Faith can help with depression

When a person receives a layoff notice, it can be followed by fear and self-loathing.

Rev. Bernie DeJonge and Rev. Darren Roorda in the sanctuary at Community Christian Reformed Church in Kitchener

KITCHENER, Ont. — When a person receives a layoff notice, it can be followed by fear and self-loathing.

But it’s not only losing a job that can throw a person into the depths of depression, psychologist David Dozois says.

It’s also his or her thinking about their new circumstances.

“If you lost your job and you thought ‘I’m a loser, I’m a failure,’ that’s not going to move you forward,” Dozois said. “You’re going to be continuing to think negatively and that’s going to pull you down into a pit.” A clinical psychology professor at the University of Western Ontario in London, Dozois will be a keynote speaker this weekend’s conference at Community Christian Reformed Church in Kitchener.

Dozois said all sorts of negative life events, including the loss of a job, can trigger depression in people.

And to help pull them out of their pits, it’s not enough to offer them pat answers, he said.

So during his talk, Dozois plans to give people some strategies for coping with depression.

The conference, organized by the Christian Reformed Church in North America, is designed for church members who volunteer as advocates for the disabled.

The advocates, who are active in three-quarters of the denomination’s approximately 250 churches in Canada, work to help make church policies more inclusive for people with physical and mental disabilities.

People who endure long-term disabilities often battle bouts of depression, said Rachel van Geest, one of the event organizers.

The annual conference, which usually draws between 80 and 100 people to its workshops, has been held since 1996.

Depression is all about feeling hopeless about your future and negative about yourself, Dozois said.

And believing in something beyond yourself, such as believing in God, can buffer a person from depression, he said.

“I think it gives people a sense of meaning and purpose in life, which is important.”

The Bible contains examples of people who might have been suffering from depression, said Dozois, a Christian who was raised in the Baptist tradition.

For example, King Saul (1 Samuel 28) is thrown into great despair after seeing a vision of Samuel coming to him from beyond the grave.

But Dozois said his talk won’t be a faith-focused presentation. Rather, he plans to give people tips on coping with depression.

Negative life events, such as losing a job, can trigger depression.

But it’s not just the loss of a job that can cause depression, he said. It’s also a person’s belief around the job loss.

Some people who lose their jobs see unexpected unemployment as an opportunity to learn something new.

And those who hated their jobs might feel relieved.

But those who consider their jobs to be a huge part of their identities might be devastated.

Dozois said he will discuss a coping strategy called cognitive behavioural therapy.

It’s designed to move people away from negative thinking that can trigger depression or make it worse, he said.

In part, the approach entails getting people to start doing things they used to love doing.

“Often when people are depressed they’re not doing things that they usually enjoy, or they’re not doing things that give them a sense of mastery,” Dozois said.

The therapy also calls for teaching people who are depressed to take a step back and assess the situation, he said.

“You basically help people to learn to monitor and test their thoughts and then realign them so that they’re more consistent with evidence.”

Research shows the cognitive-behavioural therapy is about as effective at treating an episode of depression as taking antidepressant medication, Dozois said.

And in the longer term, he added, it seems better at preventing relapses. Rev. Darren Roorda, lead pastor at Community Christian Reformed Church, where the conference is taking place, said the region’s rising unemployment rate hasn’t affected many congregation members yet.

But in the past decade of serving as a pastor, mostly in the United States, Roorda said, he met many people thrown out of work. Those who have the hardest time coping are those who see their work as their entire lives, he said.

“Those who are able to stand back and evaluate the measure of their life on a larger scale are generally much more able to cope.”

Everyone is capable of backing up and taking a bigger picture view of their situation, he said.

“It just takes some longer than others.”

Roorda is no stranger to living through a major career change. Before he enrolled in a seminary in the United States, in his mid-20s, Roorda worked as an environmental scientist.

“You’ve got to swallow your pride for some time,” he said. “We were living off of food stamps and governmental programs for a while.”

“Yet, at the same time, it’s also in those weakest moments that we can see that God was working most clearly.”

Rev. Bernie DeJonge, the pastor most responsible for counselling at the Kitchener church, said if people can see that they have good health and family support, losing a job won’t be as devastating.

DeJonge said he generally reminds people experiencing all sorts of difficulties that they’re not alone and that they’ve made it through hard times before.

“I remind them of the bigger picture — that all things are in God’s hands.”

However, DeJonge said he rarely points to specific Bible verses.

“I don’t usually throw Scripture at them,” he said. “Scripture verses are not magical bullets to kill away stress.”

Troubles with health and personal relationships are bigger sources of stress than losing a job, he said.

But the economic downturn could add to the stress a person is feeling.

Stress alone isn’t the big problem, he said.

“It’s carrying stress alone — that’s the worst thing.”

In today’s society, many people don’t have a support group, he said.

“We have a plethora of contacts, but a poverty of relationships.”

So these days, the church plays the role of an extended family, he said.

The 1,000-person congregation is populated with elders and deacons who get to know the spiritual and material needs of the people in the pews. Members are also assembled into smaller groups, where people can get to know each other and can provide leads on possible jobs or offer other help when needed, DeJonge said.

“If you don’t have anybody to bear the burden with you . . . it’s a tough thing to carry,” he said.

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