The Use of Anti-Depressants

Posted: October 20, 2014 in Anxiety & Depression, Christian Living, Christians & Culture, Ethics

antidepressants_1673710cI have written in the past on the topic of anxiety and depression and have touched on the use of medication. However, I want to discuss the issue a little further, giving my thoughts on what I believe is a proper Christian perspective of the use of anti-depressants. I hope to answer such questions as: Is anti-depressant use sinful? Does sound science support the “low-serotonin” hypothesis? What causes depression? When is medication ok? What are the spiritual dangers of medication?

What does science say?

So is depression caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain? Do these depressed thoughts and feelings come because of a lack of serotonin? The short answer is “No.” Scientists and psychiatrists have nearly universally rejected the serotonin theory. In fact, they are still unsure what exactly causes depression (from a purely physical standpoint). The reason this theory is so widely accepted, despite the scientific rejection, is due to the marketing efforts of the pharmaceutical companies. Consider the following statement written in an article by Drs. Jeffrey Lacasse and Jonathan Leo:

Regarding [depression], there is a growing body of medical literature casting doubt on the serotonin hypothesis, and this body is not reflected in the consumer advertisements. In particular, many SSRI[1] advertisements continue to claim that the mechanism of action of SSRIs is that of correcting a chemical imbalance, such as a paroxetine advertisement, which states, “With continued treatment, Paxil can help restore the balance of serotonin…” Yet…there is no such thing as a scientifically established correct “balance” of serotonin. The take-home message for consumers viewing SSRI advertisements is probably that SSRIs work by normalizing neurotransmitters that have gone awry. This was a hopeful notion 30 years ago, but is not an accurate reflection of present-day scientific evidence.[2]

How is depression it diagnosed?

Unlike most illnesses treated with medicine, depression cannot be diagnosed by taking a measurement, drawing blood, or conducting some other medical test. Hypertension is diagnosed by taking multiple blood pressure readings. Diabetes and high cholesterol are diagnosed by taking blood tests. Depression, however, is diagnosed by examining your symptoms, not through some medical test or lab. If you have certain symptoms, you are labeled clinically depressed. From here, most jump to the conclusion that they have a chemical imbalance. While this does not mean you aren’t facing real symptoms and real emotional difficulties, it does preclude us from blaming these symptoms on a chemical imbalance.

What causes depression?

Depression is more than just a physical disease, although it certainly has physical symptoms. Depression is a sickness of the soul. Therefore, to place a singular cause on depression is impossible. Depression can be caused by a myriad of factors such as personal loss, stress, abuse, difficult life circumstances, a lack of hope, and a host of others. This is a matter of both soul and body. Soul affects body and body affects soul. When the soul is sick, the body is affected and symptoms surface. Likewise, sickness in the body can affect the state of the soul. Therefore, it is my conviction, and I believe the conservative Christian position, that depression is a sickness of the soul, and this sickness is often, if not frequently, a result of sin. This may be sins committed by you, sin committed against you, or just general separation from God in a sinful, physically broken world. While some physical illnesses or medications may bring on depression, usually the deep wells of the soul are the source.

How does medicine help?

According to the Mayo Clinic website, “SSRIs ease depression by affecting naturally occurring chemical messengers (neurotransmitters), which are used to communicate between brain cells. SSRIs block the reabsorption (reuptake) of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain. Changing the balance of serotonin seems to help brain cells send and receive chemical messages, which in turn boosts mood.”[3] In short, anti-depressant medication puts a band-aid on your symptoms and makes you feel better. The soul issues are not addressed, but the physical effects are reduced. As a person who has taken SSRIs in the past, I can affirm this assertion personally.

The blessing of medication

Proverbs 31:6 says, “Give strong drink to him who is perishing, and wine to him whose life is bitter.” Now regardless of your stance on alcohol use, the meaning of this verse seems very plain. If someone is in great emotional pain, give them a drink to make them feel better in the midst of bad circumstances. In this sense, anti-depressant medication can be a blessing. When the emotional pain gets too high, and your ability to function in daily life is greatly diminished, medication can provide relief.

So my personal conviction is this: if the physical effects of your depression are so great that they keep you from fulfilling your God-given duties, medication can be a means to provide temporary relief, lifting the fog and allowing you to deal with the underlying causes. Anti-depressants are not the ultimate answer for your soul problems, but a tool to aid in the healing of your soul.

The danger of medication

The danger of SSRIs is that you will view them as the solution to your emotional problems. Many people just want to feel better physically, but are not concerned with their spiritual health, the underlying cause of most depression. While medication may be appropriate, and even a great blessing, using it to the neglect of your soul is a grave problem. So be honest and ask yourself the hard questions. If you take anti-depressants or are considering their use, consider the following. Is your primary concern just to feel better? Are you going to take medication and avoid the underlying soul issues? Are you willing to let God use your current painful state to draw you closer to him without medication or is “feeling good” your idol? Are your symptoms truly debilitating to your life? Your answers to these question should provide some insight into whether or not medication is morally acceptable for you.

Jordan Tong

[1] SSRIs and anti-depressants are used interchangeably throughout this blog. However, I realize that not all anti-depressants are SSRIs.

[2]http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pmed.0020392

[3] http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/depression/in-depth/ssris/art-20044825

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