Depression: When the black dog howls

A version of this was first posted as a Facebook note in 2009. Nothing in this post should be construed as medical or medicinal advice.

The term “black dog” was used by Winston Churchill to describe depression and, though it predates the British prime minister, is the sum total of familiarity most seem have with it. Regardless of who coined it, “black dog” is as apt a descriptor of the frustrating experience of depression as there is. Ask anyone who deals with it regularly.

At this point in my life I cannot even remember when I started dealing with depressive episodes. (I do not use the phrase “suffering from depression”; it just does not seem to fit me.) I’m pretty certain that it has not always been a part of my life, though it may have been unrecognized earlier on. For the last few years, however, there are three or four times each year that it hits.

It is funny when you start talking about being depressed and experience the reactions of those around. The responses can range from the spiritual (“Pray more.”), to the physical (“Are you getting outside enough?”) to the ludicrous (“Just pull out of it.”)

One can no more “just pull out of” a depressive episode than they can “just pull” the moon out of its orbit.

This note is the result of my own observations and experiences over the last couple of years.

1. No one wants to be depressed. Nobody would choose it. It is not to get attention. There are easier and far more fun ways of getting attention.

2. Anything or nothing can trigger it. It can be turmoil on the job. Or not. It can be the kids growing older. Or not. It can be you growing older. Or not. It can be feeling inadequate on the job. Or not. All of the above, or none of it. Or anything else that you can put your finger on. It just shows up howling its blooming head off.

3. Sometimes you can be in it before you realize it. This is especially true with me. Sonya usually recognizes it before I do. I usually do not realize how depressed I am until I do not know if I can work another day, and that is even when things are good.

4. There are no easy steps out. Sometimes you just cannot tell if or when it will go away. I’ve awakened in the morning feeling pretty good only to have it return in half an hour leading to an entire day of “down” feelings.

5. Things may not be the same for every person with depression. It might be easier to relate to people in depressive episodes if they were all the same, but they are not.

What not to say to a depressed and why:

1. “Pray.” (Or these variants, “Pray more,” “Are you praying enough?” “Have you prayed about it?”) Depression is always a matter of prayer. If prayer was the solution there would not be any depressed Christians, since we all pray about it. Yes, I wish that God would always take it away for just the asking, but since Moses, Elijah and Paul dealt with it periodically, I don’t see that God will take it away just because He’s asked. It does bear remembering that prayer can actually make you more depressed since the tendency is to focus on the depression. This can be a tricky proposition.

2. “Cheer up.” Depression by nature is an emotional “out of whackedness.” A depressed person cannot simply get happy because they decide to do so any more than you can get from Nashville to Los Angeles by clicking your heels together. Although depression might be caused by various factors, in the end it is a feeling of sadness that usually seems impenetrable and, while you are in the midst of it, permanent. I’ve never been suicidal (or homicidal) during a depression, but I understand how some people can get that way. Just imagine the most sad you have ever been and then being convinced that it will never go away. The feeling of potential “lifelong sadness” is more than some can bear.

3. “Just trust God.” To do what, exactly? I do trust God and try to trust Him with every aspect of my life and depression still strikes. I trust Him to see me through it each time, but it does not make it go away immediately, though it always does with time.

4. “Don’t isolate yourself.” This one is actually true and helpful, but sometimes really hard to do. When depressed, there are few if any feelings of desire to socialize with ten or with one. Of course this exacerbates the situation but remains an issue. Depression can result from and cause a desire for isolation. It is not so much not wanting to be a wet blanket as it is not wanting to have to expend the emotional energy to carry on conversation. Any expenditure of emotion worsens the lack of emotional balance symptomatic of the depression itself. I have experienced great times of fun and laughter while depressed, then turned away and felt just as sad or “blue” as before. Laughter may be the best medicine, but it is not always the cure.

