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Why African Christians Should Rethink Depression

(Photo: Diana Simumpande/Unsplash)

Early in life, I learned the painful truth that no one was listening. The curious questions I had, the troubles I faced and the nightmares that haunted me; no one was listening. So, my mental wanderings became a nuisance best ignored rather than voiced. I don’t know why I believed it, but I did.

Like many Africans, I didn’t know the hints of a lurking depression. I thought feeling sad, hopeless and pessimistic most of the time was natural. Therefore, I told myself it would go away with time. I was wrong. Depression was not a morning dew that flees with the rising sun.

Depression is a mark of disgrace among African Christians as it is often associated with demonic oppression and witchcraft. Above all, a Christian troubled by evil spirits is often considered weak and immature. Therefore, most African Christians battle depression and anxiety by reciting Philippians 4:4-6, mostly to no avail.

A 2013 survey in South Africa found that 31.3 percent of African men had signs of depression. However, only 38 percent of that group sought help from a health professional—probably because of the stigma associated with mental health among African men. There are people who are struggling with depression in churches. Therefore, African Christians should rethink their views on depression.

My own story is a good example of why.

Depression and the Family

In 1994, my father died and he was the sole breadwinner. The loss of income and death of a family head sent my mother into depression, even though she never admitted it. Studies in Sub-Saharan Africa found a strong connection between loss of family member with clinical depression. Thus, as the family introvert, I was not spared.

My mother once walked in my room and found me in tears. She was angry, I was a 15-year-old boy crying for no reason. The tears of a man are sacred, I was supposed to man up. Importantly, at 15, I was supposed to have grown up.

I went to study because I wanted to mask a morbid thought. No, I was never suicidal. But something happened that made my mind spiral until it found itself in a world where my mother was no more. Mind you, she was healthy and there was no indication she would die.

So, I cried. “Why are you crying?” My mother asked. She was trying hard to be strong but I could sense the brokenness and dejection in her voice. She didn’t know what to do and I couldn’t tell her that my mind took me to a place where she was no more. How could I?

As I thought about that time in my life while watching my kids play, I realized that the involuntary crying did not start until my father died. Maybe I was living in fear of losing another parent.

More than 50 million children in Africa have lost a parent, making them susceptible to depression. Hence, the need for African Christians to practice true religion by visiting orphans and widows in their affliction, as advised in James 1:27. However, this also requires the church to understand the role of poverty, death and family structures in depression.

Depression and Witchcraft

“I have an herb that could help your son,” the neighbor said. She added, “Your child is gifted and not everyone is happy about it. They are witchdoctors who are sending goblins to attack your son.” Our neighbor knew a lot about witchcraft and traditional medicine because her mother used to be a spirit medium.

When the charms and amulets failed, my mother consulted a prophet from an African Initiated Church. The prophet gave me holy water and a thread to tie around the waist for protection against demonic spirits. It didn’t work because the bouts of depression and anxiety attacks became worse.

Some African Initiated Churches combine Christianity and African traditional religions. My mother was a member of such churches and she believed in witchcraft, divination and spirits. She believed my depression symptoms were caused by spiritual activity. Sadly, such beliefs are common among African Christians today.

In Witchcraft: A Philosophical and Theological Analysis (pdf), Samuel Waje Kunhiyop observed: “Though the belief in witchcraft attempts to provide a solution to the existence of evil in the world, it does not provide an adequate and an acceptable solution to the problem of evil.” In the African traditional worldview, depression is considered a spiritual attack, so exorcism is often recommended.

Depression and the African Christian

Less than a year later, that morbid thought became a reality—it’s now 16 years. My mother died without knowing why her child always cried. She died before I told her I love her. Six months after her death, Christ gave me a new life. But depression still lingered.

My charismatic church said the signs of depression were caused by demonic oppression. They argued a Christian cannot be possessed by a demon. And my Bible-loving friends reminded me, “Be anxious of nothing.” The church adopted the African traditional worldview; Paul’s timeless words were reduced to an amulet for protecting me against demons and fasting became a ritual for colluding with God to heal me.

As Africans, we need to heed Byang Kato’s wise words: “It is God’s will that Africans, on accepting Christ as their Savior, become Christian Africans. Africans who become Christians should therefore remain Africans wherever their culture does not conflict with the Bible. It is the Bible that must judge the culture. Where a conflict results, the cultural element must give way.”

The African culture provided for taking care of widows and orphans through the extended family. However, rapid urbanization and industrialization disrupted this support structure for people with depression. Caring for the depressed is a godly virtue we need to practice as African Christians. After all, the Church in Africa has become the extended family.

Samuel Waje Kunhiyop observed: “Christians generally are prone to provide worldly standards and demonic explanations to the question of evil rather than biblical and theological explanations.” Depression among African Christians has been described using African cosmology, instead of described as a medical problem that requires professional treatment and biblical support.

Edmond Sanganyado (Ph.D., University of California) is an environmental scientist and analytical chemist in South East Asia. He teaches and writes on how to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ in the 21st Century at Theology in Africa.

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