We tend to think of depression in purely natural terms—a mental illness that is treated solely with medication and counseling. This is often true, but there may be more factors at work. Since we as Catholics believe the whole person is both body and soul, it is possible to have spiritual causes and/or physical and psychological causes of depression.
So what exactly is the spiritual meaning of depression?
The Spiritual Meaning of Depression: More than Just Sadness
Not all sadness is depression. We all go through times of unhappiness. We may be sad, grieving for a loved one, or going through a time of uncertainty and upheaval. Depression occurs when we are unable to get out of this state and physical and psychological symptoms persist. Depression is defined by the National Institute of Mental Health as:
"A common but serious mood disorder. It causes severe symptoms that affect how you feel, think, and handle daily activities, such as sleeping, eating, or working. To be diagnosed with depression, the symptoms must be present for at least two weeks."
Depression is considered major depression or major depressive disorder if it lasts for at least two weeks. During that time, typical depressive symptoms would be a strongly sad or irritable mood, lack of interest in normally pleasurable things, change in weight or appetite, change in sleep patterns, fatigue, feelings of worthlessness or guilt, indecisiveness, hopelessness, and suicidal thoughts. Unsurprisingly, people suffering from depression may abuse substances such as alcohol or drugs to get away from their suffering - so depression can seriously affect not only quality of life but also threaten life itself.
The best way to address depression is to tackle the physical/psychological causes first, and then explore the possibility of spiritual causes.
Physical and Psychological Causes of Depression
According to Harvard Health, in addition to the common diagnosis of a chemical imbalance, “there are many possible causes of depression, including faulty mood regulation by the brain, genetic vulnerability, stressful life events, medications, and medical problems. It's believed that several of these forces interact to bring on depression.”
A review of the literature will show that the causes of depression are neither completely opaque nor fully understood. Certain risk factors have been identified: you're at higher risk of depression if your family members have a history of depression, for example, or if you were abused during childhood.
One can address these physical/psychological causes through individual therapy, group therapy, and/or medication prescribed by a mental health professional. (Note: If you don’t know where to begin, check out this article on how mental health diagnosis can be beneficial.)
Fr. Spitzer on the Spiritual Meaning of Depression
Once physical and psychological causes of depression are ruled out or treated, it is time to move on to spiritual causes. So, what kinds of spiritual causes might play into depression? In a short video, Fr. Spitzer discusses two: the first occurs when there is a lack of the transcendent in our lives, while the second occurs when we believe we are unworthy of God’s love.
Lack of the Transcendent Can be the Spiritual Meaning of Depression
When we move away from God and a healthy prayer life, we may feel a certain kind of depression that comes with a lack of the transcendent. Fr. Spitzer calls this “existential anxiety.” It refers to the absence of the sacred in modern nonreligious people, which introduces a heightened anxiety about existence, meaning, and reality. It comes from “the absence of things yearned for”—that is, the absence of the transcendent which we desire implicitly or explicitly. (For more on this topic check out The Anxiety of “Non-Religious Man”).
Here we see an example of actions on the spiritual level having an effect on mental health: if you have a heightened anxiety about reality, are you more or less prone to feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, and indecisiveness?
The famed Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl observed this phenomenon and dubbed it "existential vacuum." In Frankl's book Man's Search for Meaning, he writes,
"Many patients complain today [of] the feeling of the total and ultimate meaninglessness of their lives. They lack the awareness of a meaning worth living for. They are haunted by the experience of their inner emptiness, a void within themselves; they are caught in that situation which I have called 'the existential vacuum.'" —Viktor Frankl
Later, Frankl suggests that
"Such widespread phenomenon as depression, aggression, and addiction are not understandable unless we recognize the existential vacuum underlying them." —Viktor Frankl
To avoid the existential vacuum, we need a clear sense of what we're living for. Addressing this issue involves renewing a commitment (or beginning a commitment) to a healthy and fulfilling lifestyle of prayer and meditation. (For a thorough overview of how to plant your flag in the ground and begin this process, see Fr. Spitzer's guide to "How to Start a Catholic Spiritual Life.")
The Belief That We Are Unworthy of God’s Love
Another possible spiritual source of depression comes from the belief that we will never be worthy of God’s love. The false belief of “I’m too far gone to ever be loved by God” robs us of our hope and leads us to despair. Religious beliefs similar to this one can have a horribly negative effect on our mental health.
