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O.C. RELIGION | ON FAITH

Hard to Fight Depression's Strong Grip

February 17, 2001|MELISSA JONES | Melissa Jones is a freelance writer who lives in Las Flores. She holds advanced degrees in religious studies and Russian religious history. Her e-mail address is jonesma@worldnet.att.net

Three years ago, I lost my best friend to depression. We had been buddies since high school, roommates in college, and had continued a faithful long-distance friendship.

She was a lawyer and an agnostic. She didn't like to make decisions until she had all the facts--and hard facts about God are difficult to come by. She gently teased me about being "her Christian friend," and often asked me to convince her that God existed. Although I tried for many years to explain the intangible, I never came up with an ultimate proof.

She struggled with depression for most of her adult life. Still, she was one of the kindest, funniest people I have known. Perhaps it was her humor that kept me from recognizing the ultimate crisis.

Our final telephone conversations still echo in my mind.

It was clear that she was in a dangerous depression. I offered the usual responses: She was a wonderful, valuable person, I loved her, and things would get better. I begged her to go to an emergency room, call her therapist, or at least see her family doctor. When I called the next day she joked and reassured me that she was feeling better. I believed her. I wasn't the only person she fooled.

A day later she visited a general practitioner. After obtaining a prescription for sleeping pills and buying a copy of "Final Exit," she ended her long fight.

A recent national study has found that two-thirds of depression sufferers go untreated. There are many reasons for this, some based in appalling injustices regarding the lack of mental health services available to minority or underrepresented persons.

However, even in the most affluent sections of Orange County there are likely to be untreated sufferers of this disease. Experts say the reasons for this lie in the nature of the disease itself.

Depressed people often don't have the energy or mental clarity to recognize depression symptoms and seek help for themselves. Also, there is still a stigma connected to depression that makes sufferers want to hide this condition.

It's hard to tell exactly what it would have taken to save my friend. Hindsight offers many alternatives. I wish I had hopped on the earliest flight to San Francisco immediately after her initial call. I wish I could have given her the comfort of belief in God. Unfortunately, with depression a positive spiritual outlook is often the first thing to go.

For a person suffering from this malady, the world can seem chaotic, without meaning or purpose. Just as the sufferer withdraws from personal relationships, he or she will often withdraw from a relationship with God as well.

In the past, the clergy and religious faithful sometimes treated depression as a moral failing. Depression sufferers were often admonished to "have faith in God," "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" and "avoid the sin of despair."

The good news is that today's clergy are often trained in recognizing and counseling depression. Clinical depression is a medical problem that must always be treated as such, but clergy and church friends can be real assets in the fight. The treatment of depression can take months or even years.

My savvy, intelligent friend struggled for years to find professional help, stay on track with therapy and take her medication as prescribed. Even with help, the road can be rocky.

Just one observant pastor or one faithful friend can provide tremendous support and comfort. The serious fact is this: Depression is a life-threatening illness that often goes unidentified or untreated. Yet proper treatment can bring great relief and even save lives.

A friend or loved one who shows signs of depression or talks positively about death needs an immediate trip to the family doctor, a mental health practitioner or a trusted member of the clergy. Go with them. Don't listen to the rationalizations or humorous self-deprecations of those who are struggling in the depths this illness.

Depressed people can convince you that they are really OK, because they are trying to convince themselves that they are really OK. Two-thirds of them will not get help. Some of them will die from this disease.

On Faith is a forum for Orange County clergy and others to offer their views on religious topics of general interest. Submissions, which will be published at the discretion of The Times and are subject to editing, should be delivered to Orange County religion page editor William Lobdell.

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