Will God Get You Out of Your Depression?

"It was then that I carried you."

Some may recognize this line from the widely popular "Footprints in the Sand," the poem that describes how, during the hardest parts of life, God carried the author through hard times.

Believers like Laverne Williams, a one-time depression patient and deaconess at Union Baptist Church in Montclair, N.J., identify with this parable. She says her religion was an invaluable resource during her depression.

"My faith really got me through because I knew it would pass," she said.

However, some people with mental illness have found their faith causes more pain than peace.

"I had no idea what was happening to me, I had all the signs of major depression," said Susan Gregg-Schroeder, a United Methodist minister and coordinator of Mental Health Ministries. "There is a huge stigma against mental health in our faith communities."

Religion, it seems, can act as a double-edged sword when it comes to mental health.

"Religion can amplify things, both positively and negatively," said Brother Larry Whitney, university chaplain for community life at Boston University. "It's not religion; it's the misuse of religion that creates a negative reaction."

Belief vs. Relief

"You might be shocked to find out there are some denominations that do harm to people," said Patricia Murphy, chaplain and assistant professor of psychiatry at Rush University. "Some congregations teach that depression is a sin ... that's the reaction they get when they turn to their pastor."

Being punished by your religious leader for an unavoidable disorder sounds bad enough — yet it's often compounded with tacit warnings against leaving the condemning sect.

"Some religious groups are taught that the only way you get to heaven are if you are in that denomination," says Murphy. "There are some people who are wounded by that, it adds to their depression, God becomes a problem, religion becomes a problem."

Gregg-Schroeder faced first-hand the difficulties of depression during her second year working as a minister .

Gregg-Schroeder said she and her family kept her depression a secret for two years, while she struggled with shame and the fear of losing her job.

"Studies have shown that faith leaders are least supportive [with mental health problems]," said Gregg-Schroeder. "There's this attitude that if you pray harder, you'll be able to pull yourself out of it. I've gone to funerals of people who were told to just pray to Jesus and stop taking your meds."

Religion can also exacerbate depression in individuals, like homosexuals, who have made life choices that run against their church's rules.

"When there's a mismatch between one's religion and one's characteristics, it's very difficult," said Suzanne Lechner, research assistant professor of psychiatry and psychology at Miller school of medicine Miami.

"They are holding two different beliefs in their head: 'I'm a sinner, but this is who I am.'"

Spiritual Prescription

However, for those people with supportive denominations and a strong, inner connection to their faith, their religion may help to heal their mental disorders. Indeed, the majority of studies show religious folks fare better than non-religious ones.

"Depression patients with a strong, intrinsic, religious belief -- it holds their life together," said Dr. Harold Koenig, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and associate professor of medicine at Duke University Medical Center. "These people do better."

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