Tuesday, April 30, 2013
THE DEPRESSED PROPHET: NATIONAL MENTAL HEALTH MONTH MAY 2013
"Now Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me and even more, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by tomorrow about this time.” And he was afraid and arose and ran for his life and came to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a juniper tree; and he requested for himself that he might die, and said, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take my life, for I am not better than my fathers.” (1 Kings 19:1-4)
1 Kings 18 tells of how Elijah was used by God to bring about a great victory against the prophets of the false god Baal, whom Israel was worshiping at that time, under the influence of evil King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. Elijah prayed and God sent fire from heaven to consume the offering Elijah had made, then Elijah had the prophets of Baal killed.
But when Ahab tells Jezebel what happened, the wicked queen threatens Elijah’s life. After defeating 450 prophets, Elijah is now running from one woman. He is so anxious and afraid that he prays to God to take his life.
Why such a quick turnaround in the attitude and outlook of Elijah the prophet?
Elijah had many of the symptoms of depression, for example those found here:
Elijah’s mocking of the prophets of Baal and of the false god itself, as well as the way he confronted the people of Israel about worshiping Baal, may have expressed irritability. During his great victory, he also shows signs of restlessness.
Elijah had not slept excessively, if at all. However, early-morning wakefulness may have been a factor. The day of battling with Baal’s prophets must have been exhausting. Yet the prophet made a God-powered but still long hard run to Jezreel in which he ran so fast he outran Ahab’s chariot. It is most probable that at this point he experienced fatigue and decreased energy.
The prophet went from focused, clear and decisive to having difficulty concentrating on God instead of the enemy. He seemed to have trouble remembering the details of his very recent victory, which included God’s answer to his prayer for rain after a three and a half year drought. He had a hard time making decisions about how best to deal with Jezebel’s threats.
People suffering from depression usually have a loss of interest in activities or hobbies they once found pleasurable. The prophet of God showed no interest in doing anything but running away, fearful for his life, the past victories and blessings of God forgotten.
It seems likely that Elijah got no sleep whatsoever before getting the message from Jezebel to look out for his life and taking right off for the wilderness. Insomnia very likely contributed to his state of depression, and he twice fell asleep after his run to the wilderness.
Overeating was no problem for Elijah, as even food was likely not enjoyable to him at this point. The prophet apparently had such a loss of appetite that the angel of The Lord had to twice fix food for him and urge him to eat.
Persistent aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems that do not ease even with treatment are often among the physical symptoms of depression. Elijah had been through an exhausting battle and taken a long high speed run, then a trip into the wilderness, almost certainly without food or sleep. It seems unlikely he had no physical symptoms at all, as they are so common with depression, and he showed so many of the psychological and spiritual symptoms.
While Elijah didn’t seem to feel guilt, he felt helpless to do anything in the face of the threat against his life, and so worthless he wanted to die. He clearly felt overwhelming pessimism and hopelessness. While Elijah made no suicide attempts that we know of, he had definite thoughts of suicide, even praying to God and asking God to kill him.
Elijah appeared to experience persistent sad, anxious, and "empty" feelings, at least during his battle with Baal’s prophets, his run to Jezreel, his time in the wilderness, and even during part of his time on the mountain of God.
Personal problems such as social isolation due to other mental illnesses, physical problems, or being cast out of a family or social group can lead to depression.
In a nation that had turned to worshiping a false god, Elijah as a prophet of God had been an outcast. It was as though he lost his “church”, the people he worshiped with, as well as his country. Now, the nation had declared that they worshiped God again, so to some extent he had his country and his “church” back.
Yet Elijah now seems to feel more isolated than ever. After eating and sleeping, he goes to the mountain of God, Mount Horeb, and sets up house in a cave. He tells God he is all alone, even though the people just worshiped God with him a little over 40 days earlier. He also had forgotten about the 100 prophets Obadiah had told him he had hidden in caves to protect them from Jezebel (1 Kings 18:13).
So God tells Elijah gently, in the sound of a soft breeze, that there are still 7,000 people in Israel who have not worshiped Baal at all. That’s a lot of people, and a long way from being alone. Most of all, God was with Elijah.
