A Way Out of Depression

Halee Gray Scott

Last year was one of the more difficult periods of my life. The word “horror” comes to mind. Aside from a few years of teen angst and a few months living in the exurbs of Dallas, I’ve never really struggled with depression. Anxiety? Perfectionism? Sure, but not depression. So last winter, I was completely blindsided by an overwhelming sense of dread and hopelessness. It probably had something to do with being pregnant, but mostly I attribute it to living unwisely for a very long time.

During my doctoral program, I worked four jobs and commuted through L.A. traffic two or three times a week. I completed my dissertation in two semesters rather than five. And then a season of loss took its toll as well: I said goodbye to friends and family — home — when we moved from L.A. I had said goodbye to a job I loved to be with my daughter Ellie and to finish my dissertation in such a short amount of time. I didn’t even get to say goodbye to Laska, my sweet rescue dog, before she was shot and killed while staying with my parents. I almost said goodbye to Ellie when she became seriously ill.

Ultimately the piper demanded to be paid. The final straw came when winter arrived here to Holland, Michigan, and I didn’t see the sun from November until May. There I was, great with child, staring at gray skies day after day, not knowing what was happening to me.

Because of my pregnancy, I refused medication and took matters into my own hands. Although my doctorate is technically in leadership, my work focused also on spiritual formation and soul care. If I couldn’t help myself, well then, I had just paid several thousand dollars to learn something that couldn’t even make a difference in my own life.

Could I practice what I preached? Would it work? I asked myself, what I would say to someone if they came to me with the symptoms I had and I came up with a program of five steps to follow everyday:

  1. Scripture and prayer. My spiritual life needed to increase, not decrease, as is so often the temptation in times like this.
  2. Exercise. The body is important to our spiritual formation, and exercise benefits us not only physically but psychologically as well.
  3. Follow the doctor’s orders. If the doctor had insisted on medication, I would have obliged, but since she didn’t, I opted not to use it.
  4. Talk to people. Don’t isolate.
  5. Focus on others. Depression and anxiety become a microscope by which you analyze, over and over again, your own life and the problems you struggle with. Might turning this around and focusing on others, loving others well, get us out?

I made sure to do these steps every day. One, two, three, four, five, repeat. Of them all, I think number five had the most effect on my outlook, which really isn’t a surprise when you look at some of the research on clinical depression. Although it seems counterintuitive, high rates of depression correspond with high rates of self-absorption. In other words, depression can be a vicious cycle when it makes us focus on our own problems, which in turn causes more depression.

See, I don’t think our problem is that we love ourselves too little — it’s that we love others too little. We are so quick to turn inward when things go wrong, and I believe that a great number of suffering people would benefit more by volunteering in a soup kitchen than sitting on a psychiatrist’s couch for an hour a week.

The way out for me was by loving others well. I’m not saying that medication or other therapy is wrong or that this is the only solution. Each case is different and there are situations in which medication or other therapy is necessary. But I am saying that loving others must be part of any plan to get well and get whole. In the mind of Jesus, loving others flows out of our love for God. “‘What is the greatest commandment?’ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength.’ The second is like it, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

I don’t exactly know how to love others well, all the time, but that’s what I’m exploring these days. I do know that we need one another, far more than we realize.

A version of this piece was first posted at Halee’s blog, hgscott.com.

Halee Gray Scott, PhD, is an author and global leadership researcher and consultant who focuses on issues related to leadership and spiritual formation. Her book, Dare Mighty Things: Mapping the Challenges of Leadership for Christian Women, is published by Zondervan. She teaches seminary courses in spiritual formation, theology, and leadership in seminaries across the country. She is a regular contributor to Her.Meneutics.com and her writing has appeared in Christianity Today, Christian Education Journal, Real Clear Religion, Relevant, Books and Culture, and Outcomes. She lives in Littleton, Colorado, with her husband, Paul, and their two daughters. When she’s not writing or teaching, she is usually baking challah bread, running, or doing Crossfit. She blogs at hgscott.com


Hi Halee,

Thanks so much for your thoughtful response! I can definitely see how your fourth point, "talk to people," encompasses the idea of therapy. Your image of the piece of high school embedded in your knee is so true! Light needs to shine in all of our dark places for things to get cleared out.

I appreciate, too, your description of the research that shows the benefits of service. That is fascinating! And I love that prayer by St. Francis -- I'm so glad you mentioned it here.

Thanks for sharing these great ideas with us. And thanks for engaging with me in this discussion! I've really appreciated it.


Jun 29, 2012 9:11PM by Ann Boyd

Oh, Ann, I forgot to mention a prayer by St. Francis that also guides my thinking on this:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

Jun 29, 2012 8:42PM by Halee

Hi Ann,

Thanks so much for engaging on this issue. I definitely don't have anything against therapy or therapists. I'm married to one. ;) Number four on my list is "Talk to people". This may be family, friends, a pastor, or a therapist. It is essential to not bury feelings or emotions and let them rot. One hot spring morning of my sophomore year in high school, a friend of mine took off in my car and in an effort to keep her from taking it off the parking lot, I jumped on the hood, only to fall off a few moments later. I had a mild concussion, a terrible road rash, and several minor cuts. The doctors were careful to clean and medicate my cuts, but they missed one. They missed a pretty deep one on my knee. It never got cleaned out and to this day, I have a bit of black Quitman High School parking lot in my knee.

That's why talking about things--and being very, very honest--about your thoughts and feelings is important. Like my scar, they will never really go away if they're not dealt with out in the open. For me, I talked it out with friends, family, and trusted spiritual advisors. At one point I did see a therapist for one session, and you know what she said? She looked at my plan and said, "You're doing everything I would have told you to do."

In my post, I pitted the soup kitchen and the psychiatrist couch because the prevailing behavior in our time is to seek therapy. Counseling is the default way we try to get well. I'm suggesting another way, a way that can be used in conjunction with talk therapy. This way is consistent with a growing body of research that has demonstrated a positive correlation between self-absorption and depression, and a negative correlation between altruism and depression. Meaning, the more focused you are on yourself, the more depressed you become and the more altruistic behavior you demonstrate, the less depressed you are.

So this is why therapy didn't figure so prominently in the post. I'm drawing attention to another way of seeking relief from debilitating depression. I'm so glad therapy helped you, Ann. I know it helps many.

Thanks again for your comment!

Jun 29, 2012 8:38PM by Halee

Halee, I love the suggestions you give here. I am wondering, however, about your thoughts on counseling or "talk therapy." In my own journey through anxiety and depression, I found my work with a trusted counselor to be one of the most important practices in my healing process. It surprised me that you don't discuss it more in this article (except by contrasting it with volunteering at a soup kitchen). I don't see serving others and working through the intricacies of one's own emotional history to be mutually exclusive -- in fact, I believe they complement each other. I think that, as a person becomes more emotionally whole, they can serve from a better place (rather than from wanting acceptance, affirmation, etc.). What are your thoughts on this? Did you consider counseling during this difficult period in your life? Why or why not? Thanks for being open to discussion!

Jun 29, 2012 11:19AM by Ann Boyd

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