Why Do We Seem Negative about Psychiatric Medications? (Most Read of 2012 - #9)

Topics: Medication
Published: December 25, 2012

We have always talked about psychiatric medications in terms of wisdom: sometimes it is wise to use them, sometimes it is not. But if you follow CCEF citations of secular research, we typically identify literature that shows the limitations of medication and so, over time, we seem negative. 

Well, what do we really believe?  If we think the use of medications can be wise, why do we consistently cite limitations rather than benefits? Do we really believe it is a matter of wisdom? We do. It is not right or wrong, good or evil. Get informed advice from family and medical professionals, and make a decision.

Why then do we cite the limitations? Three reasons.

One, as counselors we tend to see people who are taking medication but it has not been very helpful. They still experience lots of distress. We also see those who have become dependent on anti-anxiety medications, and are suffering through withdrawal. True, our sample size is not large. We certainly know there are many people who vouch for the helpfulness of medication, and that leads to the next reason.

Two, the benefits of medication are well publicized; the limitations are not. We constantly receive positive messages about medication from advertising, friends and co-workers. But these messages overstate the benefits and understate the limitations—unless you pay close attention to the speed-talker at the end of the commercial. So, I think a few words of caution provide a useful counterpoint.

Three, there is something theological going on here. If your view of persons is that we are essentially bodies and nothing more, then medication is the foremost means of change. But if you believe that the human heart is a very busy place of allegiances, dashed hopes, exaggerated desires, profound hurts and all kinds of contradictory motivations, then your attention will be drawn to where the action is. You still have a keen interest in the body and in alleviating physical suffering whenever possible, but you also know that we can grow in contentment, hope and love even in the midst of physical ailments. Physical troubles rarely can keep us from growing in godliness.  The more you are drawn to the complexities of human experience, the less you will be drawn to the importance of psychiatric medications.

Biblical counseling is not unique in this. For example, the existential therapies, which also believe that there is a lot going on inside the person, seem to minor in medication rather than major in it.

Notice how this works in a particular person. Two people struggle with anxiety. One has no acquaintance with how the heart (inner person) impacts anxiety, and so thinks first about medicating away the unwanted symptoms. The other begins with, “Lord, help.” And then an endless world of fine words and promises begin to emerge from Scripture. The experience of anxiety doesn’t disappear but the news that God understands anxiety, and has compassion for the anxious, offers so much that is good. It brings hope and comfort, and, somehow, that makes the experience less distressing. We tend to think of medication when we are stuck, with nowhere else to turn, but this person still sees so much more ahead. Might medication be considered? Certainly. Yet it will not have the same pride of place. It will be able to help some symptoms but not others.

These can be complex matters, and it is difficult to offer a general perspective like this without raising many other questions, but I hope that it sounds both true to Scripture, savvy to human experience and compassionate. (And check out Mike Emlet’s article on psychiatric medication in the recent issue of the Journal of Biblical Counseling: www.ccef.org/jbc).