Depression: All in the Family


“Well, if your mom has it, your grandma had it, and your sister has it, then there’s a good chance you’ll have it too.” This is the response of a typical family doc after listening to symptoms and family history in his office. You might think the conversation is about diabetes or high blood pressure, which are known to have a genetic component. But the particular quote you just read came a few years ago from a counselee who’d been describing symptoms of depression to her doctor. My counselee (I’ll call her Janie), had been feeling really down for a few weeks, and wanted to know if her fate was sealed because of her family history. He confirmed her fear that she was destined to take psychiatric medication for the rest of her life, handing her a prescription and assuring her she’d feel better in a few weeks.

But she didn’t feel better. In fact, she felt worse. That’s why she came to the counseling center. She wanted to know, if this is a medical issue, why isn’t the medicine helping? I’m not a doctor, so I couldn’t answer her medical questions; but after talking to her that first hour, it was pretty clear to me why she was depressed, and it had nothing to do with family genetics, brain chemistry, or anything else the medication was supposed to be addressing. The problem was in Janie’s heart.

She’d had a series of disappointments in recent months, and though she was a believer, she hadn’t responded in faith. When God didn’t come through for her as she wanted Him to, she decided He was not faithful, and began to doubt His goodness. When He didn’t fix her marriage, she decided He was not loving, and she stopped reading her Bible. When He allowed her mother to get cancer, and to suffer terribly with that disease, she decided that He was not compassionate, and she stopped praying. When her mother died, Janie had judged God uncaring. By now, she wanted nothing to do with Him, and she stopped going to church. She was angry, and she turned away from the God.

Without God, Janie was now experiencing sorrow without hope, and this is the biblical definition of depression. Are you familiar with the Psalms of lament? These Psalms are written by individuals who were suffering or sorrowful. They experienced fear, dread and, at times, hopelessness. In these Psalms, the writers remind themselves (and us) where to look for hope. Consider Psalm 42:11:

Why are you cast down, O my soul?
And why are you disquieted within me?

Here, the Psalmist admits his sad state of mind, and questions himself as to why it is so. He realizes that he has forgotten where his hope is, and then he reminds himself:

Hope in God; For I shall yet praise Him,
The help of my countenance and my God.

He recognizes that he has put his hope in some earthly refuge from danger that has failed, or some person or thing that was supposed to help him, but didn’t. He reminds himself where his true hope is—in God—and what will lift his countenance, bring new life to his spirit, and cause him once again to sing a song of praise and gladness. His hope is in God.

Once he has gotten his thinking right, things begin to line back up again. No longer basing his hope on his circumstances, he is now thinking rightly about where his hope is. This is what needed to happen with Janie. Instead of looking to circumstances—a better marriage, a cure for cancer, even a miracle—to give her hope, she needed to look to the One True God for her hope and strength, regardless of the outcome of her troubles.

God is God, and He is who He says He is, regardless of our circumstances. This is a truth to cling to as we navigate through troubled times. The attributes of God never change, no matter what is happening in the moment. Though we are tempted to judge Him by “feeble sense,” we must humbly submit ourselves to the truth that He never changes. He is faithful, loving, and compassionate, even if we don’t see evidence of it in our circumstances. His ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8). We must always base our view of Him on what He says about Himself, not on our interpretation of what is happening in our lives.

My dear friend, if you have been told that your family history predisposes you to depression or any other diagnosis, I’d like to challenge you today to review your own more recent history, particularly as it relates to the Lord. Depressive responses may have been modeled for generations in your life, but that does not mean there is a genetic or medical reason for you to be depressed. You may have learned unbiblical coping skills, but these can be unlearned, and replaced with godly responses. You may have sorrow, but it does not have to be without hope.

Check out the Psalms of Lament, and be reminded where your hope is. Read A.W. Pink’s The Attributes of God, and be reminded of who God really is. If you have become angry with God, confess that to Him and repent. He is always ready to forgive, ready to help, and ready to restore your hope.