Today I’m not going to talk about a product or service in a specific sense, but rather a more underlying philosophical approach to the mind. My hope in this post, in conjunction with the series of posts on books relevant to the major mental disorders, is to raise awareness of mental illness and remove some of the stigma of receiving treatment (medically or otherwise).
On Medication & Side Effects:
I do not want to discount the real concern that there are potential side effects from consuming medications that interact with our minds. Unlike many of our other organs which we understand to a great degree, the brain still resides as a major mystery and our treatments for aberrations in this mysterious and fascinating organ are far more primitive than any of us would desire. On the other hand, I’d like to share a few observations in my personal battle in deciding to consume medications:
- The damage from mental aberrations is certain, the damage from medications is small (or unknown). Peter D. Kramer in his book Against Depression writes, “In the aged brain, strokes cause more injury than they do in the young brain, and so do infections, blood clots, inflammation, low blood sugar, seizures–you name it. Prior exposure to stress (and to stress hormones) is the critical factor in this age-related vulnerability. More stress in the past makes an animal more brittle in old age. Both neurons and their protectors, glial cells, are at risk.” “Much of the damage done by stress hormones is to the stress-response system itself. The brain is a complex communications network, one cell reaching out to another. In the face of stress hormones, neurons lose connective wiring. In particular, cells in the hippocampus shed receptors for incoming messages about stress. The hippocampal cells also lose dendrites, the branches that connect a neuron to neighboring cells and transmit outgoing messages. Like overwhelmed people who withdraw from social contact, overwhelmed neurons in the hippocampus become isolated.” (pg. 117) Point being, while there may be unknown long-term side-effects to taking a medication there is no doubt about the health effects of untreated aberrations on the human mind.
- We have a certain fear of losing ourselves through medication. We ask ourselves, “are we just druggies, in need of a fix to make ourselves feel good?” We ponder whether there is not some good side to our illness.1 I don’t want to tackle this question in too much depth, but let me briefly summarize my position. There are lessons that can be learned while undergoing a challenge of any form – physiological, mental, familiar, economic – but these lessons are pain that is utilized by God for good, they are not in themselves good. In the Scriptures we do not find Jesus (the incarnation of God) saying to those who asked for healing, “I’m sorry. Its better for you be ill. I won’t heal you.” No, we find him bringing hope and healing. There is more than enough pain in this world, more than enough challenges, lets not purposely embrace unnecessary challenges – lets heal where we can and depend on the grace of God throughout. We fear that society would lose a certain portion of itself without those who mentally struggle. We ask what would have history been like if individuals like Martin Luther, Picasso, van Gogh, Kierkegaard, George Fox, and so many others of our great minds had not suffered?2Peter Kramer tackles this topic extensively in Against Depression, a book that while to all appearances on the disorder of depression has more to do with fighting the cultural value we have given depression (and can be extended logically to other disorders).2 This is the question, but we are simply asking it the same way. One does not lose depth without disorder. When one removes the disorder one finds greater ability to tap and manage depth. The disorder disables the individuals, removing capacity to innovate, it does not add to it.
- Yet, there is still a concern about the medication. There is no doubt that medication can affect us in ways we do not expect – in fact covering over portions of what we consider our personality. Sometimes the side effects are the exact opposite (though only in a very small minority) of what is expected – instead of relieving depression or anxiety it increases it. This is why I suggest the involvement of a community in the process is essential. At the most basic one’s psychiatrist, but preferably including friends and family. These individuals can objectively help you understand the effects of the medication on your daily behavior and assist in determining whether the medication is allowing the real you to shine out or masking it (the latter is marginal, but possible).
- We assume that medical illness is a choice we face in isolation, but it is not. While we assume that refusing treatment is solely our suffering we cannot underestimate the impact of our suffering on others. The lack of energy we feel translates into a lack of energy for friends and family. The sudden bouts of rage we battle flies out at the most uncomfortable times – at work, with our wives or children. Our illness is real and affects those around us. If our worldview is twisted, we impart this twisted worldview to those we interact with to some extent. We must recognize the extent of others suffering.