5. “Get some meds.” Some people are offended by the idea, since it is sometimes mentioned flippantly. I have not yet gotten a prescription, but I’m considering it. (Is it the purple pill, the blue pill or the hexagonal pill?) The thing that I am most working through is whether medication is necessary for something that happens three or four times a year.

What do to for a friend who is depressed:

1. If you deal with it, be open about it. Depression may be a black dog, but it should not be a dirty secret. Some men view it as weakness and thus it retains a hold on them. Bite the dog; don’t let it continue to gnaw on you. Be sensitive when you recognize that a friend is depressed, and be open when that friend is just realizing it for themselves. Sometimes depression makes you feel crazy; hearing from a friend who struggles through it and retains most of their sanity is an encouragement for others not to give up.

2. Don’t think that going to a ball game or a movie is “just what they need.” It may or may not be; depression is a tricky thing and when I am depressed, I often do not know what in the world I want to do. I do find that being in the company of another person, whether Sonya or a friend, who does not demand that I talk or interact can be helpful. Just hanging out. It takes a lot of energy to carry on conversation or “just be yourself” when there is no inner drive at all to do anything.

And on this note, don’t give a book, website, sermon, podcast, or other thing you think “might help.” The person typically feels broken already. Offers to “fix them” can serve to reinforce their feelings of inadequacy. Be friend enough to long time care without immediate repair.

3. Do pray because often your depressed friend finds little comfort in praying themselves. In addition prayer while depressed can be tricky. It is very easy for prayer itself to become depressing when depressed. I am not sure why.

4. Don’t judge the whys and wherefores, especially if you’ve never dealt with it. It’s very, very hard to explain; heck, it’s very, very hard to deal with emotionally, physically and spiritually. Depression may or not be spiritual and if it is not, then it is very frustrating to be given a simplistic answer revolving around a book, dvd or sermon series.

5. If the person begins to talk suicide or act suicidal to any degree, intervene; obviously, sadly some depressive episodes end in suicide. I knew a fellow many years ago who seemed for all the world to be ok. He woke up one morning to leave for vacation and saw that it was raining. Despondent over that particular situation, he went back into his house and killed himself. It was almost unbelievable to hear. At the time I thought, “How in the world…”

When writing this post originally I received a great amount of encouragement. I was steered to a natural product called St. John’s Wort available at almost any grocery store or drug store. It has proven to be very effective for me at both preventing and helping lift depression. I now take it only as needed which is infrequently.

All-in-all I see depression a result of the fall, not a part of God’s creation. As such Jesus died so that we might have ultimate deliverance from it. That may or may not happen in this life for me, but it gives me yet another reason to long for That Day.

Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.

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  • Terah

    I would also add, Don’t be afraid to seek professional help. Many many people struggle with bouts of depression, ranging from minor to severe to chronic. A mental health professional will help you determine which category you fall into and help you with the treatment you need – whether medication is necessary, etc. They are trained to recognize suicidal thoughts that friends and family may dismiss as just being down. If you or someone you know struggle with the thoughts & feelings that Marty so accurately wrote about, please seek professional help.

  • I have battled mild depression for the past several years. I denied it for most of that time … the “Baptist Way.” Finally got some professional help. One friend in particular who also has walked this road was especially helpful to me. I use a supplement called 5HTP as needed and it seems to help. Thanks for posting, Marty.

  • David

    Resonated with this post Marty. I have depressive episdoes a few times a year also. You are right just pulling out of it is ludicrous. However a whole food B complex supplement has helped me tremendously.

  • It would be wise to mention male andropause. Most guys have a problem with it in their mid-late 40’s and NOBODY ever mentions it.

    Marty, if you don’t know about this, drop me an email.

    • martyduren

      Actually, Bob, I first heard about it from you. And, I concur.

  • Guest

    It would be well to mention (and explore, if you haven’t…) male andropause. I think it is by far the biggest problem for mid-late 40’s guys. And nobody ever mentions it.

  • Rick White

    Thanks from one who has dealt and probably will continue to deal with this on this side of eternity. You give good counsel in your post. Thankfully He is also the God of chemistry for which I am grateful.

