it, both in the clinical world as well as in the Church. The two are not mutually exclusive, but as we have seen, they both acknowledge the problem, and aim to help those suffering.
For more information on World Health Day and their yearlong campaign against depression, visit http://www.who.int/campaigns/world-health-day/2017/en/
Anthony Balouris is a Fellow at the UN for the Department of Inter-Orthodox, Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (un.goarch.org)
The Archdiocese is an accredited Non-Governmental Organization at the United Nations through the Department of Public Information (UN DPI) and has General Consultative Status under the Economic and Social Council of the UN (ESOSCO). It has been actively working at the UN for 30 years.