- We oftentimes assume that our suffering isn’t that bad. We are resilient people in many senses. Many of us operate on a decently functional level without medication. Especially as adults we learns methods of coping with our foibles. But there is a great difference between functionally nominally well and functioning to one’s true human potential.3When I speak to “true human potential” I do not mean the actual perfection of mankind. I do not want to embark on a theology lesson, but it is my firm belief that we are beyond hope in (via natural means) redeeming our broken selves (and thus in need of a more than natural (supernatural) escape). When I speak of “true human potential” I mean a level of functioning which we as broken humans can embrace. It is not the full escape, but it is better than. The individual with clotted heart may need stints, this will make life better – allowing him to act to his “full potential” as opposed to without stints. At the same time the individual still is not “whole” in the sense of having a perfect heart. Some of us have been suffering for so long that we don’t know what it is like to be free. Even after a short while in the grip of a mental illness it feels natural, as if this is the way things should be. Yet I have experienced (and proudly bear witness to) becoming more myself (and it is the self I strove for but could not be) when accepting and receiving treatment.
What About Them Psychologists/Counselors?
There is a fear of psychologists/counselors that permeates many and especially among those who would consider themselves Evangelical Christians (of which I consider myself a constituent). The fears are not entirely unfounded. There have been individuals who have seen a counselor/psychologist who provided bad advice and have changed their lives for the worse because of this advice4Probably one of the most ready examples to Christians is recommendations to divorce a spouse.. But I would suggest that we need not fear the psychologist (or counselor) but instead the uncritical thinking and lack of contextual support that allows illegitimate beliefs to grow. In my opinion, a counselor is an individual to dialogue with about our lives and whom we allow to speak honestly and openly with us about the issues they see in our lives.55. With Larry Crabb (Soul Talk: The Language God Longs for Us to Speak), it would be my hope that eventually this sort of “soul care” could be performed by one another. Unfortunately, at this juncture, too often this help is not available and those around us (including ourselves) are not able/willing to enter into the required depth of dialogue. When we give someone permission to explore our life and philosophy this does not mean we give them permission to determine our beliefs. We can and should critically evaluate each suggestion for its truthfulness. Additionally, I would suggest that counseling becomes much safer when one uses it as a primary means of exposing the difficulties in ones life but then also utilizes a secondary support system to give you context to the recommendations and issues raised. While many people are not prepared to provide the depth of inquiry and feedback that a counselor can, many of them are willing to discuss with you individual subjects which the psychologist raises. Thus the danger of psychology is not that there may be false beliefs but that we uncritically and without contextual relational support accept such beliefs. No individual has perfect knowledge, every encounter is a mixture of truth and error, this is true even for professionals. We must be willing to battle for truth on our turf, not simply accept the pronouncements of others. That said, having someone challenge our belief system can help us revise and strengthen our belief systems in ways that allow us to live better lives.6 When I speak of better lives I mean in many ways – less painful, less stressful, etc. But to me the ultimate depiction of a better life is the ability to love and know God and one another despite circumstances. Everything else is frosting on the cake.
Are We Willing to See Ourselves?
When it really comes down to it, my argument is not so much particularly for psychological medications and treatment – but for the willingness to explore ourselves, and not solely internally. You can sit down and talk with a psychiatrist and a psychologist without taking medication and without accepting their advice. But perhaps it is worthwhile to ask the question? To open ourselves to the possibility? To ask someone else, “Do you hurt this way every day? Do you feel this anxious? Do you have this much trouble sleeping?” So often we assume our suffering is normative, when it is anything but.
Please feel free to give me some feedback on this post. I know this post has been much more ideological than many others I have posted but I want to engage you in discussion about this. I am at much risk of mixing truth with error as any other fallible human being. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why God said after creating everything else “good” that “it is not good for man to be alone.”7 In an ultimate theological sense, even the community of mankind is not enough. We can do better by working together, but we still find ourselves to fall short. Extra-natural inspiration and revelation is needed (I could just say “supernatural” but this word is beaten to death like a horse and connotes all sorts of wishy-washy sentimentalism that so many reject without considering the underlying import of the word. By changing words I am not changing the meaning but simply attempting to force us to process those things with which we have become so comfortable (or uncomfortable).)