  • Thanks for this post Marty! This has really been a struggle of mine over the past several years and has affected me tremendously, mentally, physically, relationally and spiritually. When I first noticed the signs of depression, I was ashamed. I thought, “I can beat this.” At times I thought I had, only for it to rear its ugly head once again. I was ashamed, mostly because that was how others made me feel. Like I didn’t have enough faith, or wasn’t disciplined enough in my prayer life. I would get the occasional, “you just need to get victory, brother!” This irritated me to no end. What does that mean anyway? As a result of how others made me feel, I felt like I needed to try and hide it. At times I felt like it would disqualify me from pastoring (though I realized, biblically, that this is not true). I completely identified with Spurgeon, who said ““Perhaps never soul went so near the burning furnace of insanity, and yet came away unharmed.” Several months ago I decided to get help and I began to see a counselor. It really helped to talk with someone, who didn’t judge me or make me feel like less of a man, or less of a Christian. He helped me to realize that many pastors struggle with this and I was not alone. I really do pray for victory in this area of my life and hope that one day I can help other pastors, who struggle through depression. Thanks again, Marty!

  • karlene conley

    Man brother! U never cease to amaze me!
    I believe God wants is to be transparent ! It is how we encourage others! Marty I have known u since 20 years ago or so we went to the same church, what is so awesome is u seem to grow more in the Faith every year while others have grown stagnant or gotten lazy! Thank you for your great post!!!! And for being so close to our Lord’ I have struggled off and on for years with depression, going on meds and being able to come off. Right now am off. and old anti depressent worked for me like washing the windshield in 3 or 4 weeks. Wellbutrin. again thanks so much for keeping it real brother!

  • RMc

    St. John in all his Wortiness has been a constant companion of mine for quite awhile now as well. Have been on the prescription end of things as well as counseling, both helped quite a bit. Was able to come off of the prescription. After a while, my bride mentioned that she recognized signs that I didn’t. Tried St. John’s Wort as a result of a conversation you and I had a couple of years ago. Definitely comes and goes. Agree wholeheartedly with your last paragraph. Reminded of the song “One of these Days” by FFH.

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  • martyduren

    Thanks everyone for your kind remarks and for your own stories.

    I first posted this note to Facebook in 2009 and again later. Each time people respond. Besides the comments here I received 3 Facebook message and a text message from people who deal with depression. Unrelated to my post yesterday a pastor friend wrong on Facebook that depression is the most misunderstood problem in the church. He may be right.

    May God bless you all until that time all things are made new.

  • Joe Kennedy

    Thanks, Marty. Been a continual issue for me for years. And years. And years. And I’d never heard about St. John’s Wort before, so thanks again.

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  • martyduren

    My friend Angela Rankin wrote an extended piece on depression today. It’s worth checking out:

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  • Coosje Helder

    Beautiful! Could not have said it better! Especially love the last line of promise!

  • Karen Butler

    I would wish that as you updated this article from 2009, you might have included the updated science about antidepressants doing no better than placebos in every clinical trial, as reported by Irving Kirsch fourteen years ago. But unfortunately only now is word getting out to the general public, especially since last year “60 Minutes” did an expose:;cbsCarousel.

    Of course the APA is indignant about their emperor’s nakedness being exposed, and here is a good rebuttal to their rebuttal, which basically states, “Where’s the science?”

    For those who struggle with depression, It is good to note that depressed people who simply engage in regular aerobic exercise do far better than those on antidepressants, with less relapse, as this study indicates:

    Please do your readers a valuable service by including this new information, as well as the important counsel to taper off these dangerous medications carefully, and with adequate social support. Sadly, I know of no Christian forum that can help, but here is one site that provides encouragement and good science about how to wean oneself off these toxic neurochemicals:

    • martyduren

      Thx for stopping by and for your comment. As stated in the outset this was not a medicinal or medical observation.

