Sometimes when counseling students, I sense that there are some physiological things complicating the social, spiritual, and emotional issues we are discussing. I am not a counselor, but I have some training and experience in recognizing signs and symptoms of mental illness. One of my greatest challenges in these situations is convincing students to seek professional medical advice from a psychiatrist. The taboo associated with mental illness is clearly present, but there are also theological prejudices in place as well. If you develop a sinus infection (an issue with the biochemistry of your respiratory system) you go to the doctor, get an antibiotic, and get well. No worries. But if you develop anxiety and/or depression (an issue with the biochemistry of your brain), this feels like a fundamentally different thing to most people. Some say that anxiety and depression are a spiritual issue. I agree, but no more and no less so than an upper respiratory infection. Some say that anxiety and depression are the result of sin. No more and no less so that any other illnesses. We are broken people in a broken world.
I have a long and sordid history with respiratory infections and asthma. Sometimes they develop because I don’t get enough rest, and sometimes they just happen because I have allergies or because I’m a runner and the air quality is poor. I’ve learned that sometimes a respiratory infection will clear up on its own, and I can usually tell by my symptoms whether or not I need to see a doctor. Similarly, I’ve learned from my work with students and from pastors, counselors, psychologists and psychiatrists that anxiety and depression are sometimes episodic and will ease up without medication, but sometimes they are chronic and additional assistance is needed. Why do we place such theological weight on the decision to seek treatment for brain chemistry issues? Why do we classify respiratory infections as “physical illness” and anxiety and depression as “mental illness”?
The reality is that our understanding of brain science is relatively small compared to our knowledge of other bodily systems. We aren’t sure what everything in our brain does or how medications will affect it. It’s all scientifically hazy and so our thoughts about brain chemistry are theologically hazy. Some think that if people have faith or pray sufficiently, then their anxiety and depression will go away. Sometimes is does, in the same way that extra rest and proper diet can clear up the common cold. But sometimes that doesn’t do the trick, and there’s no shame or spiritual failure associated with getting help when help is needed, either for your body or your brain. After all, your brain is part of your body, and your soul and spirit are inextricably connected to all of it.
Are anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medications a crutch? Of course! So are antibiotics and antihistamines. And for that matter, so are crutches, and when my daughter broke her foot, I thanked God for the crutches. Can antidepressants and other psycho-trophic medications be misused, prescribed prematurely, and used to the inappropriate exclusion of other forms of treatment? Sure, but this is true of all medications. All good things can be misused. It shows no lack of faith or no deficit of prayer to take medication when medication is needed and other treatments alone won’t do the job adequately. Can God heal? Sure. And why do we tend to think that God’s healing and medical treatment are mutually exclusive?