Depression, spirituality, and faith

For young adults, depression can feel like a “shroud of darkness” threatening to engulf the future. Recognizing that depression ebbs and flows over time offers one beacon of hope. For some people we interviewed, religion or spirituality offered another. In Tia’s words, “faith got me through” and she realized that depression “is a part of life that others have went through it.” Other people felt that religion worsened the impact of depression by impinging on their emerging identity or delaying access to treatment. Still others found that the search for their own beliefs after leaving their parents’ faith was difficult, and heightened the absence of purpose they already felt in connection with depression.

Religion and faith can ease the impact of depression

Some young adults said faith gave them strength to go on even when depression sapped their will. Some looked to their spiritual beliefs to sustain hope, when depression made the future seem bleak. Some – even if they are not themselves religious — found they were unconditionally accepted in communities of faith in unique ways. These experiences did not appear to be influenced by whether people were connected to conventional religious practices or more eclectic spiritual ones.

Many people talked about drawing on faith as a reservoir of strength during their struggles with depression. Leanna recalled that when she is in the depths of depression, she prays to the spirit of the earth to “like please help me and that usually slowly gets me out of there.” Others drew on varied faiths in their darkest moments or as they contemplated what the future might bring.

Elizabeth relied on her faith to help her tackle every day, even when depression left her feeling frail.
Interview Transcript

Ultimately my upbringing with the religion did really help me get through my depression because even when I struggled a lot, I always got out of bed, I always went to school, I always went to work, I never hid from life and I think that a lot of that was what I was taught through my faith. You know, you still try, you still get up, you still do it.

DEP Elizabeth
Profile Info
Age at interview: 28
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 17

Background: Elizabeth lives in a house with her husband. She works as a parent educator. She is White/Italian.

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For Marty, belief in God offered a reservoir of strength to which he could turn in the darkest times.
Interview Transcript

Once I put my belief in God and started listening to God, because God granted us free will, so he’s not going to go, I don’t think, I believe he’s not going to go and control me. I used to say that I believe, let me rephrase that. I believe he’s assisted me in helping me over my depression and shown me a path of the righteous, you know, of being able to get out of the hole of depression and anxiety.

DEP Marty
Profile Info
Age at interview: 28
Sex: M
Age at diagnosis: 11

Background: Marty lives with his girlfriend in temporary housing. He is currently looking for work and a good place to live in preparation for the birth of his first child. He is Caucasian.

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Buddhism provided for Mara the resilience to persevere, despite anticipating that depression might persist for her entire life.
Interview Transcript

A lot of what I have learned through, like these meditative practices and, and sort of like the central philosophy behind everything is that, suffering is brought on by aversion or by desire. So if you, if you want things you’re not always going to be able to get them, and if you want to avoid things you aren’t always going to be able to escape them [coughing], excuse me, so the idea is to get rid of aversion and to get rid of desire so you can be simply by yourself and not, not need material things not need relationships in order to be ok with yourself. So for me, sort of like bringing that back to a lot of, like my experiences with depression and anxiety was just the idea that, like no I don’t think I will ever be able to escape like problems I’ve had with my mom or just difficulties I’ve had making friends or like problems I’ve had in the past or that I will have in the future, but just accepting that these things are going to come and go. And it’s up to me, up to me as an individual or people as individuals to decide how they are going to feel about that and so you might say, well like depression is a disease and you can’t, you can’t choose whether or not to have depression which is absolutely true, you are not going to be able to make those choices, but I think it’s your choice to empower yourself with the knowledge, “I have depression. I am going to feel a certain way about things and that is totally ok. But also understanding that you are very much like a mountain and these things that come and go and pass are kind of like clouds and that you, you don’t change around them.

DEP Mara
Profile Info
Age at interview: 18
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 14

Background: Mara is a student at a large university. She lives in a dorm room on campus. She is Vietnamese and White.

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Some young adults described how religiously-observant people around them were particularly attentive, empathic and understanding towards others – and therefore a reliable source of support.

Maya found unconditional acceptance in religious community.
Interview Transcript

I go to a Baptist church on Sundays because this preacher is just phenomenal, he is such a gifted order, he really touches you at, at the heart and soul and I have really never felt so welcome and so much like I belong as I do when I go to this church and the music is incredible and the people are just wonderful. I mean like I literally can’t count how many hugs I get there just, just for showing up and people are really genuine and they’re like, “Oh, it’s so good to see you again.” And it’s so, it’s so wonderful to, you know, sort of have that space because there are people laughing, there are people dancing, and there are people weeping, you know, whatever you bring to the table, whatever sort of thing that you’re feeling you can feel it there and it’s a place where people are able to feel pain and I think that’s something fairly rare, especially if you are in sort of more of the, like the white American culture where I, where I tend to reside most of my time. There isn’t a lot of expressiveness and there isn’t a lot of safe space to sort of express emotions beyond this really narrow range, but I find that at this church there, you can play all the notes.

