Father William Bassakyros of St. John The Baptist Greek Orthodox Church in New York City, penned the following essay on depression.
In today's fast moving world many can be left by the wayside and overlooked in a society that has become very selective in almost every aspect of life. Parents today have to think about what day care and pre-school they want their children to attend, and most of all, what the curriculum entails. When you are already thinking about getting a jump on education even as early as day care, and planning a life for the education of your children, it can be very trying and disappointing. All of this adds to the daily stress of life and can prove to be overwhelming for many individuals. Furthermore, job security today has also vanished, and loyalty to the boss or firm is nonexistent. So what happens to a large number of the populace is that they fall into depression. Why? Because they think, or moreover project, that their situation is hopeless, and that there is no way to improve or lift the heavy burden they see placed upon them. The idea and thought that there is no way out is a monumental one, and it slowly builds into a feeling of desperation and loneliness. So is depression a result of our fast moving society or are there other factors that cause such a major physical, and psychological shut down of so many individuals today suffering from depression?
The ancient Greeks, as far back as Aristotle, thought that the disease was caused by "black bile that was secreted by the kidneys or spleen and to cause melancholy" (i.e., depression). "Aristotle used the image of wine to expose the nature of black bile. Black bile, just like the juice of grapes, contains pneuma, which provokes hypochondriac diseases like melancholia. Black bile like wine is prone to ferment and produce an alternation of depression and anger...." Although for them this diagnosis had credence and took root as the cause, it did not however answer the real cause of what they called melancholia.
Melancholia is defined as "a mental condition and especially a manic-depressive condition characterized by extreme depression, bodily complaints, and often hallucinations and delusions." If melancholia was present and diagnosed (no matter what the cause) in ancient Greek times than it has been around for centuries and even as far as a few millennium ago. However, for the physicians of the soul certain triggers must be present and are thought to bring on the root of Melancholia or depression.
Many of the Church Fathers like Evagrios, Chrysostom, and Hermes, to name a few, say that it is the "Illness of the soul, but also manifests itself in the body." It " . . . is established in man's heart (soul)." Despondency, mourning, dejection, grief, fear, and listlessness are all physical symptoms and products of melancholia/depression. All of these attack the heart (soul) of a person. Evagrios says, " . . . a special demon is the source of depression. The demon of dejection through depression cuts off and dries up every pleasure of the soul." Furthermore, dejection is the heart's worm, a virus that attacks the heart.
On the other hand, Chrysostom says that a life of pleasure is the cause of depression. "Living in luxury and pleasure leads to depression, the life of pleasure itself causes depression with grief, listlessness, and illness, and without work and creativity" the person is lost. If wealth, comfort, pleasure, security, or the lack of them causes us to fall into depression, what hope do we have for a life free from depression/melancholia? Depression is so debilitating that is starts like a small snowball rolling down a hill, and as it goes down it picks up more snow and speed until it is as large as a car. This effect not only paralyzes a person, but also renders them useless even to themselves and others. What is it that a person with depression lacks and how can they return to a normal life?
Again the Fathers of the Church have a remedy. What they prescribe is exactly what the Bible states very clearly for us and without it we are lost. It is "Hope" that is lacking in a person who starts down the road leading to depression. Hope is a necessary and primary aspect of Christianity. Without it we are reduced to our own capabilities and abilities. Why? Because it is God Himself who gladness our heart and give us the impetuous to continue when times get tough and we think there is no hope. As it states in "Psalm 9:18, For the needy is not forgotten for ever, not for ever does the hope of the poor come to nothing." Again in "Psalm 31:24, Be of good courage, And He shall strengthen your heart, All you who hope in the LORD."
Moreover, a beautiful prayer that we recite at the end of many services proclaims that: "My hope is the Father, my refuge is the Son, my shelter is the Holy Spirit, All Holy Trinity, Glory to You! Trust and hope in the Lord is paramount if we expect to live a life in His grace. Many people trust in themselves and they still are laden with depression. Why is it that they cannot escape its destructive power? Because they rely on their own power, reason, and understanding which is always incomplete and fragmented. We are all held captive by our own fallen nature, and as such, we cannot reach what is not in our power to attain. Only through continuous prayer to He who creates all, can we hope to achieve a life that leads to the "Eternal City." "I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing." (John 15:5).
Furthermore, we think that we are achieving something in our life through our own effort and ego, but we are being misled by the demons, and when all of our effort is for knout we fall into a deep depression. A person who prayers daily, and not just when things go bad for them, but all the time, understands that they have to move on or try again. During the past Summer Olympic Games, Michael Phelps' trainer was interviewed and what he said was very telling. He had Michael practice swimming under conditions less than perfect. He had him fill his goggles with water, and swim laps that way. What he was doing was getting him use to swimming under adversity. In this way if anything happened while he was swimming he would not be shocked or overtaken by the mishap. It was during one of his many contests that this actually happened and he swam as if nothing happened. Hardships build courage and confidence, and wards off depression.
In addition to the above reasons for the demon of depression taking over a person, there are other triggers that you should watch for. One is the fear of death, which can be a constant reminder for our earthly mortality. Loneliness can cause a person to isolate him/herself from others. If they attend Church on a regular bases they will realize that they are not alone, but part of the Body of Christ. Isolation encourages and exasperates the feeling of loneliness that brings on the next result. Sadness comes over a person with boredom and a loss of something wanted. Sorrow brings on a lack of self-worth along with an underlying feeling of guilt or unresolved grief. Insomnia is a result of " . . .the worries of the daytime interfere with slumber, as a serious illness drives away sleep. And at night while he rests on his bed, his sleep gives a new twist on his worries and he rests a little or not at all."
Finally, the Fathers were spot-on declaring that all the above effects of a lack of hope in the Lord are marked by depression. It is faith in the Lord and hope that moves us passed all these maladies and into a world that is seen as guided by our Lord Himself. Do not think that hardship and trials are eliminated at this point, but they are transformed within a person into confidence and strength and not into depression or melancholia. God permits all of us to go through touch times in order for us to see and realize that He is always with us no matter what. Hope is what the Psalmist declarers when he says, "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me" Psalm 23:4. These are not empty words created to deaden our feelings to the pain we feel, but are meant to give us hope and strength to fight on through every adversity you can imagine. Hope and faith bring peace in the soul that enables us to see our true worth in this fallen world we live in. So the result of faith (hope) inaugurates within us freedom to not fear the unknown, and that empowers you to move on and continue with your life without depression. Amen!
*Very Rev. Archimandrite Vasilios Bassakyros - Presiding Priest of St. John The Baptist Greek Orthodox Church