Should I take meds for my depression? A Christian approach to the mental illness epidemic

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Should I take meds for my depression? A Christian approach to the mental illness epidemic

November 14, 2022 - Erin Kerry

A woman's hand stretches toward an open pill bottle with depression medication spilled onto the table. © By Andrey Popov /stock.adobe.com

A woman's hand stretches toward an open pill bottle with depression medication spilled onto the table.

A woman's hand stretches toward an open pill bottle with depression medication spilled onto the table. © By Andrey Popov /stock.adobe.com

I first began struggling with my mental health as a young teenager.

Back then, churches didn’t typically attempt to address the subject of depression or anxiety, so I thought I was being a bad Christian because I couldn’t “pray it away.”

When I was finally diagnosed with clinical depression, it was a relief that the sickness I experienced had a physiological aspect to it—it wasn’t just in my head.

In today’s church world, more awareness has been drawn to mental illness as a physiological illness, which is huge progress for the large number of people who suffer from various diagnoses.

However, messaging seems to be two-dimensional. When the topic of mental health pops up in a sermon, I have observed two ways of approaching it:

  • You need to focus on “renewing your mind” or “casting all your cares” on God (or a similar Christianese platitude).
  • Or, as a quick side note, you need to contact your doctor because there are meds for that chemical imbalance.

This may be a dangerous approach for the two-thirds of people who don’t respond well to or have negative effects from current treatment forms, like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) prescription drugs. When treatment fails, it can lead to increased hopelessness and self-defeating thoughts.

So imagine if your pastor is promoting only two options for a solution, neither of those options works in your situation, and you still lack practical tools to support your mental health.

The stigma grows and the division widens.

Mental health issues on the rise

Recent estimates show that one in five Americans is on psychiatric medication like an antidepressant, classified as an SSRI, which exists to boost serotonin at the synapse level of the brain.

Yet SSRIs may not be the solution.

Recently, an analysis published in Molecular Psychiatry caused a lot of buzz in the world of mental health, making it to the top 5 percent of the most-quoted scientific articles on the internet. In “The serotonin theory of depression,” the authors suggest that very little evidence supports the theory that a serotonin imbalance causes depression, a theory that the majority of the public and medical professionals still perpetuate.

The authors claim “that the huge research effort based on the serotonin hypothesis has not produced convincing evidence of a biochemical basis to depression. We suggest it is time to acknowledge that the serotonin theory of depression is not empirically substantiated.”

Mental health concerns continue to rise every year. They steadily climbed before the pandemic, but the last few years have seen a new wave of anxiety and depression—in all age groups. “Treatment-resistant depression” is a new phrase gaining traction, as many suffering from these issues aren’t finding relief with standard treatments alone.

I recently spoke with psychiatrist Dr. Brent Turnipseed on the subject of new treatments for mental health. He shared that while antidepressants have around a 30 percent efficacy rate (and new research from this year suggests that rate may actually be as low as 15 percent), other studies show that Botox treatments for depression have a 50 percent efficacy rate and ketamine treatments hover at 60 percent. Dr. Turnipseed has seen much success with patients undergoing ketamine infusions.

The changing brain

One of the highlights of ketamine is that it increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF is involved in synaptogenesis, where the synapses of the brain gain stronger connections so that there is better communication within the neurons. As a result, people feel calmer, clearer, and less depressed or anxious.

But ketamine isn’t the only thing that increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor. In fact, BDNF can be increased through activities such as cardiovascular exercise, fasting, and meditation.

It is interesting to note that fasting and meditation are both spiritual disciplines, long out of favor in most modern-day Christian circles, but both are becoming wildly popular in secular health and wellness circles.

Intermittent fasting is used by those who consider themselves “biohackers,” meaning they create change to their biology by tweaking their nutrition, habits, or environment. This is based on the new concept of epigenetics, that genes load the gun but environment pulls the trigger.

Meditation is often regarded as a New Age practice, to the extent that many Christians are wary of using words like mindfulness or meditation for fear of being roped into a “woo woo” pantheistic or universalist spirituality system. I have encountered many social media posts by well-meaning Bible-believing friends warning against the dangers of meditation that suggest mindfulness can be a gateway leading to New Age practices.

Modern scientific research continues to highlight how humans have been created as interwoven beings, connected in mind, body, and spirit. It is impossible to separate the body from the spirit or the spirit from the mind, or any other maneuvering. It is a masterful reflection of our triune God.

The fact that an ancient practice such as fasting or meditation activates neuronal growth in our brains is further confirmation that we are far more complex than a simple conversation or sermon one-liner about prayer or serotonin.

So how should Christians approach the topic of medication?

In the work that I do, I see medication as one tool out of many that may help support mental health. But I also believe that anytime we overemphasize the created over the Creator, we fall into the trap of idolatry.

Take science, for example.

Science is ever-changing, and research is always growing. What we know about mental health and treatment options today will look vastly different fifty years from now. There is still so much about the brain we don’t understand.

But what we do currently know is that the brain can change and heal. We know that many age-old spiritual practices like gratitude, prayer, meditation, singing, and even being in nature can catalyze changes in our neurochemistry that impact our mental health. For example, chanting and singing can improve vagal tone, which strengthens the connection of the vagus nerve, the main communication hotline from our brain to the rest of our body.

Any person who has struggled with depression or anxiety knows that it impacts the entire body and it isn’t just a phenomenon occurring on the brain level alone. Many factors are affected: heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, whole body aches and pains, and even blood sugar. In fact, more and more research is pointing to the inflammatory model of depression as a root cause driver and the concept of psychoneuroimmunology, which impacts the entire body.

To separate symptoms of the brain from the rest of the body is to ignore the intrinsic connections designed by the Creator.

When Christians wrestle with mental health issues

Christians today face an interesting challenge.

We can consume all the research on the advancements in mental health, see all the experts, and make all the changes—without ever having to connect to or consult our Creator on any bit of it.

The Bible assures us that God cares about the details. Every hair on our head is numbered (Luke 7:12). When we seek out our own healing, whether by pharmacological or non-pharmacological means, and we fail to invite the Lord into that process, it may cause more anxiety and uncertainty.

It keeps a wall between ourselves and our Creator, as if he doesn’t need to be involved in the process. This can be a result of pride in our own solutions, or it can be a result of our desperation and putting too much faith in the manmade things of the world. When we do this, we can often limit our belief in God’s healing power as a result.

When it comes to mental health, it is an opportunity to let Christ’s strength shine through our weakness, to approach the Lord in our darkest and most vulnerable moments, and allow his power to shine a light through that darkness.

In the endless search for mental health solutions and healing, in the diagnoses and the growing treatments, we can’t forget the bigger picture, a foundational biblical truth that God uses our times of suffering to give us hope and a deeper trust in him and his purpose for our lives.

As 2 Corinthians 12:9 reminds us, “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”

The research will change. The solutions will change. Human suffering will likely increase.

But God, the creator of our brains, the author of serotonin, the master of our neurotransmitters, will always be at work in the process.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the ESV®️ Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®️), copyright ©️ 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The ESV text may not be quoted in any publication made available to the public by a Creative Commons license. The ESV may not be translated in whole or in part into any other language.

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