We don’t know that depression, at least as what today would be a mental health diagnosis, was a lifelong thing for Elijah. The prophet’s depression may have started with his conflict with and triumph over the prophets of Baal and his fearful flight from Jezebel, and it may have ended soon after with the comforting voice of God and the assurance that in spite of how he felt, in how he felt, he was not alone.
The rest of the story of Elijah in God’s word indicates that his depression either ended or was under control, no longer and never again debilitating, once God spoke to Him in that still small voice in a cave in the mountain of God.
The story of Elijah shows us both what depression looks like and how we can cope with and overcome depression.
But in order to live with and above depression, we must know not only the symptoms but the causes, so that we can get to the roots and pull them out. Just as Elijah suffered these symptoms of depression, his depression was caused by the same things that can cause depression for any of us.
Physical, sexual, emotional or spiritual abuses are almost certain to cause serious depression. At the least, Elijah was severely abused emotionally and spiritually. Abuse is always bad, and anyone in an abusive situation needs to get out, get away, and get help, just as Elijah did.
Major life events may be good or bad; a new job or a lost job, divorce or marriage, the loss of a child or the birth of a child, graduation or failure to graduate, being arrested or freed from jail, promotion or downsizing, moving, changing schools. Elijah definitely went through a number of major life events in a short period of time. We all deal with different changes in different ways at different times, so any kind of major life event can bring on depression. Unlike abuse, change can be accepted or embraced.
Depression may result from personal conflicts or disputes with family members, friends, enemies, anyone. This is true whether the conflict is constructive or destructive, and whether it is handled positively or negatively. Elijah had plenty of personal conflicts and disputes, and so will we; it is part of life. Conflict can worked out and worked through, it can be dealt with.
Probably everyone gets depressed sometime, to some degree. Maybe not to the point of clinical depression, but in any case it disrupts life enough to make us aware of what depression can do to a person.
Numbers vary, and but some estimates indicate that 14.8, about 7% of the U.S. adult population, suffer from a major depressive disorder in any given year. Major depressive disorders are the leading cause of disability in the U.S. for ages 18-44. Many more deal with depression that might not be medically classified as “major”, and it may not disable a person. But depression is like surgery, it’s only minor when it happens to someone else.
Speaking from experience, it is best not to delay dealing with depression. It may be enough to talk to trusted friends or family about what is depressing you, or you may need short or long term counseling, medication or both. It depends on everything from genes, family history, living environment, what has happened, how often it happens, how long it has happened, what kind of support system you have or do not have, and a lot more.
If you feel depressed, if people are commenting or asking about you being depressed, or if you have symptoms of depression, it is important to at least look into it further and seek out those who might be able to help.
Avoid those giving simplistic answers of any kind, particularly “spiritual answers” like “pray more” or “get closer to God”. Of course we all need to pray and get closer to God, but there are a lot of ways to do that.
Whether church, family, friends, groups in which you participate, professional counselors, medical professionals, or all of the above, a strong support system is important not only to living with and above depression, but also to lowering the risks of having further major bouts of depression.
May is National Mental Health Month in the USA. Depression is just one of many mental illnesses Elijah may have fought with and that many of us or people we know may fight with as well. Forty million Americans 18 and older, 18% of us, have various anxiety disorders such as panic, obsessive compulsive and post traumatic stress, as well as various phobias and personality disorders.
Depression is a more common mental health issue that most people can relate to out of some experience sometime in their life. If you have never been depressed, you surely know someone who has, probably someone close to you. We can all relate to depression, we can to some degree understand it as a reality even if we have trouble grasping the degrees to which it can overwhelm someone.
So let’s remember and reach out to those around us dealing with depression, and with other mental illnesses. Even if you don’t think you can help them at all—and don’t underestimate yourself, or especially how God can use you—then surely you can help your depressed family members and friends find others who can help more than you might be able to.
During this National Mental Health Month, please pray for those coping with depression and other mental illnesses. Help the depressed around you, help others be aware so they can help. Any of us can face depression just as Elijah did, and any of us can overcome depression just as Elijah did, with the help and support of others and by the grace of God.