DEP Maya
Profile Info
Age at interview: 27
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 15

Background: Maya manages an adolescent program in a community center and lives with her boyfriend. She is Chinese American.

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After Colin's father became more religious, Colin felt less judged and more accepted by him.
Interview Transcript

The one positive experience I’ve had with religion was probably maybe three years ago. My father had this big spiritual overhaul, kind of like a new born Christian and it made him a much nicer person.

Like I don’t adhere to any beliefs myself, but all I can say is it really softened him a lot and he’s a lot nicer than he used to be. After having this and doing things I would never see him doing. He like goes to bible meetings and group sessions and he leads this men’s group now.

Stuff I would never have associated with my father. But he’s a much more, he’s not gentle he’s still fairly a hard stoic man, but he’s a lot more easy to communicate with and he doesn’t feel as judgmental as he used to.

DEP Colin
Profile Info
Age at interview: 20
Sex: M
Age at diagnosis: 18

Background: Colin works at the college he attends and lives with a roommate. He takes medications and sees a therapist. He is White.

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Some people also said spiritual beliefs helped them find direction that transcends depression’s impact. As Sierra Rose noted, “It helps to think that there is something bigger out there, that there is some purpose to all of this.” Jason, who is not religious, wondered “If I had, you know, a sense of faith and religion, maybe that could have made things better.” Sally saw how faith helped family members also struggling with depression, and observed that it “gives them a lot of hope” that they “wouldn’t otherwise have had”.

Religion can make depression harder

Religion worsened depression’s toll for some people. Most often, this was because as they grew older, they moved away from their parents’ religion – and then struggled with feeling alienated or distant from devout family members, which compounded their depression. Whitney said her parents forced her to “participate and learn, study the Bible and it was just, it was a lot for me and it just sent me into this depression again cause… this isn’t what I believe in and it’s just… being forced down my throat.” One participant said that during high school she became “very angry with god” and “couldn’t deal with religion” – but then also “couldn’t deal with my family” and “couldn’t deal with anything.”

When Natasha could no longer follow her parents' faith, it created a rift that intensified her depression.
Interview Transcript

I was brought up like, what is the specific term? Some sort of Christian, like a small group of Christian and some time during early high school I started to like not identify with those values but my parents were still making me go to church so I had a sort of antagonistic relationship with religion for a while. Now it’s sort of, I guess, agnostic I guess. I don’t really know but like I don’t know but I can’t say that it doesn’t exists because I don’t know so I think it’s only an interacting thing with my depression as my parents are concerned because they’re super religious and I’m not so, not being able to relate to them on that level, yeah. It’s sort of depressing at times.

DEP Natasha
Profile Info
Age at interview: 20
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 19

Background: Natasha is a student at a large university who lives in a dorm room on campus. She is African American.

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When Sam began to question his parents' religion, he grew more distant from them while also struggling with growing fears about what the future might bring.
Interview Transcript

I believe that each individual constructs their own sense of purpose and meaning in life, constructs their own system by which they judge themselves to be valuable or not valuable. I absolutely think that religious faith can be an appropriate and healthy and good and beneficial way in which someone can construct their view of the world and of themselves. I also think that it is possible for religious faith, like any framework of looking at the world, to be unhealthy or destructive or negative.

Around age 14, I went through an experience that made me question my devotion to the Christian faith, and, ultimately, I decided that I no longer believed in the tenants of the religion I was raised in, and that was when my first bout of depression that had lasted many, many months occurred, due to a variety of reasons: The stress of having to conceal what I knew my parents would not approve of from my family and from the rest of my community; my nagging fear of what if I’m wrong, what if I go to hell, I don’t want to go to hell, which is a thing that tends to make people uncomfortable. And along with that just the typical growing pains of adolescence of, you know, I was raised to believe the world is, I wasn’t raised to believe that. I grew up thinking that the world is very safe and secure place and I’m now starting to sense that in some cases it is, in some cases it is not. Magnified, in my particular case, by the extremity of the stakes that had been attached to my religious beliefs.