      Your concerns are noted. I, too, encourage interested parties to fully investigate any pharmaceuticals that deal with the mind.

    • EV

      Thanks for this info Karen! I know this article was not specifically about medicine vs non medicine, but I want to shout from the rooftops the same things you have stated here. I’m going to digress a little bit as I am not commenting on the article (which was helpful!!). I was on antidepressants for 11 years from the age of 15, and was told I had to be on them “for life” due to a “chemical imbalance” (that they could not test me for, of course). I ended up tapering off and having an awful experience of withdrawal over the course of a few years. I am still not the same as I was before. I usually tell folks to try alternatives (ie. exercise like you mentioned) before drugs. I ended up being a slave to them and was not only still mildly depressed feeling, but also incredibly tired all the time. It was a horrid experience quitting (awful side effects that I had never experienced prior to starting meds). The only thing the docs did for me was “upping” my dose higher and higher until I felt kinda numb. I too suffer from periodic episodes of feeling down, blue, hopeless and the like. I am not sure the cause. Could be hormonal for me sometimes because I felt worse after having a baby. But I know a lot of it has to do with listening to myself instead of talking to myself (see Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ book, “Spiritual Depression”). It has a lot to do with what my internal thought dialog is .. such as “this will never get better. I’m doomed. Something bad is going to happen. I cant handle this. God doesn’t care. I’m miserable, I’m too tired to go on”. Anyway Karen – I have also read “Blame it on the Brain?” by Welch and other anti – anti-depressant books such as Prozac Backlash. If only the knowledge was out there. :(

  • I’ve dealt with depression on and off since I was a teenager. Your post resonated with me. I wonder if depression has any correlation to food allergies, specifically celiac disease. I am the last person one would imagine dealing with depression, since my personality is outgoing, exuberant, and friendly. I usually see the sunny side of things, except when I am in a deep, dark depression.

    I agree that there is no rhyme nor reason to going into a depression or coming out of one. I also don’t believe the solution is to “pray harder” or to “trust God” or to “read this book”. Sometimes, talking about the issues helps, and sometimes it doesn’t.

    At any rate, thanks for this. It’s good to know I am not alone. You can grow your own St. John’s Wort, by the way. We had some growing in our horse pasture, and it had to be completely irradicated, as horses are made sensitive to sunlight if they ingest it.


    • martyduren

      I’ve also read humans can become sunlight sensitive as well. I do not remember that reaction.

  • Michael Grankey

    Sam-e is a natural supplement that is also helpful for depression. Seems to have no side-effects. The best price for it seems to be when Meijers has it on sale, buy one, get one free.

  • Beth

    This is a great post! I’ve never come across your blog before, but this resonated with me. I’m glad you found St John’s Wort…I was actually coming down to say think twice before taking the meds (from personal experience), and to suggest St Johns. :) Your points were all right on, and I would think helpful for those who don’t understand depression.

  • Marie

    I guess I will be the contrarian, here.


    If I Christian friend of mine is depressed, I may NOT:

    1. suggest reasons that are triggering it, with possible solutions

    2. Encourage them to pray.

    3. Tell them to “cheer up,” that is to say, choose to be cheerful.

    4. Encourage them to “trust God.”

    5. Take steps to help keep them from isolating themselves.

    6. give them a book, website, sermon link or podcast. . .

    yet if I discern that suicide may be in the offing, I am supposed to somehow intervene.

    Also, apparently I may pray for them.

    Frankly I find that this advice is simply saying “Depression is Lord,” rather than “Jesus is Lord.”

    It seems to me we can’t really do ANYTHING, if we follow this advice, because all of our feeble attempts are incorrect, or do damage, or at the very best don’t do any good. We can’t possibly help because we don’t know exactly how the depressed person feels; we are therefore basically useless and should leave the depressed alone.

