Equipping God's People to Create Missional Culture

Coping with Depression in the Church with Matt Rogers – Part V

Losing GodA guest post by Matt Rogers, a good friend, an author, and pastor at [nlcf].

Most doctors and counselors will tell you that the best treatment for major depression is usually a combination of psychotherapy (talk therapy) and medication. So why do so many people resist the use of antidepressants? The objections range from the rational (though misinformed) to the outright absurd. Let’s look at a few of these and see if we can resolve the hesitation people feel over medical treatment for depression.

“I don’t like the idea of putting chemicals in my brain.”

I tried this line on my doctor, to which he wisely replied, “But Matt, that’s where the problem is.” And those “chemicals” are not a witch’s brew. They’re a tested and proven aid for the neurotransmitters in our brains. More on that later.

“But what if the problem is spiritual, not mental (or physical)?”

This is a false either/or. We are both physical and spiritual beings, and whatever we feel, we feel in the body. Even if your depression has a spiritual component to it, the problem is playing out in the very physical synapses in your brain.

“I don’t want to be dependant on drugs.”

The truth is we’re all dependant on the same neurotransmitters—serotonin is one—for feelings of peace and wellbeing. Some people’s brains produce enough naturally to help them through difficult times in life. Some people’s brains do not, and, therefore, need a little help.

“If I were a real man, I wouldn’t need medication.”

Many, if not most, guys needing or taking medication battle this thought. But what is more masculine: wallowing in a problem you can’t solve on your own, or tackling the problem by all good means available to you, including medical treatment?

“Medication is the easy way out. You can feel better without facing your problems.”

This is sheer crazy talk. Medication is not a medically sanctioned avoidance of life’s problems. Quite the opposite, actually. Medication usually helps depressed people confront their problems, whereas before they couldn’t think clearly enough to do so. Once the mind is free of its fog, then psychotherapy can do its work. Remember, it’s medication plus therapy that most professionals recommend.

“We should trust God for our joy, not medication.”
Antidepressants do not produce joy. They cannot. That’s not how they work. Medication can, however, create space for joy. Depression results from the depletion of neurotransmitters in the brain that make joy possible. Until that problem is resolved, appeals to faith will do little more than further frustrated victims of depression.

There is not space or time enough here to fully answer all the objections to taking antidepressants. But trust me. I’ve heard them all by now, and none hold a lot of water. I personally spent ten years trying to reason my way out of needing medication. In the end, I only prolonged my pain and delayed the inevitable. Finally, last year (after my book on depression was already off to the printers), I saw a doctor during a serious and lengthy downturn in my mood. The doctor confirmed what others had been telling me for a decade: I needed medication.

Why did I, and why do so many, fight so hard against mediation, opting instead to believe objections that hold little to no water?

Matt Rogers is co-pastor of New Life Christian Fellowship [nlcf] at Virginia Tech. He is the author of When Answers Aren’t Enough: Experiencing God as Good When Life Isn’t (Zondervan, 2008) and Losing God: Clinging to Faith Through Doubt and Depression (InterVarsity, 2008). Learn more about his writings and his blog at his website.

13 Responses to Coping with Depression in the Church with Matt Rogers – Part V

  1. cas says:

    I love this series of statements: Antidepressants do not produce joy. They cannot. That’s not how they work. Medication can, however, create space for joy.

    Although I’ve never taken antidepressents, I’ve seen them create space for joy in people I love. Thanks.

  2. Jason Coker says:

    Good article Matt. This is a tough subject, full of hurt feeling and superstitious advice in the Christian community and you handle it with tact.

  3. Adetutu says:

    The truth I believe is that neurotransmitter like everything else in us has two components – the physiological and the spiritual. Depression is usually a depletion to a certain extent of both. There could be more physiological and there could be more spiritual. The spiritual is handled through prayer, Bible reading, Praise worship, forgiveness, counseling, relationship management etc. The physiological is handled by replenishing the depleted neurotransmitters. Today’s medical practice says medicate. This may not be a solution as most medicines just redistribute the already depleted neurotransmitter store without stimulating new production. That is because God has programmed our brains and other organs to behave in a certain way and respond to only specific things. Medicine does not account for that. This is the reason why many people on medication are unable to get off them and keep on having to change them. The brain will only respond to natural stimulation from e.g. exercising, being in the sun, eating food that supply either the right amino acid or preformed neurotransmitters.
    There is a third issue of today’s computer dependent lifestyle. Since computer use is unnatural to our normal way of existence it is very stressful to our brain and overtaxes our neurotransmitters. This could lead to depletion especially in a person with poor diet, who does not go outside much and exercises little. If you want more information get a hold of this book – Lessons I Learned the Hard Way available at http://www.strategicbookpublishing.com/LessonsILearnedtheHardWay.html. and also at amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com or other online stores. The book discusses how to identify, manage, minimize and treat computer related health conditions. Please contact me at adetutuijose@gmail.com if you want to discuss with me or ask questions.

