Today I ran across a survey asking opinions on whether or not Christians should take antidepressant medications. A part of me chuckled. This is 2019, isn’t it? And as I got to reading the responses, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to reiterate what I had hoped was obvious. That the ignorance and resistance of Christians cause untold suffering. That mental illness is a medical condition. That it should be regarded as a medical condition and treated as such.
I suffered severe depression from the time I was a little child until my early thirties. Depression has a genetic component for many. In my case, it runs strong in the Jewish part of my family. I was also molested as a child, which contributed to the suicidal depression that clung. One day in my early 30’s, curled up end of couch, babies playing on the floor around me with their toys strung across the tiny living room, I cried. Tearless cries and cried anyway. It was a cry to God. I believed myself to be selfish for not following through with killing myself. My husband and children were suffering from my depression. They needed to get on with their lives. I was destroying them. I had tried to get a handle on the depression for so long. Long as I could remember I’d fought it, knew my thinking was off, and still was ashamed I was putting my family through hell.
I cried out to God as I had many times before. And this time God talked back. You ask me how I know it was God. Anyone who has heard from God knows when it’s God. Even God says ‘my sheep hear my voice and know it’. God said to me that day “Lisa, what if medication WAS my answer for you”?
Full body chills.
I was shocked.
Shocked God would speak to me.
Shocked that God would say those words.
I had made it through a masters program in clinical social work, had enough education to understand that medication would be important for some, however, would never allow myself to go there. Almost as if meds would be for someone who didn’t have what I had. I had God. I had claimed promises, prayed continuously, journaled, worked to improve my diet, exercised – I did not want to take drugs to alter my state of mind. When God said those words to me, I didn’t understand why. I thought I had been honoring God by turning down antidepressants over and over again.
But one thing for sure, when I heard from God, I knew I’d better obey. I made an appointment, got in a few days later. The doctor took a moment to catch my eye and said “Taking an anti-depressant is not like getting high” She could see I needed an explanation – and so went on. “The brain makes its own chemicals that allow us to function happily. For a depressed person, the brain acts as a sponge and sucks up serotonin (the fluid) faster then the brain is able to access it. The antidepressant medication acts to prevent the brain from sucking up its own ‘happy juice’ – that’s why it’s called a serotonin uptake inhibitor.” She went on to explain the many other forms of antidepressants and how each one worked to assist the brain. I wish someone would have explained this to me years before.
Antidepressants don’t always work right away, usually, results show up two weeks in. In cases of significant depression, it can take longer. In my case I had forgotten I was taking them as they were part of a collection of supplements I downed every day. About 6 weeks after I started, I woke up one morning and could hear birds. I hadn’t remembered ever hearing birds before. I wondered why so many birds were now around my little apartment. Later in the day, the sky looked strikingly blue. I hadn’t remembered noticing it’s color before. It took a while to adjust to this feeling of being awake. Over time I came to realize that symptoms of depression are much more than feelings of hopelessness. Depression also causes numbness of skin, lack of appetite (sometimes a decreased ability to taste), turns down natural curiosity, flattens affect, alters a persons ability to learn, the list is long on all the ways depression deadens us.
I was severely depressed from childhood through my early 30’s. The medicine slowly healed my brain. I had to be on medication for a couple of years, and had to be on the meds one other time for a brief period due to postpartum depression, but have never returned to that level of depression again. Thirty-something before knowing life without feeling dead, anxious, worthless, stuck, and blurry. Not everyone’s depression is as invasive. And some can be even more debilitating, as I was able to function at work and school. Some people need brain support in the form of medicine longer than a few years, some for life. Some have to try a number of medications to find what works. Every person is different. Some depression is treated with counseling, some with exercise, some with truth-telling and boundaries. Some with diet. My brain needed medicine and would not heal until I got it.
The medicine reset my brain that no prayers, no truth about God’s word, no forgiveness, no swimming, running, diet, good fats, on knees face down confession could reset – because my brain was physically sick. You folks who wave the ‘research shows that exercise is as effective as antidepressants’ – just to let you know, my exercise routines were hardcore. An example – 7 mile runs 4 times a week, and lap swimming 2 hours at 4 times a week. That was a summer I will never forget, due to the deep depression that would not shake. I love to move, yet exercise did not correct my depression. It must for some. For me, it did not. God’s nudge toward medicine allowed me to raise my children depression-free, and remain free. I appreciate my journey of pain. My adult life has been spent helping thousands of depressed, suicidal, anxious and traumatized folks get the help they need. Learning from a book is good. Learning from experience gives deep appreciation and empathy for the suffering of my patients and clients.
