Are medications essential in winning the battle over depression?

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. 2 Cor 4:7-10

“Emotional suffering is inevitable in life. But it has a meaning- a purpose. Suffering is a signal that life matters. Specifically, it is usually a signal that something in our lives that matters a great deal needs to be addressed.” Dr. Peter Breggin, M. D. Director of the Center for the Study of Psychology and Psychiatry.

Give Me That Book was founded for the purpose of joining God in his passion to display the supremacy of Jesus Christ through the proclamation of his sufficient Word. God inspired the written Word to powerfully and personally convey his glory by enabling his people to live joyfully in the midst of problems and pain. “Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will honor me.” Ps 50:15

Sadly, many in the church do not believe this. They believe that the Word of God is sufficient to get us saved and into heaven there and then but insufficient for enabling us to live a life of freedom and victory here and now. As we reported in our last newsletter, this perspective was illustrated at a recent mission’s conference not far from my home. In a seminar led by a local psychologist, the subject of disappointment with God and the resultant struggle with depression was discussed. The psychologist was an advocate of bio-psychiatry, where drugs are used to combat the feelings of depression. This theory believes that emotional struggle is a brain problem and chemicals are needed to bring healing to the malfunctioning “hardware”. This particular therapist was so committed to this position that he declared to the missionaries in attendance, “Use your meds or throw your calling out the window.” 

The psychologist went on to say that 20% of our missionaries are taking medications for emotional problems. That comment generated a very deliberate response from one of my missionary friends who was participating in the class. She described that unbelievable statistic as the result of a church that has failed to fashion a theology of suffering. She was absolutely correct. What made this statistic even more perplexing was the message that was continually heard throughout the week that God can do anything in response to the prayer of faith. 

When someone questions the use of medication to treat depression, the advocates of such therapy quickly respond by comparing it to the way we treat any physical disease. One of our denomination’s most influential psychologists used this logic by saying, “We medicate the heart and the liver, why shouldn’t we medicate the brain?” I wrote an article in response to his explanation and pointed out that the reason we do not medicate the brain is because it is not the liver! The brain is the seat of our person. That is why we do not transplant brains. You would be a different person.

But there is more. When we introduce drugs into the brain we simply do not know how they will affect the individual’s brain. The brain has more individual cells [neurons] than there are stars in the sky. Billions! And each neuron may have 10,000 or more connections [synapses] to other brain cells, creating a network with trillions of interconnections. In fact, the brain is considered to be the most complex organ in the entire universe. With its billions of neutrons and trillions of synapses, it is more complex than the entire physical universe of planets, stars and galaxies. Scientists have well-developed ideas how the universe works but the living processes of the brain add complexities unknown in the physical universe. Those trillions of interconnections between brain cells, for example, are mediated by hormones, proteins, tiny ions, such as sodium and potassium, and other substances. We have little or no idea how these all work together to produce brain function.

I know some of you are thinking, “What about chemical imbalance? Are they not the cause of a brain malfunction that leads to depression?  Although this theory is being trumpeted by drug companies [bringing them billions of dollars of profit], psychologists, psychiatrists and various medical sources, it is simply unproven speculation. The theory goes that depression comes from a problem with the neurotransmitters in our brain. A lack or overabundance of neurotransmitters causes the synapse between the nerve endings to misfire resulting in either depression or mania, overstimulation. Drugs are introduced to bring balance to the chemical process.

The problem with this theory is that it is just that, theory. It has not been demonstrated in scientific studies. There is no way to measure the amount of neurotransmitters in the synapses between the cells. It is pure guess work. That is why doctors who declare chemical imbalance to be the cause of depression and prescribe meds to fix the brain, do so with no physical testing. When a person has cancer it can be detected and isolated. When a person has pneumonia it has physical symptoms that can be detected and measured. That is not the case with “chemical imbalances” in the brain. The doctor simply makes a decision that the “brain is broken” and prescribes meds to fix the problem.

In one of my seminars, I had a man angrily point out to me that the meds he was taking for his depression helped him, proving that it was a brain problem. I tried to show him that he admitted to me that it was faulty thinking that brought on his problem, and good counseling that helped him to get over his depression. He didn’t want to hear it. He insisted that the drugs helped him to feel better. In other words, the painful feelings of depression were lessened by the introduction of drugs. I don’t doubt that at all. But, I would point out that he felt better not because his brain was healed by the drugs, but he felt better because the operation of his brain was impaired. We have long known that drinking alcohol can relieve the feelings and pressures we are going through, but they do so by dulling and very likely hurting the brain in the long run. The same can be said for the meds we are taking.

Think with me concerning the serious implications of such an approach to depression. This process reduces man to an object. Peter Breggin, psychiatrist and a leading voice of protest against such thinking, describes its devastating effects like this: “We lose our capacity for rationality and love. It is impossible to reduce a person’s emotional suffering to biochemical aberrations without doing something psychologically and morally destructive to that person.” [Your Drug May Be Your Problem, p. 10]

In other words, it may seem advantageous to seek a quick and easy fix for the feeling of depression; it may seem good to avoid taking responsibility for our condition by blaming it on the brain, but at what cost? Conflicts in the home, work, society are a normal part of life. Painful experiences and long drawn out struggles are woven into the fabric of human existence. They bring into our lives uncomfortable feelings that we are forced to deal with. How we deal with them is what separates us from all other living creatures.

These struggles lie at the very heart of what it means to be a Bible-believing, Christ-honoring Christian. The Bible is filled with promises for those who struggle with emotional struggles. Here are some of them: From the lips of Jesus: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”  [John 16:33] From the lips of Paul: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” [Phil 4:6-7] From the lips of Peter: “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” [1 Peter 5:7]

Certainly, these words mean something. God promises his peace to those who will turn to him in faith and prayer. Peter leaves no doubt. All anxieties fall under his invitation. That includes depression. There are many reasons to be very reticent about taking meds to combat uncomfortable feelings: They have dangerous side effects; they are known to cause the very problem they claim to heal; they cause a chemical imbalance in the brain; they cause a dependency that makes getting off the drug both difficult and dangerous; and, they cause long term dangers that are unpredictable. But for disciples who have a passion to glorify Jesus, there is an even greater reason to reject meds. By trusting Christ, by resting upon his promises, by fighting through our time of struggle with the grace he provides, He is glorified and our hearts are satisfied.

This summer at a family Bible camp, after a session where I dealt with this issue, a young lady came up to ask me a question. She explained to me that she had been a drug user as a teenager. Now she was taking the same drugs, only this time they were prescribed by a doctor for her emotional issues. But she was not happy. Not only were the meds making her feel bad, her family had decided that she needed to be on drugs the rest of her life. She was labeled. She felt trapped. Our presentation gave her hope. She asked me what she should do.

I explained that because of her long time use of medication, to go off them she needed to find a doctor to supervise. She also needed someone who believed in the power of God’s Word to counsel her though the changes she would have to make. However, I could not be the one to do it because I lived so far away. I will never forget her final words to me: “So, there is no plan.”

There is a plan. That is why I write. It entails challenging the medication bias. It entails engaging church leaders who have bought into the biological solution for emotional struggles. It entails challenging the church to a renewed dependence upon the sufficiency of Christ’s promises found in his Word. It entails praying for God to do what I cannot do, change minds and hearts. So, again I ask you to join me in prayer for this ministry. I welcome your comments and questions. Pray that God will open doors so that we can continue to spread the good news: God is able and willing to bring glory to His name by meeting all of our needs. “Call upon me in the day of trouble. I will deliver you and you will honor me.” Psalm 50:15