I had hoped to post an article on the third address from the recent Library of Congress Symposium on Can Depression Be Cured? to follow on from the summaries of the first two addresses (here and here). However, the third lecture was extremely disappointing, both in its content and delivery. While the first two speakers worked hard to simplify extremely complex research, the third made no such effort. There didn’t seem to be much substance to what he presented either, with his main point being that although genetic markers have been identified for schizophrenia and bi-polar, which is wonderful news, there has been little progress on finding such for depression. Genetic markers can not only help in anticipating whether someone may develop these disorders, but also in testing for it, and, hopefully, eventually curing it. Without genetic markers for depression, most diagnosis still relies on various checklists of symptoms which don’t always agree and which involve a number of subjective measures.
Anyway, the first two addresses were excellent and exciting for the future. Now I’d like to offer some reflections on how to process these findings from a Christian standpoint. (Most of this applies to anxiety disorders too).
1. I was struck by the compassion of Dr. Gold and Dr. Zarate towards those who suffered with depression. These were not merely ambitious academics in ivory towers; they were men on a mission to attack and destroy depression and to relieve its multitudes of victims. Their sympathy and love for the suffering were evident throughout and clearly motivated so much of their research.
2. How much more we should pray for scientists and researchers in all fields of medicine, including those in this field. We often pray for individual people to be cured or to have their pain relieved, but we rarely pray for the unseen background researchers pouring their time and talents into understanding various diseases and discover cures for them. Although many, and probably most, of them are unbelievers and some are even antagonistic to Christianity, through His common grace, God can direct them and use them to bless the world and His people.
3. We should be deeply thankful for the discoveries God is enabling these researchers to make in this field and the improved treatments that He is enabling them to find. All three researchers acknowledged that while anti-depressants are much better than they were, there is still much work to do to generate more consistent success and in a much shorter period of time. Thankfully, breakthroughs are being made in this vital area, especially since the focus has moved from meds improving the neurochemical balance to meds which actually increase brain cell growth (neurogenesis) and the connections between cells (neuroplasticity).
4. The non-Christian presuppositions of these scientists were evident at various points, mainly through references to evolution, but also in the non-mention of the spiritual side of humanity and the connection between the soul and the body. However, by taking Christian presuppositions to their findings, we can reject what is false and supplement what is missing in order to present a more accurate and complete picture.
5. This research should build much more sympathy and compassion (and reduce stigma) for those suffering with depression, especially considering:
- There is evidence of significant brain tissue loss in depression.
- Depression, bi-polar, etc, are at the top of the table for daily disabling effects, above even cardiovascular, respiratory, and circulatory diseases.
- Depression causes many damaging physical changes in the rest of the body (heart disease, strokes, diabetes, osteoporosis).
6. The latter reality should also create an urgency to treat such disorders promptly before greater and wider physical damage occurs. I’ve heard Christians say that people should not use anti-depressants because they forfeit the sanctifying benefit of the suffering. Usually the same people are the first to run to meds for every other ache or pain! But this research shows that such counsel is not only hypocritical, it’s also extremely dangerous given the fact that depression is now seen to be a systemic neurodegenerative disorder. It other words, it damages the whole body. Yes, we want to hear God’s voice in our suffering. But the message may be, “Get treatment before you suffer even worse problems.”
7. The danger of prolonged stress was emphasized by Dr. Gold. Depression is now being viewed more as a disorder of the human stress response–it gets stuck in the “on” position. That’s a message to all of us who are living lives that are way too stressed. We always promise ourselves that we will slow down eventually, but “eventually” never comes and in the meantime, according to this research, we are slowly destroying our brains and bodily systems. This explains why so many “high-achievers” come down with depression.
8. The importance of combining talking therapies with medication was also emphasized. One thing that’s frustrated me over the years has been seeing psychotherapists saying only talking therapy works, psychiatrists saying only medicine works, or Christians saying only biblical counseling works. It was refreshing to see men who were humble enough and secure enough in their field to see the importance of working with other caring professionals. In the Q&A, someone raised a question about the role of Christianity in the healing process and the answer was positive about need for “therapeutic alliances” and the importance of close trusting relationships in counseling that can be formed especially in religious contexts. Dr. Zarate confessed that psychiatry had been “inappropriately unfriendly to religion.”
9. It’s in this “talking therapy” area that Christian counseling has such an opportunity to assist the depressed in a “therapeutic alliance” with other caring professionals. Do we not have the best words to talk to the suffering? That’s not to exclude the role of other trained professionals in the process, but Gospel therapy has to be a vital part of this process. It seems a bit strange to think that words can grow or shrink the brain, can grow or sever connections, but that’s what the science shows; and it shouldn’t surprise us. God has connected the body/mind/heart/soul so that the one impacts the other (Proverbs 3:8; 4:22).
10. Dr. Gold’s promotion of resilience training as a defense against mental and mood disorders is also an open goal for Christians. The American Psychological Association defines resilience as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, tragedy, trauma, threats, and even significant sources of threat. See how fitted Christianity is to that! Specifically, resilience training involves: positive emotion, optimism, loving caretakers, flexibility, the capacity to reframe adversity, strong social support, altruism, commitment to a valid cause, a capacity to extract meaning from adverse situations, and a tolerance for emotional pain and sadness. Sounds just like the effect of a healthy local church doesn’t it.
11. As expected, sin was not mentioned as a possible cause of depression. They started with the brain damage associated with depression, but didn’t ask what caused that. Of course, as with a brain tumor or Alzheimers, it could simply be the result of having a fallen human brain in a fallen human world. But it could also be sin-damage. If talking therapies can heal damaged areas of the brain and make them grow again, then the wrong kind of talk/thought can damage and shrink the brain too. Evidence for this has been found in studies of the brains of abused children.
12. If depression is a disorder of the stress response, it explains why unresolved guilt is at the core of many depressions. What greater stress than knowing that what we have done is worthy of divine judgement, that we are hell-deserving and hell-bound! Such stress impacts not just the conscience but the body too (Psalm 32:1-5). Again, what a ripe and ready field for the Gospel of Christ with its promise of a full, free, and gracious pardon of all sin.
In summary, the Christian response to this research should be to receive correction, to express caution, to offer critique, to cut stigmatizing, to grow in compassion, and to increase confidence in the Gospel.
What else should we take from this research? What further cautions or critiques are appropriate?