Before I go on I need to specify that I believe that there are cases where depression as a real medical problem exists. This is when people are sad for a prolonged period of time for no discernible reason. Attitudes and actions that can flow from this, such as suicidality, are serious.
But I also believe that there is an increasing prevalence in the medical profession to treat deep sadness as something abnormal, something that needs to be treated with medication. One thing that Dr Burton pointed out is that Western culture seems to be the only culture that has a clinical definition of depression. Traditional societies do not treat such sadness in the same way because sadness can be good for us.
Burton gave examples of how depression has helped his patients in different ways. He spoke for example of a woman who only came to terms to the failure of her marriage because depression forced her to sit still and contemplate her life (which I believe is something we all need to do more often).
It also seems that with new diagnostic methods the analysis of depression, which is already at about 10% of the population, is going to increase even more. When people lack meaning in life is it surprising that they are sad? Surely this is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation?
All you need to do is flick through the Bible to see that it is filled with sad people lamenting their suffering. The book of Job is dedicated to the suffering of one man. Many psalms are tales of great woe. The books of the prophets are filled with cries of sorrow. There is even an entire book called Lamentations! My point is that as Christians we should not see sadness as simply something that we should be rid of, but something that communicates a message about our inner life.
Sadness and depression are generally calls from our soul that something is not right. Jesus himself felt great sorrow and grief at both his betrayal and death.
Sorrow, grief and depression are informative because they should prompt us to action or at least help us to understand ourselves and others better. Depression is something much like pain. It is unpleasant, but it prompts us to do something. As pain tells us to stop doing something, depression is there to help us contemplate what is wrong.
Often what is wrong is that we are separated from God. In the bible the subject of suffering is almost always about our or Israel's separation from God.
Medicalisation of sadness assists our society in denying the role and need for God in our lives. The fact that antidepressants as a whole may be ineffective shows us that even modern technology cannot create a cure from the absence of God in our lives.
Job, the psalmists and prophets in their times of darkness were all brought to prayer and reliance on God. Then "the LORD delivered them from their distress" (Ps 107:6). Sadness reminds us of our need for God and Jesus is the source of all hope!
Nathanael Yates from Perth, Western Australia, is an award winning young scientist who has won a scholarship to Oxford for 12 months as from October 2011
Nathanael's archive of articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/nathanael-yates.html