Anxiety, Depression and the Psalms

Anxiety, Depression and the Psalms.

Everyone seems to be cracking up. There’s hardly an item in the news which does not reference mental health issues. General conversations now often include the words ‘mental health’. Instead of replying to the question ‘How are you?’ with the word ‘scunnered’, the reply might be ‘I have mental health issues’. If someone’s football team loses a match, they might say that this is affecting their mental health. If husband and wife fall out, each may confess to having mental health problems. It is the first line of defence for many accused with breaking the law. The stresses and struggles of daily human life are now conditioned and described by this new language.

The Mental Health Foundation tells us that ‘More women report experiencing high levels of anxiety than men: In 2022/23, an average of 37.1% of women and 29.9% of men reported high levels of anxiety. Compared to data from 2012 to 2015, this has increased significantly from 21.8% of women and 18.3% of men reporting high levels of anxiety. According to the World Health Organisation, 3.6 percent — or about 264 million individuals worldwide — have an anxiety disorder. Additionally, 4.6 percent of females and 2.6 percent of males globally are affected by anxiety.

In Scotland a survey reported that ‘One in five people (21%) felt anxious most or all of the time. Despite anxiety being so common, stigma and shame play a part in how people deal with anxiety. More than four in ten adults in Scotland (44%) with feelings of anxiety keep it a secret.’ A Scotland-wide stress survey has found that almost three quarters of adults (74%) had at some point in the previous year felt so stressed they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope. More than a third of people (35%) had experienced suicidal thoughts or feelings because of stress. Meanwhile one sixth of people (16%) said they had self-harmed as a result of feelings of stress. Depression is one of the most common mental health problems, with one in ten people in Scotland diagnosed with the illness at some point in their lives. In Britain apparently 1 in 5 people have suicidal thoughts, 1 in 14 people self-harm and 1 in 15 people attempt suicide. In 2019, the age-standardised rate for mental health disorders in Scotland was 2,494 per 100,000 population. There were 1330 drug deaths in 2021 and 1092 in 2022 in Scotland. 70% of these were men. 1,245 people died from conditions caused by alcohol in Scotland in 2021. 24% of adults in England and Scotland regularly drink over the Chief Medical Officer’s low-risk guidelines.

The Psalms are testimony to personal relationship with God. It is not always sweetness and light. Psalm 38 offers a grim reflection of King David’s spiritual struggle. ‘Because of your wrath there is no health in my body; there is no soundness in my bones because of my sin. My guilt has overwhelmed me like a burden too heavy to bear. My wounds fester and are loathsome because of my sinful folly. I am bowed down and brought very low; all day long I go about mourning. My back is filled with searing pain; there is no health in my body. I am feeble and utterly crushed; I groan in anguish of heart.’ (Verses 3 – 8). There is an ethical component to this suffering. The author David is acutely aware of his moral failure and its consequential alienation from God whose presence and blessing have accompanied him throughout his life. In prayer however David petitions God to ‘Come quickly to help me, my Lord and my Saviour.’ (Verse 22) He has hope, he has recourse, he has a plan to trust in God to pull him out of his mental health problems. This relationship is missing in so many who suffer while undertaking therapeutic and advice programmes. In extremity, praying is the final option to avert further decline towards oblivion.

Psalm 88 is even more devastating. It is a sad song, a contemplation by Heman the Ezrahite,. There are many mentions of a Heman in the days of David and Solomon. Assuming that they all refer to the same man, he was noted for his great wisdom (1 Kings 4:31), his being a Kohathite, among the sons of Korah (1 Chronicles 6:33), his musical ability and service (1 Chronicles 6:33, 15:17-19, 16:41-42, 25:1; 2 Chronicles 5:12, 35:15). His many and exceptional sons and daughters (1 Chronicles 25:5-6), and his service to the king (1 Chronicles 25:6). Yet he hit the abyss of depression and anxiety. He had serious mental health problems.

‘Lord, you are the God who saves me; day and night I cry out to you. May my prayer come before you; turn your ear to my cry. I am overwhelmed with troubles and my life draws near to death…. You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths. Your wrath lies heavily on me; you have overwhelmed me with all your waves. You have taken from me my closest friends and have made me repulsive to them. I am confined and cannot escape; my eyes are dim with grief. I call to you, Lord, every day; I spread out my hands to you… But I cry to you for help, Lord; in the morning my prayer comes before you. Why, Lord, do you reject me and hide your face from me? From my youth I have suffered and been close to death; I have borne your terrors and am in despair. Your wrath has swept over me; your terrors have destroyed me. All day long they surround me like a flood; they have completely engulfed me. You have taken from me friend and neighbour, darkness is my closest friend.’ (Verses 1 – 3, 6 – 9, 13 – 18)

Psychologists and psychiatrists would be much interested in Heman’s mental health issues. Why is he beating himself up? Where does his psychosis come from? Is God a negative force and influence in his life? Why is his imagination destroying him? Doubly fascinating would be the contrast between the testimony of this Psalm and the references to him being a fine successful family man with especial musical gifts and talent. But we know that many such artistic creative people suffer deep depressions. Michelangelo and Van Gogh did. Tchaikovsky and Beethoven did. Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf did. Dylan Thomas and Sylvia Plath did. Bruce Springsteen and Amy Winehouse did. In many cases unconventional lifestyles contribute to mental health issues. Drug and alcohol abuse can be factors. Some claim that mental health conditions predate and cause alcohol and drug abuse. Recovery though is always possible. Atheism, agnosticism and rejection of Christianity are also present in many creatively artistic people. It could be argued that much artistic production comes out of the darkest recesses of the human soul. A lot of contemporary drama and literature is about negative expressions of human consciousness, experience and conduct.