  4. alohajason says:

    I quote the following from http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2009/01/29/10-antidepressant-alternatives-proven-to-work.aspx

    The Best Kept Secret For Treating Depression

    Almost 19 million Americans are thought to suffer from depressive disorders. Not to mention only 23 percent of individuals with clinical depression seek treatment, only 10 percent of which receive adequate care. However, researchers may have discovered a new “drug” for depression most anyone can take advantage of and utilize: Exercise.

    In a study, which involved 80 adults aged 20 to 45 years who were diagnosed with mild to moderate depression, researchers looked at exercise alone to treat the condition and found:

    Depressive symptoms were cut almost in half in those individuals who participated in 30-minute aerobic exercise sessions, three to five times a week after 12 weeks
    Those who exercised with low-intensity for three and five days a week showed a 30 percent reduction in symptoms
    Participants who did stretching flexibility exercises 15 to 20 minutes three days a week averaged a 29 percent decline
    The results of this study are similar to that of other studies, which involved patients with mild or moderate depression being treated with antidepressants or cognitive therapy — proving patients need not rely on drugs to treat depression.

    American Journal of Preventive Medicine January 2005;28(1):1-8 (Free Full-Text Article)

    Medical News Today January 24, 2005.

  5. alohajason says:

    How about the simple reason (fact?) that the drugs don’t work? If they did, there would be no more depression. I don’t believe the above reasons are enough for most people to go against a doctor’s orders to take medication.

    I quote the following from here and add this video (sorry for it being depressing).

    Unfortunately, every year, 230 million prescriptions for antidepressants are filled, making them one of the most-prescribed drugs in the United States. Despite all of these prescription drugs being taken, more than one in 20 Americans are depressed, according to the most recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

    Of them, 80 percent say they have some level of functional impairment, and 27 percent say it is extremely difficult to do everyday tasks like work, getting things done at home or getting along with others because of their condition.

    So why are so many people feeling so low, even though antidepressants — the supposed “cure” for depression — are so widely available?

    Because antidepressants are barely effective — in fact, previous studies have clearly shown that there is very little difference between most all antidepressants and a placebo – and they often come with many serious side effects, such as:

    • An increased risk of diabetes
    • A negative effect on your immune system
    • An increased risk of suicide and violent behavior

  6. Matt Rogers says:

    Thank you all for your comments. This is an important topic. I’m glad we’re talking about it. In response to a couple comments: exercise will not resolve major depressive disorder. It’s like prepping a patient for surgery by giving him Tylenol. Something stronger is needed. Tylenol is for minor aches and pains. Exercise can help with the blues; it doesn’t significantly reduce severe depression. Anyone who thinks mental illness isn’t really an illness requiring something stronger than a few laps at the gym should read the book, “An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness.” As for studies which have shown that antidepressants don’t work, there are just as many studies which show they do, not to mention the anecdotal evidence of millions of people–myself included–who say they do. You should talk to people who knew before and now after. They’ll tell you I’m not the same person. Also, I’ve never heard of the side effects mentioned in alohajason’s comment. Which drugs are you referring to specifically? And again: Why the intense fear and hesitation toward antidepressants? To the question you posed, “So why are so many people feeling so low, even though antidepressants — the supposed “cure” for depression — are so widely available?”–drugs are not a cure; they’re an aid. Besides, you answered your own question in a previous post: only 23 percent of people needing help seek it.

  7. cas says:

    Not only will exercise not cure severe depression, the suggestion reveals a lack of understanding of what depression is. Seriously depressed people can’t get off the couch or out of bed, not because they are lazy, but because they are too sick. Their lack of motivation or agency is symptomatic of the disease.