    I reject this advice. I find it unBiblical. I don’t have all the answers to ministering to the depressed, but I think this article is harsh towards those who desire to help, far too negative about the power of prayer, fellowship, friendship, the gospel, and even activity and change of routines. Each person is an individual and should be approached as such, and for me to insist that my invalid neighbor attend a ball game with me or that my recently divorced friend simply cheer up would not be sensitive. However, to do nothing because someone’s depression is too sacred to approach is not the answer, either.

    • martyduren

      Contrarians always welcome.

      • Marie

        Thank you Marty. . . it is my desire to see the depressed truly helped.

    • I agree with Marie. Would love to see more Scripture and less preaching of personal experience. I’ve suffered from depression and anxiety, and still do, and find lists like this frankly unhelpful.

      • martyduren

        Thx for your comment. Thankfully, hundreds of people were helped by this as evidenced by the social shares, private messages I received and numerous other blogs and websites that either linked to this post or reprinted it.

        This was not intended to be an exegesis of the life of Moses or Elijah in their depressive episodes. It is my story which, by definition, is personal experience. I’m sorry you found it unhelpful.

    • Mark

      I agree with a Marie as well. The believer is not helpless. We have been given the Helper, the Holy Spirit. The scripture clearly teaches, “You will keep him in perfect peace (Hebrew – peace, wholeness, health, happiness, prosperity, etc.), whose mind is stayed upon Thee” (Is. 26:3). Romans 8 shows us that those who walk after the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. And to be spiritually minded is life and peace. The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace… Notice in both the Old and New Testaments, the key to abiding in the Presence of God and enjoying the benefits of His peace and joy is having a mind fixed on Him or His Word. I am not suggesting this is easy. It is the Christian’s warfare (2 Cor. 10). But it is the truth. I have a dear friend who has struggled with depression mostly in the past. Before it comes on them, I notice (without exception), they start dwelling on thoughts that are not scriptural, like worrying about how circumstances are going to work out, or how their dreams aren’t coming to pass fast enough, etc. We are to guard our hearts with all diligence and ask ourselves every situation, ‘What does God’s Word say about this?’

      Like I said, overcoming can be challenging. But the believer is not helpless. He has the Holy Spirit and God’s Word. When God’s Word is acted upon victory is assured. Joyce Meyer has good material on the subject as well.

      • martyduren

        I started not to respond to your comment because it is beyond me how you come to this conclusion. Do you meditate on scripture to get rid of the flu? The common cold? Does the Holy Spirit guide you away from ingrown toenails? Your counsel will condemn as many people as you would suppose to help.

        Maybe this from Carlos Whitaker will help others who stop by:

  • Marie

    I might point out that your suggestion of St. John’s Wort is resonating with a lot of people. If you had followed your own advice about not saying “get some meds,” then the people reading this article would not have had the idea. So I am glad you mentioned it! Even though it is apparently not the ‘correct’ thing to do!

  • Liz

    A state of mind that one has no control – like cancer or being born with a birth defect – unable to snap out of it.

  • Keith Bettany

    In Austalia we have Community Men’s Sheds, and for some men it meets a need as follows. At a Shed Conference, an elderly man got up and told us that his wife was aware she was dying and intructed the GP to check on me as I wouldn’t cope. For weeks I didn’t get out of bed until the GP came around and told me I have depression, prescrbied some medications and left. This man went on to say that now he got out of bed but just stared at the walls all day and thought of taking the whole lot to finish it all. Again the GP checked on me, he said, and I told him what I thought. He told me to try the Community Men’s Shed down the street. He went on to say that the only day I’m depressed is on a Sunday when the shed is closed.

  • This is a great article. I am happy to see Christians talking about it instead of telling one another to just “give it to God”. I’m a pastor’s wife who deals with depression episodes a few times every year and all of the “what not to say” comments are so dead on…we think those things ourselves and begin to feel guilty for not being able to pull out of it through prayer. People who haven’t experienced depression have a hard time understanding it, which is another reason why this post is so great. Exercise does seem to help, and I am going to try St.John’s Wort -heard about it before, but never tried it.

    • martyduren

      Blessings, Traci.

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