The Psalms are also testimonies to human spiritual joy in relationship to God. The Old Testament God was often portrayed as severe, judgmental and condemnatory and the words of the prophets illustrate that well. For example, ‘You say, “We want to be like the nations, like the peoples of the world, who serve wood and stone.” But what you have in mind will never happen. As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I will reign over you with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and with out poured wrath. I will bring you from the nations and gather you from the countries where you have been scattered—with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and with out poured wrath. I will bring you into the wilderness of the nations and there, face to face, I will execute judgment upon you. As I judged your ancestors in the wilderness of the land of Egypt, so I will judge you, declares the Sovereign Lord. I will take note of you as you pass under my rod, and I will bring you into the bond of the covenant.I will purge you of those who revolt and rebel against me. Although I will bring them out of the land where they are living, yet they will not enter the land of Israel. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’ (Ezekiel 20 : 32 - 38)

Scottish Calvinism was harsh on human minds. Its view of human nature was essentially negative all be it that redemption was offered to some through Jesus Christ. Catholic guilt caused problems for the devout and faithful bringing attendant mental and psychosomatic issues. Is it stressful to take God seriously? The answer is ‘Yes’. But that is only part of the answer. The Old Testament is replete with joyful celebrations at the Festivals of Unleavened Bread, Weeks and Tabernacles. (Deuteronomy 16 : 16) Contemporary videos of marriage services in Jerusalem show unrestrained joyfulness. 20th century secular Jewish comedic writers and performers have contributed much to the merriment of nations.

The Psalms are ancient records of the psychological benefits of a good relationship with God. King David writes ‘Many say, “May we see better times! Lord, show us the light of your face!” But you have given my heart more joy than they have when grain and wine abound. In peace I will lie down and fall asleep, for you alone, Lord, make me secure.’ (Psalm 4 : 7-9) There is so much moaning and complaining today. So many are unfulfilled, unhappy, struggling with the consequences of the choices they have made while expecting to be supported in their lifestyles. There is an answer - but it would never dawn on people to seek it out in Church on Sunday. Psalm 40 is a testimony to recovery. ‘I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God….You are my help and my deliverer;  you are my God, do not delay.’ Verses 1 – 3 and 17b)

The God of the Psalms is a good provider to the faithful. It may seem trite and hypocritical to suggest to poor people that they should trust in God for what they need but that is the experience of many Christians throughout history. ‘Barnabas Aid’ is only one countless Christian charities which provide practical help for day to day living among the forgotten of the world. We Christians cannot ignore James’ stricture in his letter. ‘Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?’ (2 : 15 - 16) But we also hold to an overall sense of the providence of our Maker and the knowledge of very specific help in emergency situations and need directly in response to prayer. The joy that comes from knowing God knows and loves us is very great and must be part of our Christian witness. ‘I keep the Lord always before me; with him at my right hand, I shall never be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad, my soul rejoices; my body also dwells secure, For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, nor let your devout one see the pit. You will show me the path to life, abounding joy in your presence, the delights at your right hand forever. (Psalm 16 : 8 – 11)

Worship is the response of the grateful heart. ‘I will bless you as long as I live; I will lift up my hands, calling on your name. My soul shall be sated as with choice food, with joyous lips my mouth shall praise you! I think of you upon my bed, I remember you through the watches of the night You indeed are my saviour, and in the shadow of your wings I shout for joy. My soul clings fast to you; your right hand upholds me.’ (Psalm 63 : 5 – 9) We are a long way from depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. The resources of the Christian Faith are sufficient to restore our lost humanity. ‘I will sing to the Lord all my life; I will sing praise to my God while I live. May my meditation be pleasing to him; I will rejoice in the Lord. May sinners vanish from the earth, and the wicked be no more. Bless the Lord, my soul! Hallelujah!’ (Psalm 104 : 31 – 35)

The call is to be broadcast over all the earth. ‘Shout joyfully to the Lord, all you lands; serve the Lord with gladness; come before him with joyful song. Know that the Lord is God, he made us, we belong to him, we are his people, the flock he shepherds. Enter his gates with thanksgiving, his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, bless his name; good indeed is the Lord, His mercy endures forever, his faithfulness lasts through every generation.’ (Psalm 100 : 1 – 5) We live in a global village. The troubles of far flung peoples are before us on our television screens. The message of the Psalms is relevant and helpful.

Christian salvation is the high point of human existence. It is prophesied in personal relationship with our Maker as described in Psalm 118. ‘I thank you for you answered me; you have been my saviour. The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. By the Lord has this been done; it is wonderful in our eyes. This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice in it and be glad. Lord, grant salvation! Lord, grant good fortune! You are my God, I give you thanks; my God, I offer you praise. Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, his mercy endures forever.’ (Verses 21 – 25 and 28-29)

Let no-one feel alone and abandoned. Let no-one continue unhealed. Let no-one say ‘There is no God and if there is one, He cares nothing for me’. Let no-one endure anxiety and depression without consolation. Let no-one take the darkest path towards suicide. There is an answer. Read the Psalms.

Robert Anderson 2017

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