The assumption some Christians make is that because anger, malice and a downhearted spirit are mentioned in scripture in context to a spiritual condition, that those symptoms must be altered by spiritual means only. I don’t know anyone who would not be benefited by the fullness of the Lord. By time in God’s word. By receiving Christ’s grace. I also know that’s not what’s prescribed when a person has a broken back. We attend to the broken back. With diabetes, we attend to the need for insulin. The spiritual disciplines are for helping us cope with the struggle of having that broken back, that diabetic condition. They are not mutually exclusive. I’ll repeat myself here. Depression is a medical condition. It is common for persons who have just had open heart surgery with no mental health history to go into severe clinical depression post surgery – with suicidal ideation. This occurs not because open-heart surgery is more sinful than hip surgery (which does not produce this symptom), but because depression is a physiological and medical condition. Some mothers of newborn babies who have never experienced a day of mental illness miss a few days of sleep and present with full-on psychosis. This is not because giving birth is sinful. It’s not because she has neglected to forgive. Rather her body is unable to tolerate that much loss of sleep, and the body has responded by altering the organ called the brain. The altered brain that causes the patient to become paranoid, violent, hear voices, rejects her baby. Medications treat both of these conditions. Both patients are fully restored by medicine.
God invites us to pray continually. Try doing that when you have 104 temperature. Sometimes all we are able to do is lean into the shadow of the Almighty while snakes crawl underfoot, while arrows rush by (Psalms 91). God invites us to receive his Goodness when we have nothing at all to give him back, including a brain that’s not functioning. We can receive God’s goodness in the form of professionals and medicine as well. When we say a prayer of blessing over the food before a meal, we don’t stop with the prayer. We acknowledge body needs and provide food as well.
For my Christian clients, there are usually many sessions spent working through the abuse they have endured by well-meaning Christians. Christians who have judged and shamed them for the problems they are having. The clients are full of shame for their issues and wish they could just be ‘normal’. They need most of all for their brothers and sisters in Christ to not judge them as wrong, as sinful, as far different from themselves. I’m guessing the judging sister has her leg set when she’s broken it, the brother his tooth repaired when it’s throbbing – and both take what’s prescribed as needed. People who are hurting don’t need a crisis of faith to add to their pain.
Over-prescribing of psychotropics is an issue, however not the one we are addressing here. You and I both know medication doesn’t fix everything. That’s a straw-man argument that is not helpful. We all agree medication does not correct all things mental health. It’s that some people need medication. Our Christian brothers or sisters should not be experiencing shame for seeking mental health treatment due to the drip, drip, drip of the suggestion that ‘if you simply pray more, if you confess your sins more sincerely, if you turn to the Lord – He is Your Great Physician, not your Psychiatrist, do that and you would not be hearing voices, would not feel like killing yourself, would not be shut down and locked away in your home’. Stop the drip of lies, please.
Many of the people I’ve treated have wrestled with God for years, begged God to forgive their sins, asked God for a miracle, forgiven others, etc… Many times it’s when they were willing to get into some professional help that they start getting well. Please don’t tell me there are many professionals that aren’t helpful. We know there are sometimes violent and controlling police, however, we still call 911 when someone is breaking into our home. Pastors sometimes misuse power. We still turn to clergy when a loved one dies. Doctors sometimes don’t do their homework. We still have them stitch up a gash.
God has many ways of healing us… including medication and counseling. Please inform yourself. Please stop shaming others for the struggles they are already so ashamed of. My best guess is, if you are dead set against mental health treatment, that ” thou doth protest too much”. (Shakespeare) and are fighting against help you yourself might very well benefit from. If you are a Christian and struggle with mental health challenges, know that it’s not only OK to seek treatment – but good to do so. Even when you get push back from the people you most look up to.
Thank you Lacey Raper for the photograph.