There is nothing wrong with taking antidepressants

I keep seeing this question floating around Christian circles: is it okay to take antidepressants? I see it roll round on twitter with disturbing frequency. My friend, Dave Williams, has also picked up on this and written on that here.

I was going to say that I don’t know why this question keeps coming up so regularly. But, to be honest, that would be a lie. I know exactly why it keeps coming it. It rolls round again and again because 1 in 3 people suffer from mental health problems and yet there is a destructive and deeply unhelpful view floating around Christian circles that depression is only a spiritual problem – often caused by your own sin – or, worse, something that is only in the mind, but taking a Gnostic sort of view of the mind as immaterial with no real element involved.

Despite this thinking being prevalent in reformed and evangelical circles, it is in reality a heinous version of the health and wealth gospel. Ultimately, your illness is your fault. If only you trusted in God more? You are being sinful by having anxiety because Jesus tells you not to be anxious. It’s really an issue of mind over matter; get your thinking right and you won’t be depressed anymore. It is a modern day version of, ‘who sinned, this man or his parents?’ Except, they are quite clear that Jesus definitely doesn’t blame the parents!

In the worst cases, these things get tied to other socio-political agendas too. Antidepressants are just Big Pharma keeping you under control. There is no evidence they work. Depression is all in the mind, there is no evidence that any medication really helps. Christians ought to have stronger faith and stand against this control. It’s all part of the government trying to medicate its people into submission.

Don’t think I am overcooking any of this. I have heard all of these things and more besides!

But just as the health and wealth prosperity preachers – as they insist they aren’t selling snake oil – never seem to cure their own teachers and leaders of the need to wear glasses, so do the anti-antidepressant (or, more accurately, pro-depression) set. They tell you quite happily that you need to throw your antidepressants in the bin whilst stood there wearing a pair of specs! But if I – who has never needed corrective lenses – insisted that I didn’t believe there was any evidence for the necessity of glasses, they would insist I was wrong. They would tell me they couldn’t see without glasses. They would point me to studies showing the need for glasses. But all that is to no avail when it comes to depression. Experience of those on antidepressants, studies showing their efficacy, brain scans showing the physiological changes in the mind of those with mental health problems are all brushed away. It is absolutely incredible.

As Dave Williams noted in his post

First, it may well be that your depression is directly related to a physical condition. So medication may well be the best way to treat that condition.

Secondly because you are experiencing painful symptoms, medication may alleviate those symptoms. Whilst the medication may not treat root causes, this does not mean it is a waste of time. We take painkillers and we bandage wounds not because we think this necessarily treats the cause of illness but because by alleviating pain and stemming the flow of blood we give the patient space in order to enable us to tackle the root cause.  Anti-depressants may sometimes work the same way.

Thirdly, anti-depressants may be helpful because sometimes depression is chronic and long term.  We don’t presume that people always get better/are healed from other chronic conditions. I’ve never been told that taking my asthma inhaler amounts to a lack of trust in God for example. So, in the same way, some people may need to take them longer term or at specific points in their life in order to keep functioning and to cope with long term pain.

If we are willing to accept medical intervention for other illnesses, there is no reason we ought reject medical intervention for mental health illnesses. Just as I can’t show you my failing heart, but I can show you the real physical symptoms, so I can’t show you my mental health issue but I can show you the real and notable physical symptoms. If we wouldn’t deny somebody the need for defibrillators and stents, we shouldn’t deny somebody the need for antidepressants and other treatments.

Antidepressants are a gift from God. I, at one time, was on two of them alongside some anti-anxiety medication and some sleeping pills. These were all necessary for me at the time. I am now on one, long term, and am unlikely to come off it. A couple of times, under the supervision (and at the behest) of doctors, I have tried to come off them altogether with particularly messy results. Nobody is forcing me to stay on them, but it is clear that both the mental and physical symptoms I endure without them are too much for me to bear.

All this means that counselling and antidepressants are God’s provision for those who suffer with mental health issues in exactly the same way glasses and guide dogs are God’s provision for those who suffer with sight issues. These are real problems that people suffer. We are fools if we are not willing to receive a ready solution to them that God, in his goodness, has provided. If your doctor offers you antidepressants, ignore the pseudo-spiritual crap you are sold from those who are utterly untrained in any relevant medical field – and take the pills your doctor has prescribed.

Despite what some claim, doctors are not keen to throw long-term antidepressants at problems willy-nilly. Most will give them for a short time and then expect people to come off. Only a relatively small number of people will need to be on them very long term and a much smaller number still for the rest of their lives. My experience is that doctors are not keen to keep people on these things forever, not least because some of them are very expensive! They don’t have a vested interest in making us take them and so we ought to take it seriously when they tell us that we ought. An ‘I reckon…’ from a non-medical source based on some pseudo-spiritual beliefs about mental health probably isn’t a good enough reason to discount what your doctor says.

If you would like to hear from some pastors who suffer from depression themselves, and who believe antidepressants are necessary if your doctor prescribes them, can I suggest you get hold of The Pastor with a Thorn in His Side. It may just help.