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Pills or Prayer

A creaturely response to mental health

Published on:
February 12, 2018
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4 min.
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She slumped in her chair as I again suggested that she might be depressed. She teared up, but declined a prescription. Her husband, a leader in the church, believed depression came from spiritual issues, not medical ones. She couldn’t risk people finding out she took pills for depression.  

She couldn’t risk people finding out she took pills for depression.
Shannon Baker

This is often the case when I see patients for mental health issues. I find that they want to condense their problem into something bite-sized. As a health care provider, I’m tempted to do the same. A diagnosis feels more manageable if we can isolate and label the problem. So we zero in on biochemistry. “Just give me a pill, doc.” Or we focus exclusively on spirituality. “If I had more faith, I could get past my anxiety.” Or we allow our social history to consume us. “I’m damaged goods—life will never get any better.” 

Other times, we do the opposite, ignoring or smothering dimensions of our lives that contribute to our diagnoses. We ignore the impact of relationships. “I can’t deal with those memories—they hurts too much.” Or we neglect the physical, recreational, or emotional aspects of our lives. “I’m too busy to exercise . . . find a hobby . . . spend time making friends.” But wherever we neglect part of our humanity in our struggle with mental health, we curtail God’s healing in our lives.

Wherever we neglect part of our humanity in our struggle with mental health, we curtail God’s healing in our lives.
Shannon Baker

I often wonder what happened to the patient who declined depression meds that day. I prayed with her and encouraged her to read about Charles Spurgeon, one of the greatest preachers of the nineteenth century, who struggled with chronic depression. I ache to think she spent the last seven years wrestling depression on spiritual grounds alone if the Holy Spirit stood by offering pharmaceutical help.

A Complex View of Humanity

While spirituality plays a role in mental health, it’s not the only factor. God wove humans together as seamless beings, with physical, spiritual, emotional, intellectual, social, occupational, and recreational dimensions flowing in and out of each other. When we try to blame our mental health on one aspect of our humanity to the neglect of another, we limit the comprehensive scope of God’s healing in our lives.

If we want to improve our mental health, we need to take into account all aspects of our humanity.
Shannon Baker

In the past, traditional medicine was often guilty of reducing illnesses to biological problems—things that could be fixed with a pill or a surgery. Christians, too, have often parsed humanity in a similar way—separating body and spirit, and overemphasizing the latter. Current medical research, though, as well as the Bible, presents a view of humanity as fluid, multidimensional creatures, more like an ocean with many shores than a box of parts.

If we want to improve our mental health, we need to take into account all aspects of our humanity. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “Current research suggests that depression is caused by a combination of genetic, biological, environmental, and psychological factors.”[1] Medical studies continually uncover risk factors for depression: lack of social connections,[2] inadequate leisure time,[3] insomnia.[4] Other research shows that depression correlates with high levels of inflammation,[5] that prayer to a benevolent and forgiving God affects well-being,[6] and that exercise improves depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, and schizophrenia.[7]

The Bible also presents a similarly complex view of humanity. While Christians sometimes envision ourselves as spirits inhabiting bodies, with God favoring our spiritual parts, the Bible presents a very different view. When God made the initial human, he formed a body first, then breathed life into it. No mention of spirit apart from body. Just one indivisible, God-imaging whole.

This context explains the Bible’s claim that death is the final enemy,[8] since it peels apart body and spirit in a way that God’s goodness never intended. And this is why the apostles cast the Resurrection as our ultimate hope—restored bodies in the New Heaven and Earth, rather than spirits floating around heaven.[9] Salvation, then, extends beyond forgiveness and into God’s plan to rebuild his good creation and restore all the aspects of our humanity that sin destroyed. 

Both modern medicine and the ancient scriptures affirm that our humanity is a fluid whole. This perspective is critical as we struggle with our own mental health or walk with those who do. In addition to addressing the precipitating factors of a diagnosis, we also need to respond to any distant repercussions.

Both modern medicine and the ancient scriptures affirm that our humanity is a fluid whole.
Shannon Baker

If a genetic predisposition lies at the epicenter of anxiety, medications may be needed. The memories of a verbally abusive mom may require counseling. A depression fueled by unforgiveness may require other Christians to help us in prayer. 

After beginning to tackle any precipitating factors, we also need to listen to where God may be wanting us to rebuild certain aspects of our lives. Perhaps that means filling a script for citalopram and then thanking God for the grace of medicine each time we take a pill. Perhaps it means dragging ourselves to the gym after a session with the counselor, stepping back from ministry to make time for a hobby, or cutting back on work to create space in our schedule for dating again.

Whether God allows full healing now or chooses to mend us gradually until the Resurrection, moving deeper into God’s restoration of our mental health involves bringing our whole selves to God—and asking him to show us where to join in. He promises wisdom to those who ask and will show us the next step toward wholeness.

Shannon Baker
Shannon Baker is a nurse-practitioner, seminary graduate, and recent transplant to Colorado where she lives with her new husband Jay. She’s fascinated by this world—one where the Rockies, tiramisu, and good novels all matter, because God is behind them all. She also blogs at Faith and the Other Five Senses.

Cover image by Cherry Laithang.

[1] “Depression,” National Institute of Mental Health, last modified October 2016, https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/depression/index.shtml#part_145396.

[2] A. Werner-Seidler, M. H. Afzali, C. Chapman, M. Sunderland, and T. Slade, “The Relationship Between Social Support Networks and Depression in the 2007 National Survey of Mental Health and Well-being,” Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology 52, no. 12 (December 2017): 1463–73, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28889230.

[3] S. B. Harvey, M. Hotopf, S. Overland, and A. Mykletun, “Physical Activity and Common Mental Disorders,” British Journal of Psychiatry 197, no. 5 (November 2010): 357–64, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21037212.

[4] David Maness and Muneeza Khan, “Nonpharmacological Management of Chronic Insomnia,” American Academy of Family Physicians 92, no. 12 (December 2015): 1058–64,https://www.aafp.org/afp/2015/1215/p1058.html.

[5] M. S. Cepeda, Paul Stang, and Rupa Makadia, “Depression is Associated with High Levels of C-Reactive Protein and Low Levels of Fractional Exhaled Nitric Oxide: Results From the 2007–2012 National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys,” The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry 77, no. 12 (December 2016): 1666–71, http://www.psychiatrist.com/JCP/article/Pages/2016/v77n12/v77n1221.aspx.

[6] Christopher Ellison, Matt Bradshaw, Kevin Flannelly, and Kathleen Galek, “Prayer, Attachment to God, and Symptoms of Anxiety-Related Disorders among U.S. Adults,” Sociology of Religion 75, no. 2 (2014): 208–33, http://www.baylorisr.org/wp-content/uploads/Sociology-of-Religion-2014-Ellison-208-33.pdf.

[7] Elisabeth Zschucke, Katharina Gaudlitz, and Andreas Ströhle, “Exercise and Physical Activity in Mental Disorders: Clinical and Experimental Evidence,” Journal of Preventative Medicine & Public Health 46, supplement 1 (January 2013): S1–21, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3567313.

[8] 1 Corinthians 15:26; Revelation 20:14

[9] 1 Corinthians 15; Revelation 21–22

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