    According to medical historian Edward Shorter, excercise appears to work as well as SSRIs in some patients because those people are suffering from lesser forms of depression. In his 2009 book Before Prozac, he wrote:

    “There is melancholic illness, a biological disorder characterized by high levels of cortisol, slowed thinking and movement, and almost delusive ideas about what a terrible person one is and how worthless one’s life has been; over the years it has been called various terms, among them “endogenous depression.” Beneath this clear and relatively homogeneous entity of melancholia, there is everything else, a kind of non-melancholic market basket, in which we find people with a depressive personality style (constitutional depression); people who are depressed because they have been dumped by a lover or have experienced some other life setback (reactive depression); and people who are depressed and anxious at the same time (mixed anxiety-depression). It’s important to sort out correctly the contents of this basket of non-melancholia because it could affect the treatment. …”

    Shorter is not a big fan of the SSRIs, but I have seen them work well for several people. Sometimes people with bipolar disorder are initially diagnosed with depression and given SSRIs, which can actually make their symptoms worse.

  8. Matt Rogers says:

    Thanks for the comment cas. Very helpful information.

  9. Amber says:

    I remember hearing you share at NLCF Matt. To keep a very long story short, I will say that much in my life from childhood issues to having three children has affected my mental state. I will say that I did not want to take medication b/c of many of the above stated reasons plus I felt like I would be “weak.” I was especially scared of the side effects after reading about all of the people who commit murder, etc. while on these types of meds. For years I went thru the “just believe your way out” and was in denial. Much of the church contributed to this unfortunately. For a few years I remember saying “If you could give me a number showing my neurotransmitters were out of balance, then I’d take medication.” I didn’t want to go to the doctor and have them hand out prescriptions left and right and not really know what the problem was. I finally sought help from my naturopath. And guess what? You can do a simple urine test and find out what your neurotransmitters are! Yippee! And yes, mine were out of balance. Not as bad as she’d ever seen, but definitely in need of help. I began doing Targeted Amino Acid Therapy (TAAT) to bring the levels back in balance. This program actually works on ALL of the neurotransmitters instead of focusing solely on serotonin. They are all dependent upon each other so if you are only treating one, then you are missing part of the problem. I think that’s part of why people respond differently to prescrip meds. The company’s website is neurorelief.com where you can read a whole lot of info ranging from adhd, anxiety, depression, fatigue, and the like. The four main reasons contributing to imbalances are (if I remember correctly) are genetics, diet, toxins, and stress. This company works thru local practitioners, and there is a search engine to find someone in your area. I highly recommend this therapy, and tell everyone about it b/c it has changed my life! 🙂 I also would recommend doing research about neurotoxins like aspartame, MSG (and the names by which it is hidden), and other food additives. These are broken down in your system and can have a HUGE effect on your brain chemicals. I avoid them at all costs!

  10. Scott says:

    Matt – I just want to say thanks for the post. These are nearly all issues we dealt with over a few year period before we decided to help our youngest son with medication – now we are able to talk with him through issues together instead of having completely irrational conversations that led nowhere due to depression and rage. Definitely not the “answer” but a great aid that is enabling us to work through issues with him.

  11. Matt Rogers says:

    Scott, thanks for engaging with this series by sharing your comments. I’m really glad to hear that your son is feeling better these days.

  12. alohajason says:

    i would like to revisit this issue, for before i was too busy and needed to cool down from reading the responses, as its logic did not make sense to me. i think its important that anyone in the midst of making a decision on the issue of depression at least look into my simple logic.

    please remember my responses (comment #4,5) are copied and pasted from the sources noted. they link to articles that answer in detail matt’s response (in comment #5) about the side effects and which drugs have little effectiveness as compared to placebos.

    here is my basic logic: What are the risks??

    drugs are drugs. they have unwanted side affects; that’s why they’re so highly regulated. on a side note, the word pharmaceutical comes from the greek pharmakeia which means witchcraft or sorcery (Gal 5:20, Rev. 9:21; 18:23, #5331 Strongs). by definition drugs/medication have risks – if it can’t kill, you can’t call it a drug (google LD50)

    ok, exercise: its takes time, you may injury yourself, u get sweaty. it may not “cure” depression (to give it the benefit of the doubt) but why not try anyway? why not try things that are natural and have low risks?? you can try it exclusively or along side medication. WHY NOT??

    here ilink again other low risk options

    its like when u have a headache or sneeze. some say its because you are a bit dehydrated. why not drink some water first, then if needed take your aspirin?

    who can disagree that we need more water and can use more exercise?

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