Do you have seasonal allergies? You don’t. Because they don’t exist. You just think you do. You’re weak. It’s all in your head. You just need to tell your nose the pollen is harmless and get over it.
Some people approach people suffering various forms of mental illness this way.
I remember sitting in a meeting during the dark and swirling time depression was eating me alive. I remember one woman speaking what she believed was truth. Whether or not she knew what was going on in my head and heart I don’t know. But I know this. She had no clue about the reality of Christians struggling with mental illness. She believed something she’d read about the myth of chemical imbalances. They can’t be tested for; they can’t be real. And, come on, if antidepressants actually worked, they wouldn’t take so much time to work. They’d adjust what needed to be adjusted and voila, you’d feel better.
Granted, depression is more complicated than the wrong level of serotonin or other neurotransmitters, but in the body of Christ this woman falls into the too-large section of those who dismiss depression and anxiety disorders as spiritual issues.
It’s a harmful and dangerous misconception.
Because like every other part of the finite human body, brains can malfunction. And it’s not always a small matter like forgetting where you set down your keys. We don’t assume someone with dyslexia is guilty of hidden sin. We don’t accuse a stroke victim of a lack of faith, or weak prayer life. And very few would blame demons if you needed help to find your keys… if they did, they may have their own (serious) mental health issue, but that would be a different blog post.
My Broken Brain
Sometimes my mind goes dark.
I don’t believe the mind is as simple as the brain, but something goes horribly wrong in the firing of my neurons and makes it impossible for me to think straight.
It is impossible to explain to someone who has never fallen into their own pit of severe depression what it’s like. Back on solid ground, or at least solid enough to feel under my feet, it’s incomprehensible even though I’m the one who survived it.
Here is some sobering truth for those who want to minimize depression to only a spiritual issue: I need medication to help keep me safe.
Lamotrigine helps keep me from being a danger to myself.
If you find yourself judging me or my faith based on my medicated state, consider the following:
If I posted that I had discovered a suspicious lump in my breast, you would encourage me to get it checked out by a doctor, so I could get treatment if necessary.
If I fell and broke my leg, you would think I was crazy if I refused medical attention.
If I could no longer decipher the type on my screen, you would expect me to get my eyes checked and get glasses.
If my nose wouldn’t stop running, and my eyes were swollen to slits, you would suggest an antihistamine.
But I’m telling you that sometimes my mind is overwhelmed by a darkness that twists how I see, hear, feel. I get lost in a jaggedly hopeless place that only exists in my thoughts. I am delusional, in the sense that I believe that I am beyond grace, that God has run out of patience with me and turned His back.
I wrote that a few years ago on my old blog.
I was disheartened, then indignant over the attitude of the woman in that meeting. On several levels. Here’s an important one: People who share the belief that depression is only a result of distance from God get depressed, too; and where does that leave them?
Some people who need help are too ashamed to seek it because they blame themselves. And they know their peers will also blame them.
It is not unreasonable to ask someone suffering depression or anxiety about their spiritual walk. We’re We’re not one-dimensional. Health is a matter of multiple factors. Treatment for mental illness should encompass people in all our aspects. We need to deal with the spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical.
God can, and does, use sadness and unease to alert us to spiritual issues that need attention. Sometimes we deify our feelings or circumstances. It’s far too easy to give in to patterns of unhelpful thoughts and beliefs. Various medical conditions can trigger depression and anxiety. Sometimes brains misfire.
If sadness or hopelessness or apathy are weighing heavily… If you’re overwhelmed to immobility… If the thought of seeing people, or going to the grocery store, or going out your front door makes your insides shake…
You need help.
You may not need medication. But don’t think medication is wrong.
Too many people jump on antidepressants as a quick fix for problems that they’d rather not tackle. Some people need to take responsibility for their actions and choices, not ask a doctor to make them feel better about themselves.
Responsible use of antidepressants, mood stabilizers an other psychiatric medications is not about feeling happy.
The first time I heard Eric Weaver speak was before I had any idea that I would join the ranks of the medicated. As a man who, while a police officer and later a pastor, has suffered severe mental illness, he understands the critical importance of pushing the church to change how we approach mental illness. His clarification about medication was incredibly helpful, even then: it’s not about feeling happy, it’s about being able to think clearly.
I now know what it means to need help to think clearly, to desperately need help but be unable to want it.
Do you know what it’s like to believe that there is no hope?
At times like that, my brain can’t process information in its normal way. Can’t. CANNOT.
Sometimes “moods” do need medication.
Whether or not you understand the need, this is a helpful perspective on medication.
Learn more about how Eric Weaver and his staff are “Shining Light on the Issues of Mental Illness and Suicide” through Overcoming the Darkness.
Check out FAITH AND MENTAL ILLNESS for more information on Christians experiencing mental illness.