From an influential pastor and Christian author:
“I’m not saying that there won’t be some of you whose depression has its basis in a chemical imbalance and that you might need medication, but for most of you, the depression is likely to be based on how you think about your identity in Christ. And, besides all that, if you need medication for your depression there’s less hope for you.”
From another highly esteemed and well-known Christian teacher:
“I could never say that it’s wrong to use antidepressants, but I’d approach them with caution because they affect the mind.”
Although many may think that these are reasonable statements to make, I don’t. I would prefer that zero counsel as to the use of medication for mental illness be offered up by a pastor, teacher or Biblical counselor other than this:
“What does your physician/psychiatrist think? If they are recommending you take a certain medication to manage your disorder, then I think it’s wise for you to bring up your concerns with them. I’m not qualified to counsel you on the use of medication for your disorder. I’m qualified to teach you God’s Word and to pray for you, but I’m not a doctor so I can’t speak to this matter.”
You may offer up an objection that the pastor is just trying to warn the person about the possible negative side effects or dependency on these drugs, but my response to that is, why just these drugs? Have you read the pamphlets for your own personal prescriptions lately? And, why is this type of counsel only being offered up regarding mental disorders?
I fear that the answer is most likely that there remains this notion that the individual sufferer is somehow to blame for their mental disorder and that it’s not really a valid affliction.
Maybe the person with an anxiety disorder just hasn’t learned to fully trust God. Maybe the person with ADHD just lacks discipline. Maybe the person who is clinically depressed hasn’t learned to find joy in their relationship with Christ. Maybe the soldier with PTSD just needs to stop dwelling in the past.
And, if any of this is true, then a change in the way they think or how they behave will surely set the whole thing right rather than relying on medication.
Here are a few imagined scenarios to underscore my point that medications, when prescribed for mental illness, are often are viewed differently than when those same medications are prescribed for other types of disorders.
- Congregant: Pastor, my doctor wants me to take a medication called Metoprolol to treat my hypertension. Should I do that?
Pastor: Of course you should! Listen to your doctor and take your medication. I don’t want you having a stroke! Let’s pray that the medication will work.
Congregant: Pastor, my doctor wants me to take a medication called Metoprolol to help manage my Social Anxiety Disorder. Should I take it?
Pastor: Well, I think you’re probably just suffering from low self-esteem. Maybe you just need to learn more about who you are in Christ so you won’t be comparing yourself to others. And, besides that, you need to be careful about taking a medication which could alter your mood. I would try a Bible study on your identity in Christ first.
- Congregant: Pastor, my doctor wants me to take a medication called Seroquel to help with some of the symptoms of my advanced Parkinson’s disease. Should I do that?
Pastor: I think you should certainly heed your physician’s advice and I’m not qualified to tell you whether you should take a certain medication. Let me pray for you though that God would use this medication to decrease your suffering.
Congregant: Pastor, I have severe OCD, and my doctor wants me to try a drug called Seroquel to help control my anxiety symptoms. Should I take it?
Pastor: Well, why are you so anxious and obsessed about things? The scripture instructs us to “be anxious for nothing.” If you could just learn to rely on God for all your needs, then you might not need to rely on medication. Let me pray for you so that you will learn to trust God for everything.
- Congregant: Pastor, I have Epilepsy, and my doctor wants me to try a new medication called Lamictal to help control my seizures. Should I take it?
Pastor: I don’t know why you are even asking me this? You need to listen to your doctor and follow his or her counsel. I’m not qualified to make this call, but I can certainly pray for you that the medication will work and I want to be here for you and support you in your affliction.
Congregant: Pastor, I have been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, and my doctor wants me to take a medication called Lamictal to help with my symptoms. Should I take it?
Pastor: Well, although you might need to take it, have you tried asking God to teach you to rely on Him for peace, stability, and joy? A Christian should never be depressed, we’ve got too much to be glad about! Maybe just saturating yourself in the Word and in prayer would be enough to relieve your depression. It’s worth a try, and besides all that, you should be cautious of using a medication which might affect your mind.
My point in relating these “same drug different uses” scenarios, is that there seems to be a double standard in that these medications are considered fine to take for other types of illnesses but not for mental illness. There’s not likely to be any cautions about the medication or any kind of suggestion that the illness is likely rooted in a spiritual issue.
These type of cautions and warnings carry a lot of weight with a person who is devoted to Christ and struggling with a mental illness. Warnings and cautions such as these can cause that person to be resistant to treatments which may save their lives and alleviate their suffering. It’s a very serious matter and one that needs to be addressed as to the negative impact it has on the lives of those who are afflicted with mental disorders.
It’s time for Pastors and Biblical teachers to validate mental illness and to offer up the exact same counsel and support to anyone seeking their advice as they would for any other type of disorder.
It’s also time for those of us who struggle with mental disorders to quit putting our Pastors in the position of trying to be our doctor. They are not qualified to diagnose and treat our disorders. We need our pastors to pray for us and support us, but we shouldn’t be asking them for medical advice. It’s not fair to them, and it’s not safe to follow their advice when it comes to things like medication.
The bottom line for all of us on both sides of this issue is to be able to get to the place where we give validity to mental disorders as very real and sometimes very serious afflictions which are best treated by those who are qualified to diagnose and manage them rather than treating them as spiritual issues.
So that’s my “caution” to those of us who suffer and to those of you who we look to for spiritual counsel and guidance.
We shouldn’t expect that our Pastor will understand the cause of our mental disorder. We shouldn’t expect that he will be trained in how to treat it. This is a highly skilled field which is why those who are qualified to help us have the title Dr. in front of their name. God has given physicians the knowledge and the tools to help us in the exact same way he has given these things to physicians who treat other disorders and we need to be thankful for that and willing to work with them to help manage our disorders.
This is spot-on! I get so frustrated when other Christians try to tell me my mental disorders are caused by a spiritual problem, and if they pray over me I’ll be cured. Well, that’s great, but are you going to say the same thing to the guy with diabetes? Or the woman with asthma? Is their lack of faith the reason they’re sick, too? There’s such a double-standard when it comes to mental versus physical illness. I never feel like I can be open about my struggles because I’ll just be judged. But it’s not just in the church. Plenty of people outside the church think depression and anxiety are always minor things that can be fixed through trying hard enough… Thanks for this post!
I agree wholeheartedly! Pastors and congregants alike must learn to approach mental health issues with the same degree of humility that they use in talking about cancer or diabetes. For those who are not medical professionals, giving medical advice is a prideful thing, saying they know better than a doctor what needs to be done.