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Goldilocks, Psychiatric Diagnoses, and Psychoactive Medications

Author: Date: September 08, 2017

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Goldilocks, Psychiatric Diagnoses, and Psychoactive Medications

What do you think when someone you know is diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder? Or has started to take a psychoactive medication? Do you say to yourself, “Finally, he is getting the help he really needs!” Or do you feel skeptical about either the diagnosis or the solution (or both), and wonder if what the person really needs is simply to trust in Jesus more?

It doesn’t take too many conversations in the church to realize that there are widely divergent views regarding the diagnosis and treatment of mental health issues. Like many, you may find yourself falling into one of two camps. Let me call this the Goldilocks Principle. What do I mean?

You may be someone who is “too cold” toward psychiatric diagnoses. Perhaps you’re highly suspicious of using these labels. You believe that they are secular understandings of the person that compete with biblical categories and solutions. At best you don’t think they’re helpful, and at worst you believe they are harmful and dehumanizing.

Or perhaps you are “too warm” toward psychiatric diagnoses. You may embrace them as nearly all-encompassing explanations of the person’s struggle. You may gravitate toward medical solutions and diminish the relevance of the biblical story for these particular problems. But is there a third way, a balance between these two extreme tendencies?

Similarly, you may be “too cold” toward psychoactive medications. You’re extremely wary of ever using them. If you’re honest, you believe that Christians really wouldn’t have to take psychiatric medication if their faith were robust enough. And what about those side effects—why risk it? Or you may be among those who are “too warm” toward psychoactive medications. If a Christian has no problem using Tylenol for a headache, why shouldn’t she use an antidepressant when she is depressed? And about those side effects—they are invariably worth the benefit. But is there a third way, a balance between these two extreme tendencies?

That is one major goal I had in writing Descriptions and Prescriptions: A Biblical View of Psychiatric Diagnoses and Medications: to help you move from either extreme—too cold or too hot—toward a view of psychiatric diagnoses and medications that is hopefully “just right.” Perhaps you don’t tend toward one of these extremes but you are looking for the biblical and scientific framework that allows you to maintain that third-way position. That’s exactly what I hope this material will do. I want to take seriously what help psychiatric categories and medications provide but also recognize their limitations.

There is no doubt that many people suffer greatly with emotions and patterns of thinking that bring grave hardship to them and to their loved ones. The pressing issue is how best to know and understand their struggles. And then, having understood, how best to provide compassionate and wise help. After all, we are called to “bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). Psychiatric diagnostic classification and psychoactive medications provide a way to understand and help those who are burdened in particular ways. This book assesses the limitations and benefits of understanding and helping people using that lens.

I have written this resource primarily for helpers in the church—pastors, counselors, elders, deacons, youth workers, men’s and women’s ministry coordinators, small group leaders, and other wise people who may not have a formal title or ministry job description but are actively engaged as intentional friends in one-another ministry. You are on the front lines of pastoral care and, no doubt, you have cared for and will continue to minister to people who struggle with mental anguish, who are diagnosed with psychiatric disorders, and who may be using or have questions about psychoactive medications.

This resource is in no way meant to be a comprehensive guide to helping those diagnosed with a mental illness, nor will it discuss the multifaceted approaches that exist for helping those who are suffering in this way. I simply want to provide a foundational biblical framework for understanding psychiatric diagnoses and the use of psychoactive medications. Ultimately, I want this book to help you to think wisely and compassionately about these struggles so that you are just a bit more equipped for this important work of burden-bearing and counseling.

(Adapted from Michael R. Emlet, Descriptions and Prescriptions: A Biblical Perspective on Psychiatric Diagnoses and Medications [Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2017],
now available)

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