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Scientists have identified 7 causes of depression. But the Bible got there first

In reviewing a new book on depression, Jenny Burns concludes that much of the advice, while helpful, can originally be found in the pages of the Bible 

I have dedicated most of my working life to helping those who are sad or anxious. I have worked in primary care, the third sector and in research with all ages and stages.  Now in middle-age, with more time to think, but probably less time to live, I am keen to learn more and help more with the pervading sadness and disappointment I see around me.

Mental ill health is certainly a hot topic. It is horrible for those experiencing it and costs the government millions. The race is on to find 'cures', and with the popularity of publications such as 12 Rules for Life or The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, many seem to be offering their answers.

I recently read a book by Johann Hari called Lost Connections  (Bloomsbury) published this year and already hailed as a Sunday Times and New York Times bestseller. He claims to have uncovered new ways to think about mental ill health without the prolific use of medication as plasters over wounds.

I salute his writings and in fact agree with many of his points, but as I read the book, I felt it expressed wisdom that has already been written down many thousands of years ago.

Here I want to map out what Hari has stated as some of the causes or “disconnections” for depression/anxiety and what the Bible has to say on these themes.

1. Disconnection from meaningful work

Hari states that often mental ill health could be a result of a lack of empowerment and lack of control felt by those in work. He also discovered that increased effort does not always mean increased rewards. In short, a lack of meaningful and purposeful work could be why some are depressed and anxious and yes, they have a job, and they are grateful, but it lacks meaning. Over time this is making them ill.

The Bible talks about how God gave man work. In Genesis, God empowered Adam and gave him control over the world he had created. He asked him to name the animals. God didn't name them. Adam did. He spotted Adam's need for a “helper” and gave him a woman. There was purpose, meaning, order and reward in the work that the first humans were set to do. God planned for us to be connected with our work in a meaningful way. This is part of our design. Without it, we could become unwell.

2. Disconnection from other people

Hari demonstrates through research, that we are not supposed to live life as an island. We are 'tribal' in nature and have need for belonging; the more we retreat the worse our mental health can often get. He also points out that the social connections we need must include mutual aid and protection; Facebook friendship is not enough to keep us connected.

God chose a people, the Israelites, for whom he established a way of living in communion with each other and himself as a testimony to the rest of the world. He gave guidelines for families, celebrations, community and worship. He also said that “it is not good for man to be alone” and brought Eve to be with Adam so they could become “one”. The letter to the Hebrews (10:25) talks about “not giving up meeting together”. The Christian church is described in 1 Corinthians as “the body of Christ”, in which each of us plays a part. To be in relationship is part of God's design and is a way of protecting us from isolation.

3. Disconnection from meaningful values

Hari defines the Western world now as having “junk values” which are causing us to be constantly disappointed. Research says we have values that seek after materialism: the next car, the cruise, the bigger house etc. He also says that we have become attuned to extrinsic rewards and trophies when intrinsic rewards are more satisfying, long term. He says that we have “innate needs to feel connected, to feel valued, to feel secure, to feel we make a difference in the world, to have autonomy, to feel we are good at something”. Our true plumb line is missing and when we get more 'stuff' or achieve more accolades we can't understand why we are not satisfied.

Jesus agrees and talks about a different set of values. In Matthew 5, he describes how we are happy when we are humble, gentle, and when we hunger for rightness in the world, have mercy for others, are pure in heart and are peacemakers. These values contain some of the innate ones Hari is talking about. Also, the writer to the church of Philippi said: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things” (Philippians 4:8) Jesus never gave any junk values to emulate and he refuted extrinsic rewards: “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honoured by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full”(Matthew 6:2).

4. Disconnection because of trauma

The research that Hari puts forward is a hot topic in many current public health agendas. He states that “depression is a normal response to abnormal life experiences” and “when people have these kind of problems (childhood abuse etc) it is time to stop asking what's wrong with them...and time to start asking what happened to them”. Being sad because of trauma is normal. Being anxious because of maltreatment is normal. We need to start doing something about it.

Paul says that there is no denying that we will experience troubles in this life, many of them unjust, which will make us feel sad. But, he says, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness” (Romans 8:26) and his grace is sufficient for us for his power is made perfect in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). God is aware that all that happens to us can be turned from traumas into strengths.

Today we would probably call this resilience. In fact, Romans 5:3-4 says: "…suffering produces perseverance;  perseverance, character; and character, hope”. Finally, God weaves together all that we experience for good (Romans 8:28). Is God sad that we are maltreated? Jesus wept when his friend Lazarus died and we are made in his image. We are sad. God is sad too, but he uses it for good and builds character in us.

5. Disconnection from status and respect

Here Hari describes how society is unequal and misuses power and hierarchies. He suggests that the more unequal society is, the more mental health problems we will have. He says: “…it creates defeat we can't escapefrom”. The very poor often feel defeated.

God recognises this too. There are many references in the Bible to the “oppressed” and “the poor”. So much so that scripture asks us to be just and stand up for righteousness. The prophet Isaiah commands the Israelites to “…loosen the chains of injustice and untie the cords of those burdened, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke” (Isaiah 58:6-7). The job of believers is to make society more equal.

6. Disconnection from nature

Hari describes how we walk with our heads down in our own manufactured world. We wonder why we are depressed and anxious when we have forgotten the bigger natural world we are a part of. Hari endorses the research that shows we can gain perspective from nature. He says we have an innate need to notice that we are part of something bigger. He says when we look out onto a beautiful view, it is difficult to not be in awe.

The Bible has many references about nature and how it can be awe-inspiring, giving us perspective, connection and helping us feel we are part of something bigger: “For since the creation of the world, God's invisible qualities (His eternal power and divine nature) have been clearly seen being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (Romans 1:20).

7. Disconnection from a secure future

Hari describes this disconnect as people with a sense of hopelessness about the future; a sense of nothing to look forward to, often as a result of “junk values” and being disconnected from others. This sense of no horizon or nothing to look forward to, contributes to anxiety and depression.

God foreknew we would have times of hopelessness. Paul wrote in his letters to the Hebrews: “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure” (6:19). An anchor holds fast for a boat against tides, winds and waves. Paul used this metaphor to illustrate how a faith in God can give us the resilience to withstand these times when the horizon is out of sight. He also alludes to the life after death and the hope that our “soul” is anchored to a God who has a heaven waiting for us. Jesus said: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him will not die, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Now, that is hope for a hopeless world, something to hang onto during the storms.

Brain changes

Hari states that our culture is broken, our standards incorrect and some of these experiences shape our brains and that can lead to mental ill health. But the hopeful part is that because of the brain’s neuroplasticity (its ability to be moulded at any time of life), new experiences can re-wire our brains over time. The research states our genes can play a part in inheriting mental ill health, however this only accounts for 30-40 per cent of occurrences and this ill health will only manifest itself if the right environment is present.

God laid out different standards for the world. “Your Word is a lamp for my feet and a light for my path” (Psalm 119:105). These are ancient truths in the Bible; found in both the Old and New Testament. God knows humankind so well and has given us a plumb line and values to look to, in order to have lives that stand tall and straight. He has also given us a hope for today and tomorrow through his son Jesus Christ, which is countercultural.

And so the author of Ecclesiastes was right: it has all been said before, there is nothing new under the sun.

Jenny Burns lives in Wales, is a mental health practitioner (OT), a minister’s wife, a PhD student, author, a charity lead, proud mum to three grown sons and a daughter in law.

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