DEP Sam
Profile Info
Age at interview: 23
Sex: M
Age at diagnosis: 19

Background: Sam works as a young professional to earn money to resume his university studies. He lives in an apartment with a roommate. He is White.

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Myra and Sam both said their parents viewed increased spiritual commitment as the appropriate first response to emotional distress; since medical treatment was seen as a last resort, it was not sought in a timely way. Myra observed that in her religious community, mental health was recently starting to be more openly acknowledged for the first time.

Because his parents favored religious over psychological counseling, Sam's depression wasn't diagnosed until after he'd moved away from home.
Interview Transcript

My parents decided the seek alternative religious counseling instead, and my religious counselor was similarly disinclined to diagnose me with depression but, rather, to diagnose me with being sinful which was a whole can of worms, but. Yeah. I didn’t really arrive at the conclusion myself that I was depressed until that summer after my first year of college in which it was pretty hard to deny, in which I was not leaving my apartment for sometimes days on end.

DEP Sam
Profile Info
Age at interview: 23
Sex: M
Age at diagnosis: 19

Background: Sam works as a young professional to earn money to resume his university studies. He lives in an apartment with a roommate. He is White.

Click here to view Sam's profile page
Myra was relieved when she observed her church begin to acknowledge depression and regard it as an issue that required medical treatment.
Interview Transcript

Well I notice that, that people didn’t really start acknowledging depression until I was maybe 18. That, that was the same time that I found the whole [inaudible] and everything. And I kind of think the two are related because that’s when I noticed a general acceptance of depression rather than just being like, you ain’t depressed about nothing. All you got to do is pray and find your joy in the Lord and yada, yada, yada. Our church choir had a song about that, let’s see, I don’t remember the name of it, but the lyrics were, “I almost let go. I felt like I just couldn’t take life anymore”. I don’t remember the lyrics after that, but that was like the first acknowledgement of depression in the church that I’d ever heard of. And it’s like whoa, they actually think this is an illness. They actually realize that this probably isn’t something that you can just pray away, you know?

DEP Myra
Profile Info
Age at interview: 28
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 27

Background: Myra is a musician works as an aide to older adults. She lives with her fiancé. She is African American.

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Most children grow up in their parents’ religion, but as they grow older many begin to explore, as independent people, what feels right for them in the realm of faith. This transition can pose special challenges for those with depression. People we interviewed described a vacuum of meaning or purpose accompanying loss of or changes in their faith, and how this emptiness compounded their depression.

Separating from his parents' faith posed challenges for Sam in retaining his sense of self-worth.
Interview Transcript

I was instilled with the values of a person’s purpose in life is to glorify and serve their divine creator, and if one is not able to do so, one is not doing anything valuable with one’s life. Which I didn’t completely grasp in those words when I was four or five years old, but I think sat with me and did, in some ways, though I no longer explicitly subscribe to them, still do guide me. So very early on when I was sensing that I was not living my life in 100 percent devotion to my divine deity because I did not believe in this divine deity that caused this disconnect between what I felt like would make me, would give me value, and the actual value I was perceiving in myself.

DEP Sam
Profile Info
Age at interview: 23
Sex: M
Age at diagnosis: 19

Background: Sam works as a young professional to earn money to resume his university studies. He lives in an apartment with a roommate. He is White.

Click here to view Sam's profile page

People who felt their family’s religion created impossible expectations or just could not accommodate who they are described having a particularly difficult time. Natasha’s sense that her parent’s religion could never accept her sexual identity, for example, left her more depressed. In her words, “My parents were really like very Christian people and so it’s sort of, we don’t really mesh well with this aspect of my personality…. It didn’t really register to me that that was what was happening but then as I got to college I realized that that was getting me down a lot”.

When she was young, Violet's religion led her to doubt herself, feelings that persist to this day.
Interview Transcript

I grew up as a roman catholic I had when I was younger a very ingrained idea of sin. I do think that I no, I no longer practice anymore. I don’t have any religious association, but when I was younger I very much used to guilt myself about “oh my gosh, you yelled at your sister you did this terrible sin, I have to go confess,” you know it, it very much, I don’t know if it necessarily contributed to anything but I do think that the overall feeling of guilt leads to negative self-worth. It makes you feel like you’re not doing well enough that you’re doing something wrong.

DEP Violet
Profile Info
Age at interview: 23
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 22

Background: Violet is the mother of a young child and a part-time student. She has worked as a nanny. She lives with her father and daughter. She is Caucasian.

Click here to view Violet's profile page

See also ‘Cycles of depression and maintaining hope’, ‘How depression feels’, and ‘Having a purpose in life’.

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