I recently did a series of radio interviews on the topic of depression. Specifically, is it possible to identify someone with depression, what causes the symptoms, and can medication help? If you are in Dallas, you can hear the programs on Wednesday and Thursday of this week, June 20th and 21st, on 90.9 KCBI at 6:30pm and 10:30pm. For those of you out of state, you can check out the website www.forchristandculture.com and click on the “on the air” tab.

In the second program, I focused on the issue of chemical imbalances. Are there such things? If so, how relevant are they to our psychology and spirituality? Can medications help?

This is an important topic for me because I continue to find myself within a sphere of tension where the physical, psychological and spiritual aspects of a client’s mental health may not be readily apparent.

I’ve said before that it is easier to focus on one of the three areas to the exclusion of the other two. This may be easier for the therapist, but it is not helpful to the client. In the radio interview, I read some statements from a professor at a Christian University in Texas who believed that the chemical imbalance idea was not practical or relevant to mental health. Here is a direct quote from the article:

“[The article stated] Counseling must go beyond merely symptom relief, and it must aim at spiritual transformation, to get people to conform to the likeness of Christ…a new professor was asked for his views on counseling those who have been diagnosed as having a chemical imbalance…’There’s no concluding evidence in science that it [a chemical imbalance] is real,’ he said, adding that neurotransmitters are not measurable in a living human being so nobody knows for certain whether anybody has an imbalance… The chemical imbalance diagnosis is problematic because, even if the imbalance could be proven, one still wouldn’t know if the imbalance caused the mood disorder, or if the mood disorder caused the imbalance.’” (Citation provided upon request.)

I agree with the first statement made. I am a firm believer in the fact that counseling must go beyond symptom relief and that our ultimate purpose as Christians is to encourage Christ-likeness. However, I have several problems with the argument that says because we do not fully comprehend all the intricacies of a particular problem, we should avoid it all together or focus on one particular aspect of a problem and ignore other potential solutions.

  1. The mystery of God’s creation is inexhaustible. No one would deny that the human cell is vastly more complex than what Darwin original thought when he developed his theory of evolution. Because it is so complex, should we ignore the study of it? Of course not. If our current knowledge of the cell turns out to be elementary at best, should we avoid using the knowledge we do have for practical purposes? No, we should not. Science has proven that a great deal of good can come from even the most elemental knowledge of a subject. (Note: Nerves are cells. We should study nerves.) Though we do not yet have the cure for cancer, Parkinson’s disease, autism, or schizophrenia, we don’t give up pursuing those cures. God created us as creative, curious beings and to deny that aspect of our humanity is to deny God’s sovereign design. This study should include the physical nature of our emotions.
  2. Chemical Imbalances are actually well studied. I explained Parkinson’s disease during the second radio interview. It is a disease that’s cause is unknown, but we do know the symptoms and that the symptoms occur because of an imbalance of acetylcholine and dopamine in the brain. By giving a precursor of a neurotransmitter (yes, that’s right! An actual neurotransmitter) we can relieve the symptoms of the disease and help people have a better quality of life. The same can be said for depression. Though we don’t have all the answers as to the cause of depression, we do have physical treatments that can help relieve suffering, and that is exciting!
  3. Relieving suffering can bring people closer to God and other people. I heard a comedian once say that telling someone that an antidepressant is just a crutch is like telling an amputee that his crutch is just a crutch for his one-leggedness. Um, yes, that’s exactly what it is. Thank God for crutches and prosthetic legs and for medications that can help us to live more effective lives for His glory. A person who fears that someone will turn away from God because his/her needs have been satisfied would have been appalled at some of the miracles Jesus performed. Jesus healed ten lepers knowing that only one of them would return to worship him! I think sometimes we fear that if we use means beyond our religious texts to help people feel better (diet, excercise, medication, boundaries in relationships) that somehow we will distract them from exploring the spiritual side of life. This just isn’t true and even if it was, it should not preclude us from the act of compassion!

I say all this to remind each of us that we are all guilty of being flippant about things we don’t fully understand. Let’s be careful not to make the same mistake that Christians in Galileo’s time made when they demanded that the world was flat (an issue that the Bible never even addressed!). Let us instead, remain in that constant state of tension as we earnestly wrestle with the brokenness of life, always seeking to heal, to restore, to redeem broken pasts, to relieve suffering, and in our feeble, broken way, point people to God!