Last weekend, before Mental Health Awareness Week, Premier Christian Media posted a podcast with the title “Should Christians Take Anti-Depressents?” It is a 45 minute seminar hosted by psychologist Dr Rob Waller. This makes it difficult to listen to for the first ten minutes, as the mic doesn’t make its way round the room for feedback from discussion groups (he does summarise each point). He then goes into a really detailed talk in which he picks up different themes.
Unfortunately on the Facebook thread following Premier’s link most people answered a simple “yes,” as if there was no discussion to be had. The following was a well-written commonly held point.
I see Jim’s point, but there is more to the story, and it seems most people didn’t actually bother to listen to the podcast before spouting their simplistic understanding. This irked me and prompted me review what I had already written about healing in relation to depression, a post that I left unfinished as the editing was too great a task! It has taken the full week to write this post. It is not as structured as I would like, but I could sit and tweak for ages and not be satsified. I only hope it makes sense.
In part 1 of this short series on being a Christian with depression, I tried to define the beast. In part 2 I wrote a bit about sin.
And now we come to thinking about healing. What is healing? A simple definition might be the physical and emotional symptoms lifting. But can we ever achieve that completely and how do we achieve that?
For the Christian there is ultimate healing in Heaven. The well known verse in Revelation 21:4 says “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” What an awesome promise! No matter how crap things are now, we know it won’t be like that in Heaven. I very much look forward to that time!
But what about the rest of our life on earth?
What you believe about depression determines what you believe healing should look like. If you believe that it is completely sinful, you would believe that healing comes through Faith in Christ alone. As you put your trust in Jesus, your thoughts and mind will be transformed and the depression lifts. You experience the ever increasing happiness that Hannah Whithall Smith enthuses about in The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life.
I don’t completely deride that view. Romans 12:2 strongly calls us to “not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Although depression causes negative thoughts which are impossible to lodge by mere thinking, our negative thoughts can cause depression. For example, one of my triggers is my anger at being wronged and my inability to deal appropriately with it at the time by politely debating the point. There are two thinking processes to tackle: the actual or apparent wrong done by the other person; my perception of myself. These can be transformed by scripture, but it is not straightforward. Last week I was cycling home really angered by someone and realised I needed to forgive that person. It took me the whole 50 minute ride to get my brain wrapped round it and into the right gear. It took even longer to actually forgive the person and myself; to trust the fact that God forgave me because of Jesus – and to trust that that does mean that I can now forgive others. So, yes, trusting Jesus does salve.
But when we are depressed we are unable to do this thinking process. We are unable to trust. I don’t think the pneumatic style of counselling works for depression; in pneumatic the goal is to get the person’s thinking in line with scripture. This is a noble task, as it is the whole life-goal of a Christian, but a depressed person is not in the kind of place where they can do it!
I like to think of healing from depression like the journey of a marathon. Those 26.2 miles are a long way. You aim for the finish, knowing you’ll get there sometime, and you don’t often feel like you’ll get to the start, let alone the finish. But keep plodding, and you’ll get there.
Is there a finish-line for depression? Everyone is different. But I believe that yes, there is a finish line. We just can’t see it yet. What evidence do I have? None. But I believe because I have to. We fight in the hope there is a finish line.
In Mind Over Marathon the BBC held an experiment in which they took 10 people with various mental health issues, and trained them to be able to run a marathon. I have only watched one episode – I cried so hard I am waiting for the ‘best’ moment to watch part 2. all the way through). It’s telling that the participants talked about ‘coping’ rather than ‘being rid’ of their mental health issues. One of my favourite moments was when participant Jake and presenter Nick Knowles discussed whether he was actually in a good place, or whether he was in a state of flux. He thought about this, and replied that he could feel his depression coming; that it was “in the mail, but I don’t know when.”
I think of my healing in part as coping with depression when it comes, and doing my best to prevent it coming again – knowing all the time it may strike again. In the Facebook thread, people likened depression to a broken leg: if you break your leg, you would go to the doctor. This is true, but that’s where the analogy stops. When your leg heals, the fact that you’ve broken your leg doesn’t put you more at risk of breaking your leg again. But that’s not the case with depression.
I know full-well that I may have another major depressive episode. In that instance, I will go to the doctor, and get on the right meds. I think medication is crucial. Apart from a very small minority of people (I assume), most people would agree that Christians absolutely should use medication. After-all, they were given by God, and we don’t have issues with using painkillers. If we had no issue about seeing the doctor with a broken arm, surely we should have no problem going about a mental health issue?
The painkiller analogy isn’t the best. Consider the following drugs: would you be comfortable taking them? why, why not? Pparacetamol. Morphine. The Morning After Pill. Most people in the seminar agreed that paracetamol was fine, but the morning after pill definitely was not. There are clear ethical implications. Morphine split the room in half. Personally, I would be concerned about the potential for addiction to morphine after the initial problem had been healed. In this instance, morphine might not actually be helpful for me, but a hinderance with regard to my overall healing. I hope I never have to find out!
Similarly, anti-depressents should come with a health warning; and doctors should work hard to ensure the patient is on the right ones for them, and that the patient is actually doing their part. Anti-depressants for a long time hindered my healing process. Having heard about people on them for a very long time, I wondered if I was destined to be one of those people and I gave up hope. For some people, life without medication would be simply not worth living. I believe for some people it is right to continue to be on them. I believed my meds would completely heal me and became dependent on them, and for a long time ignored the hard work of addressing the issues potentially behind my depression. Dr Waddell also discussed the fact that for some people anti-depressants can worsen their condition. They are clearly not a one-size fixes all.
One of the best discussions during my healing was with my psychologist. I came to realise that what was really healing me was the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – in which I learnt about my thought processes and some tools to help – my meetings with the psychologist and my running. My medication was simply enabling me to do accomplish the real work. Maybe my medication was hindering rather than helping me; maybe I was dependent on them for something they weren’t giving?
This is what Dr Wallar and other professionals posit. That for deep depressions, medication can and should be used. Wallar talked about them helping someone go from a “minus 10 depression to a minus 5.” This was my experience, and is what my GP told me – that by themselves they won’t heal. Wallar went further, and said that for minor depressions they don’t help because in minor depressions aren’t so much about missing chemicals, so it won’t solve the general unhappiness.
After I had realised that, I started to look at coming off the medication. It’s another story in itself, but I’ve now been off them for a year. My healing is ongoing, but I am healthier than ever.
Next time: keeping depression at bay.