Serious Illness and Depression – A Christian’s Fact Guide

Struggling with a serious illness is a challenge for anyone. You might suddenly find yourself dealing with physical limitations or the inability to continue working. But what happens when-to make matters worse-you also start to feel depressed, lonely, or isolated as a result of your illness? It’s a question many Christians ask themselves. We wonder if it’s all in our heads. And we tend to believe that if we could just pull ourselves up by our boot straps and pray a little harder, those negative emotions will quickly subside.

Depression isn’t “all in your head.”

Depression is regarded by most health professionals as a medical disorder. It is marked by feelings of extreme sadness, loneliness, and hopelessness. It’s more than feeling a little down in the dumps. The symptoms can make it hard to enjoy life or fulfill your everyday responsibilities. If you suffer from depression it might be difficult to do everything from going to work to taking your medication. Just like any other medical condition, it is best treated by a mental health professional.

Depression and serious illness often go together.

The symptoms of depression often combine with other serious diseases and conditions to trigger an ugly cycle: the illness triggers depression, and the depression, in turn, makes it more difficult to manage the illness. Research suggests that people living with depression and a serious medical condition experience more severe symptoms of both [1].

Depression rates for people living with specific conditions include:

  • Diabetes: 25%
  • Cancer: 25%
  • Heart attack: 40%-65%
  • Multiple sclerosis: 40%
  • Parkinson’s disease: 40%
  • Stroke: 10%-27%

But depression isn’t limited to these illnesses. It’s also been tied to those with HIV/AIDS, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and substance abuse [3].

You can manage depression during a serious illness.

A serious medical condition makes it more challenging to live the life you think God expects you to live. Your illness might make it impossible to attend church services, go to work to provide for your family, or help your child with her homework. But when your spirit become mired in feelings of excessive depression (and the guilt that often comes with it) it makes it that much harder for your body to heal. If you want to get better so you can live life more fully and grow closer to God, then you must learn ways to prevent or manage depression when your physical health is suffering:

  • Educate yourself about your medical condition. For example, it’s common to assume that certain diseases, like cancer, are always fatal-when that’s not actually the case. In fact, some types, like prostate cancer, have survival rates of more than 90%. By educating yourself about your illness, from its typical survival rate to its most common symptoms, you will gain a more realistic view of what to expect.
  • Manage physical symptoms. Whether chronic pain prevents you from grocery shopping or COPD leaves you breathless after a walk to the mailbox, the physical manifestations of an illness often create feelings of depression. One way to alleviate those feelings is to find better ways to manage symptoms. Communicate with your doctor so he or she is aware of all your symptoms, even the ones that embarrass you. A health professional may be able to reduce that discomfort through medication, procedures, or alternative treatments. If the doctor seems to have run out of options for treating you, don’t hesitate to ask for a second opinion.
  • Reach out for spiritual support. Your community of faith may be one of your strongest allies in the battle against any medical condition. If your symptoms don’t allow you to attend church services or Bible groups, ask if a pastor, prayer group leader, lay minister, or other spiritual counselor can visit your home or hospital room. Church communities are also an ideal resource for Christians hampered by illness and depression. For example, some offer meal delivery for those who are homebound; others provide garden or house clean-up for people not capable of doing it themselves; still other faith communities deliver care packages to Christians in hospitals or rehabilitative care.
  • Embrace the power of prayer. “Cast thy burden upon the Lord, and he shall sustain thee: he shall never suffer the righteous to be moved” (Psalms 55:22). Ask others to help you with that burden by contacting church friends, loved ones, and prayer groups to pray for you and with you. If you’ve been away from a church for some time or don’t have one nearby that offers a prayer group, go online. A growing number of faith communities interact with Christians through email or social media. For example, some convents accept online prayer requests. Visit the websites for convents and other Christ-centered communities to find links to their prayer request information.
  • Find ways to build confidence. The physical effects of a serious illness can take a severe toll on your self-esteem, such as the speech challenges of a person living with MS or the hair loss of someone who’s undergone chemotherapy. But the Lord said, “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with loving kindness. I will build you up again” (Jeremiah 31:3-4). And so He will. Take action to build your feelings of self-worth by learning a new skill, such as playing the guitar to writing poetry.
  • Get help for your depression. While a pastor is focused on nurturing your spirit, a mental health professional, like a psychiatrist or psychologist, will be focused on nurturing your psychological needs. If feelings of deep depression are causing you to feel hopeless and helpless, contact a mental health professional. He or she may recommend a combination of psychotherapy and medication to help to reduce symptoms so you can focus on managing any other serious medical problems. In fact, studies demonstrate that treating symptoms of depression improves the treatment outcomes for co-occurring illness [4].

“Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but when the desire comes, it is a tree of life” (Proverbs 13:12). If you have a serious illness, it’s essential to care for your emotional well-being as well. By learning how to prevent or manage symptoms of depression, you’re using your own hope and desire to come closer to wellness-and closer to God.