Throughout my years in residential ministry I have seen many young people come into my life with heartbreaking stories behind them. Experiences with neglect, abuse, divorce, death of a parent or family member, and many other tragic situations have taken their toll on these children, these teenagers, these young men and women. Unfortunately, as they deal with these difficult situations, they are often saddled with yet another obstacle; the label of “depression.” All too often, when we label a child as “having depression,” or “being depressed,” or as “someone who struggles with depression” we inadvertently place a variety of hurdles on their path towards being whole and healed and from their hurts.
We do this by taking the emotions related to sadness, loneliness, disappointment, betrayal, guilt and even despair and we categorize them as a sickness. Suddenly, the teenager himself is now the problem. Sometimes, even often, we experience things to which the only proper response is sadness, loss, guilt, or even to a certain degree, despair. Even if some of these emotions persist over a lengthy period of time, it isn’t necessarily a sign of a clinical problem with a young person. How long is it OK to grieve for a lost parent, for instance? By labeling this teenager as “having depression” we communicate that his emotions are out of reality and wrong, when maybe we are the ones that are having a hard time handling these intense situations.
Another way in which this “depression” label can stand in the way of a young person is by communicating that this difficult time he is going through is outside of himself. These thoughts and feelings are “happening to him” in a way that suggests he is not part of the situation himself, but merely a victim. Too often he is told that he needs treated for an illness, when the reality is rather more complex and part of the answer, sometimes a big part of the answer, is a perspective shift on the part of the young person and an acceptance of the sadness he is experiencing.
The Bible addresses both of these hurdles in great depth, far too great for a simple single blog post. Briefly we see many causes of hurt and sadness and “depression” throughout the Scriptures. King David, for instance, was depressed by circumstances around him – personal, political, and military enemies seeking to destroy him – as well as by guilt for his own sins. His remedy to these feelings in every case was to take them to God, confess them, and trust in the reality of God’s love, forgiveness, and plan. Moses was angry, discouraged, and burnt out by the pressures of leading the nation of Israel on his own. His remedy was to cry out to God and to trust the advice that God sent him through his family in order to take practical steps to address his problem. Jesus Christ Himself was broken, saddened, and hurt by the things he experienced as he walked the earth. His solution, also, was go to God, His Father, and trust the Father’s plan and the Father’s goodness.
We are not told that these feelings of sadness, guilt, discouragement, or heartbreak in any of these cases are misplaced. What we are shown, is that God provides the answers for our despair, sadness, and guilt. While we might experience despair, we don’t have to live in it without hope or peace.
It is hard to see our children, or children for whom we care, go through these difficult emotions. What we must do, however, is resist the temptation to look for an answer to the suffering that potentially robs them of the dignity inherent in any reality they are experiencing while simultaneously placing the burden of recovery on the medical or psychological professional. I do not suggest that these disciplines never have a place in the lives of any Christian. I do say that if we wish to understand the proper role of grief, sadness, guilt, and despair in our lives and our children’s lives then we should have our perspective shaped by our Creator. If we’re going to have our perspective informed by the One who made us, then we need to study what the Bible has to say about these issues. It is there we will find the truth, hope, and peace that we and our children desperately need.
Residential Program Director