Daily Wire Editor-in-Chief Ben Shapiro wrote an interesting piece for The Daily Wire last week about the epidemic of youth suicides in America. The suicide rate among adolescents has jumped by 70% in recent years. The suicide rate for all age groups has risen dramatically, and now stands at a 30-year high.
Shapiro correctly traced the problem not to economic or even psychological concerns, but to the human spirit. Many people in our secular society do not know why they exist and cannot figure out why they should continue existing. Our culture will not provide an acceptable answer to this question, and so they only feel more lost the more they look for one. I agree with Shapiro that this is where the suicide epidemic really begins. Now I’d like to extend his point a little further.
Depression has skyrocketed along with the suicide rate, which is no surprise. Today, one in six Americans takes some kind of psychotropic drug, and anti-depressants account for a good portion of that figure. To put that in perspective: a little over 20% of Americans take acetaminophen in a given week, compared to 16% or 17% on anti-depressants and other similar drugs. It is no longer hyperbole to say that psychiatric pills are about as ubiquitous in American society as Tylenol.
But the problem just keeps getting worse. More and more people are depressed. More and more are taking their depression to its most awful conclusion. And what’s our solution? Drugs, drugs, drugs. I saw a commercial the other day for a supplemental anti-depressant for people who are already on one anti-depressant. If that doesn’t work, take a third. Then a fourth. Drug yourself and drug yourself again and drug yourself until the pain goes away. But it will never go away because the pain is not merely physical. It is also spiritual. And we make a horrible mistake when we ignore the spiritual roots of this affliction.
I do not deny that depression has, in some cases, a physical element to it. We are physical beings, after all. What happens to our bodies and in our bodies matters. Yet we are also spiritual beings. We have souls as well as brains, and the two do not work independently of one another. We cannot say that guilt, worthlessness, hopelessness, emptiness, helplessness, and sadness are purely psychological, any more than we can say that love and hope and joy are purely psychological. Depression is despair, and despair is the absence of hope and joy. If joy’s absence is a medical phenomenon then joy itself must be a medical phenomenon. By reducing depression to nothing more than a chemical event, we have reduced the human conscience to nothing more than a chemical event. By taking a materialistic view of depression, we take a materialistic view of humanity.
Speaking of materialism, it is no wonder that depression is so common in a culture governed by a materialist philosophy and inhabited by those who subscribe to it. Indeed, hopelessness in a materialist is actually quite rational because materialism is fundamentally hopeless. It makes no sense for a religious person to say that a depressed materialist shouldn’t be depressed. Isn’t that exactly how he should feel? The godless life is a despairing life. It is a life of pointless suffering and misery. In a world without God, what is there to feel but despair? We are dust and our existence amounts to nothing and leads to nothing. There is no beauty, no joy, no redemption. We are careening helplessly back into the abyss from which we came. When we die, we will dissolve into the ether and all we are, all we have done, everyone we have loved, will be nothing. Life itself is nothing. And you say that a person with this belief system has no reason to be depressed? What else should he be?
If a godless man is in so much despair that he is on the verge of hurting himself or someone else, it may be necessary to treat the problem with drugs for a time. But anyone who has faith must recognize, plain as day, that the source of this man’s emptiness is emptiness itself. He has rejected God and left a giant, gaping hole inside himself. Drugs may numb the pain he feels because of the hole, but they cannot fill it.
It is a dangerous procedure to remove despair from a man without addressing the reason for his despair. We are depriving him of the very thing that may propel him to the light. We are giving him morphine for the burn without actually taking his hand away from the fire. We are healing his emotions while leaving his soul to languish in the void. We are erasing the bleak and terrible feelings that must naturally come from his bleak and terrible view of life, which makes it less likely that he will ever develop any other view. I think we do him a great injustice.
There is an obvious objection here: not every depressed person in America is an atheist. What about a religious person who has depression?
I can speak here from experience. I have carried this cross all my life. I think in my case — as in the case of so many others — there is a psychological predisposition to it. But that is not the whole story. It cannot be. Guilt, emptiness, hopelessness, and misery cannot have purely physical roots because we ourselves do not have purely physical roots. Depression cannot originate solely from your brain because even your thoughts do not originate solely from your brain.
Before we began our societal campaign to medicalize everything, we used to refer to depression among the religious as a “dark night of the soul.” Many religious people through the ages have written about this period in their lives — a period that sometimes lasts their whole lives — where they feel a certain coldness, a certain separation, a certain darkness inside themselves. They feel despair, or something like despair, despite knowing that there is no reason to despair. Sometimes they feel overwhelmed by guilt and self-loathing. Sometimes they become obsessively fixated on their mortality. Sometimes they feel as though they are damned. All of these are features of the dark night of the soul, or “depression,” as we call it today.
How can we explain it? Well, there is no doubt that some of this is the result of spiritual attacks waged by the Enemy. As you draw closer to God, you may hear even louder a whisper inside yourself telling you that you are too disgusting and evil and irredeemable to ever be loved or forgiven by Him. This is the voice of Satan trying in desperation to sabotage your relationship with God. It is not so much a product of depression as a product of oppression — spiritual oppression, from the Oppressor.
Spiritual warfare does not explain everything, however. It may be the case that God, in His wisdom and mystery, chooses to withhold comfort from a person of faith. It may be part of His plan that we feel this restlessness; that we travel through the dark; that we grapple with something painful yet profound. That isn’t to say that we should never resort to medication under any circumstance, or that God wants every depressed person to be depressed, but it is to say that we ought to stop and consider what else He may be trying to tell us in our suffering. Our first reaction when we feel pain is to get rid of it, using the quickest and easiest methods available to us. But perhaps, sometimes, we are meant to do something else with it.
Perhaps He allows us to experience this anguish so that we will depend even more on Him. Think of the paralytic in Scripture who had to be lowered down through the ceiling before Christ would heal him. Perhaps He needs to see the same kind of desperation in us, for our own sake. Perhaps there is a certain sin blocking our path and He needs us to confront it and repent of it before we can find peace. Perhaps He is giving us a small taste of Christ’s Passion, and we are meant to rejoice in it. Perhaps it is through rejoicing in the pain that we will find relief from it. Perhaps it is a trial that He gives us so that we can be humbled and strengthened. Perhaps our prayer life is severely lacking. Perhaps we are more introspective than the average person and our introspection brings us to questions that are overwhelming and terrifying. Perhaps a religious person may feel dread when he contemplates the Divine for the same reason that he may feel dread when he looks out upon the ocean: because it is vast and beautiful and unknowable, and he is so small and fragile in comparison to it. Perhaps a combination of these explanations. Perhaps an explanation I have not mentioned and cannot comprehend. Or perhaps, in some cases, there really is a mental illness playing a part in all of this.
I cannot say for sure. I do not pretend to know for sure. No man on Earth can look at another person’s inner turmoil and diagnose it with 100% certainty. But I can say for certain that there are many possible reasons for, and causes of, this thing we call depression. And it is very unfortunate that we only ever consider just the one.