Furthermore, if we think that something we do (prayer marathons, excessive fasting, etc.) can earn God’s love, then we’re not understanding that love in the first place. God’s love is not “earnable.” It’s a gift, freely given to anyone who will accept it. God's love or esteem for us is offered in a sense freely, and so our self-esteem must be in a sense freely offered as well.
The idea that we are unworthy of God's love is simply untrue.
If there is someone or something telling you that "God will only love you if…”—don't listen. God wants every person he ever created to be with him in heaven for eternity. God's forgiveness is ready for us - we just have to want it too. Think about St. Dismas—better known as the good thief on the cross. On the very last hour of his life he decided that he wanted to be with Jesus in his kingdom. Jesus replied to him, “Truly this day you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 43:23)
Firm spiritual beliefs in God's unconditional love for us can go a long way to resolving the spiritual causes of depression.
The Spiritual Meaning of Depression: An Evil Spirit?
The above section may make one wonder what is causing this voice of despair? Is depression a spirit, or caused by an evil spirit? Fr. Spitzer notes that we could be deceived by the devil appearing like an angel of light, and points to such bible verses as 2 Corinthians 12:7:
“I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.” —2 Corinithians 12:7
Furthermore, St. Ignatius of Loyola writes:
“It is proper to the evil angel, who forms himself under the appearance of an angel of light, to enter with the devout soul and go out with himself: that is to say, to bring good and holy thoughts, conformable to such just soul, and then little by little he aims at coming out drawing the soul to his covert deceits and perverse intentions.” —St. Ignatius of Loyola, Rule #4 of his 8 rules for the Discernment of Spirits
St. Ignatious reminds us that fear and anxiety never come from God, for God is love, and love casts out all fear. When depression feels like a temptation to be anxious and afraid, it could be an evil spirit attempting to change our view of an unconditionally loving God.
Another Source of Desolation Worth Mentioning
Though not technically depression, there is one more source of desolation called the Dark Night of the Soul that shares many symptoms with depression. The Dark Night of the Soul typically occurs to those who are in a very advanced stage of the spiritual life. It has been documented by saints such as St. John of the Cross (who wrote extensively about it), St. Teresa of Avila, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, St. Teresa of Calcutta, and St. Paul of the Cross. In an article, Fr. Spitzer elaborates:
“As St. John of the Cross indicates, the ‘dark night’ is yet another form of suffering—experienced by only a few truly holy and loving people—given by the Lord as a stage of final purgation to help purify Level 4 love of any remaining imperfections—residual attachments, aberrant affections, and spiritual pride. It may seem bewildering that the Lord would (lovingly) cause the most loving people to experience emptiness, darkness and profound loneliness in order to complete their purification in love. To be sure, he does not do this with the vast majority of people—even those who are very advanced in holiness and love; yet, he does do this for a select few whom he knows can endure it and benefit from it.”
Why Would God Allow Someone to Suffer Depression?
There are several reasons why God would allow suffering to occur in the world. All of them, according to the Christian view, are linked to the advancement of love. God works through our suffering. He doesn’t waste any of it. Even depression, which can feel like the brink of despair, is still a meaningful source of suffering if we allow it to be. The suffering can benefit us and/or the Church (both living and deceased).
Fr. Spitzer writes on the opportunities that can come out of our sufferings:
The opportunity for identity transformation
The opportunity for natural virtues
The opportunity for love (agapē)
The opportunity for common cause toward the common good
The opportunity to build the kingdom of God
Every one of these reasons not only gives noble purpose to this life, but also carries it forward to its fulfillment in an eternal and perfectly loving life. To learn more about each of these opportunities, see our article “Why Does God Allow Suffering?”
Additionally, for help in times of pain, despair, and anxiety, download this free PDF of some of Father Spitzer's favorite short prayers:
You’re Not Alone
Like all mental health disorders, depression really is complex and not to be taken lightly or suffered through alone.
If you are experiencing depression, know that you are not alone. If you need immediate help, you can call the SAMHSA's National Helpline. It's also a good idea to reach out to those in your family and church community and talk to mental health professionals about different treatment options. If possible, seek help from clinicians who also practice the Faith and understand what you may be going through on a spiritual level. For a list of Catholic therapists, visit www.CatholicTherapists.com. See also, The Catholic Psych Institute and The Catholic Guide to Depression.