Facing the Great Depression

There’s an intriguing line of research on depression that shows one group in our society as being significantly less affected by this mental illness than any other group. Care to guess what the group might be? Left-handers? Blondes? Psychology majors? Boston Red Sox fans? (Fat chance!) What do you think?

To understand the study, first let me give you a crash course called Depression 101. While this is a gross simplification of a complex subject, there are two major types of depression. First, there is biologically-based depression such as bipolar disorder, which involves both a manic phase and a depressive phase—real high highs and real low lows. Then there is psychologically-based depression known as reactive disorders. This is triggered more by situations than physiological imbalances.

Disorders like bipolar depression (that are biologically driven) tend to occur at approximately the same frequency for all groups. But reactive depression is more tied to circumstances, environment, upbringing and so on. Thus researchers have identified one group in the United States that experiences significantly less depression of this type than any other. What group?

The Amish. That’s right, the buggy-driving folk who have their roots in the early Anabaptist movement in Europe, which took place at the time of the Reformation. The Anabaptists believed that only adults who had confessed their faith should be baptized and that they should remain separate from the larger society. (Incidentally, as Seventh-day Adventists, we can trace our roots to the Anabaptist movement as well).

Why does this select group have one-tenth the risk for depression as other Americans? Social scientists point to their strong sense of community. They have effectively found an antidote for loneliness. Perhaps that helps to explain why 90 percent of Amish teenagers choose to stay in their church. (Compare that to Adventist youth, who leave the church at an alarming rate of roughly 50 percent.)

Why do so many Amish kids stay committed to their church? The documentary Devil’s Playground offers this explanation by describing the Amish: “It is a tight-knit community, and during the years of running about, it is not surprising that the teenagers eventually seek the comfort, security and structure of their close-knit community.”

Let’s face it: We all crave community. We were created in the image of God, who is by nature three in one—Father, Son and Spirit. God is the consummate expression of community. Because we possess His nature, we too cannot live alone. That ought to clue us in as to why the church (and Sabbath School in particular!) is so vital to our well-being. If ever there was a time when the church might step up and offer an answer to the heart cry of a nation, it is now.

Given our world of highly independent overachievers who try to make it on their own, it’s no wonder that one out of six high school students have at least one major bout with depression before graduation. Moreover, 25–30 percent of university students have at least mild symptoms of depression. Although these symptoms may be fueled by more than just loneliness, make no mistake that intimate relationships can counter many of the ailments of depression.

Check out the story in 1 Kings 19 when Elijah was so down he wanted to kill himself. Notice that part of God’s therapy for the pouting prophet in the dungeon of depression involved hooking him up with a close friend, Elisha.

The bottom line is this: We were never intended to journey the lowlands of life alone. Erich Fromm had it right when he said, “The deepest need of man is the need to overcome his separateness, to leave the prison of his aloneness.”

February 01, 2004 / Fresh Start

Karl Haffner writes from College Place, Wash., where he serves as senior pastor of the Walla Walla College Church.