Would St. Peter ever have referred someone to a psychiatrist?

by Justin Gingrich on May 31, 2013 · 6 comments

in spirituality

Many of us have probably heard, at one point or another, “You don’t need therapy. You need Jesus.” As if Jesus is a 90-day prescription that you can pick up at your local Walgreens. Maybe you have heard people say that those who take psychiatric medications don’t have enough faith. That if those who had a mental illness would just trust in God, He would deliver them from the depression, that addiction, the eating disorder.

Yet mental illness, addictions and eating disorders can be extremely complex and multidimensional issues. Are they a chemical imbalance in the brain? A hormonal imbalance? Are they related to low self-esteem, poor body image or little self-respect? An unhealthy diet or lack of exercise? Are they related to past traumatic experiences, poor boundaries or troubled family relations? Or are they, most likely, an intricate web of interconnecting factors?

Answers without questions

"religion psychiatry"I was driving to work the other day behind a car with a bumper stick on the back that read, “Jesus is the answer.” It was not an unfamiliar statement, for I have often heard people say Jesus is the answer, God is the answer, faith is the answer. I understand where they are coming from, but first I think we must ask, “Well, what is the question?” It is my personal opinion that many faith groups often resort too quickly to proclaiming the answer without first defining the question.

When someone proclaims to another person who is struggling with mental illness that “Jesus is the answer,” do they mean that Jesus will change out the chocolate caramel cheesecake in the fridge for fruits and vegetables? Or that God is going to fix that dusty exercise bike in the garage or sign that person up for a gym membership? Is He going to magically erase traumatic memories, raise self-esteem or fix all of those troubled family relations? For those who struggle with their eating or perception of their body image, does it mean that is He going to clear the grocery store check-out lanes of photo-shopped, airbrushed pictures or persuade all of Hollywood to quit idolizing the perfect, but completely unrealistic, body image?

As a Christian, I humbly ask that we be careful not to approach someone struggling with a mental illness too quickly, and solely, from a theological framework, because in doing so we may be discouraging them from taking some practical (and common sense) steps to recovery.

Why do psychiatry and spirituality seem to be so uneasy with each other? Why do the two lines of thought harbor so much distrust toward each other? Significant leaders and thinkers on both sides have tried very hard to pronounce, denounce, preach, prove, write, study or intellectualize the other out of influence. Yet both continue to survive, both continue to be relevant (despite many strong opinions otherwise) and both continue to play important roles in the hearts and minds of people. They are both here to stay.

For the sake of those who suffer from mental illness, we must learn to make them work together.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Kat July 2, 2013 at 2:31 pm

To answer your question, I there’s some distrust because if one were to stand in the middle between pure psychology and pure spirituality, one could see how the other can just get weird sometimes. That isn’t to say that it always happens, it doesn’t. Jesus may be the easy answer, but I don’t think He’s an easy solution. Or Him working in the solution doesn’t always look the same in every situation. Like what several of the comments suggested, I think people can have more of a spiritual problem, more of a mental/biological/social problem or it can be a both-and situation and not usually an either-or.

People are complex things (mentally, physically, socially…historically…etc), and we yet we LOVE to simplify. We like to pick big themes and hold on to those, so that we can “get an idea of it” or “grasp the situation” well enough to have a solution to that problem, that will fix it the same way, every time. We like to hit the highlights. When it comes to mental illness, I think a lot of spiritual people hit the highlight with Jesus as a catch-all. Our big, best solution.

God doesn’t work like that. He seems to be determined to demonstrate His love, power, might, goodness in a consistent, but never exactly the same way. He likes breadth, like we do, but He also has a proclivity for depth and complexity. While there is a great deal of order and sameness exists in the human systems, no two people are exactly alike.

Complex people and complex problems don’t always require a complex solution. Sometimes the answer can be very simple, but I think that what is important is that the lens that we use to look at these problems needs to take into account the complexity that were designed with.

Jonny June 29, 2013 at 8:56 pm

I agree with your point that the two should compliment each other. There are many ills that cannot be addressed with modern medicine and psychiatry alone, and I believe that Jesus can heal us fully and completely without their use, however I also believe that God has led us to discover these treatments for our good, and he often uses them in healing us.

Kristina June 3, 2013 at 10:16 pm

Justin,
Intersting post. I definitely agree that a holistic approach to mental health is most beneficial to the individual. We should be addressing medical, social/cultural, psychological, and spiritual health. We are to treat the individual as a whole and a fragmented approach is not helpful in my experience.

P.Y June 2, 2013 at 11:23 am

Justin, while I can see where you are coming from, your blog post was based on the assumption that most Christians or faith groups are too quick to proclaim faith as the answer without first asking the question, and this approach often does more harm than good (“prevent practical and common sense steps to recovery” as you put it). However, to take a patient’s faith out of the picture and only treat the current problem is not the answer either.

As clinicians, we cannot only treat the disorder and ignore the person. I believe that part of the reason why The Menninger Clinic is such an exceptional institute in the field of Psychiatry is because they do not only treat the disorder, but the whole person. And whether patients are agnostic, religious, atheist, or simply spiritual, spirituality is still a part of who they are. Simply ignoring the spiritual component of therapy (fearing that it might interfere with the healing process) is similar to treating an Asian patient and only looks at his/her depression but ignoring how his/her culture and family might have an influence to the disorder.

In our work, we encounter patients who struggle with various disorders and allow their disorder to define who they are. Often, it is not enough to just treat the disorder, but also to help the patients to find new meaning in their lives. While finding meaning might not have a direct influence on the disorder, it is an important spiritual component that we should not overlook.

It has always been a common misconception that Theology and Psychology (just as faith and reason) do not agree with one another. However, the word psychology literally means “the study of the soul/spirit”. Just as Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest, well-known author, and a fellow of the Religion and Psychiatry Program at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, said, “The spiritual life does not remove us from the world but leads us deeper into it”. When we are caring for our patients, the challenge for clinicians is not to pick psychiatry or faith, but to find the balance between the two.

So to answer your question, would St. Peter ever have referred someone to a psychiatrist? I believe that the answer is YES!

Victor June 2, 2013 at 10:02 am

Nice post. I see the tension is between religion and medicine in general. From my experience, we don’t necessarily need to avoid a theological framework, we just need a new one.

For instance, the idea that Jesus or God is outside of medicine is problematic. Learning to see God in new and better ways, and inextricably intermingled and mixed into the everyday is an important transformative step. In that way, one can have the perspective of God working through medicine as apart from it.

Of course, we’d all like the quick, God-miracle-fix answer that removes the addiction away miraculous. And I have heard of such stories. But they do not seem to be the majority experience. In my experience and understanding of God, God seems to enjoy the interaction of humans in the process of producing the requested outcome of prayer. In other words, taking steps to visit a doctor and work with a therapist and have people help you remove temptations and stumbling blocks doesn’t have to be steps taken apart from God but perhaps the way in which God works. In my experience, God (however you mean it) works primarily and most importantly through people.

And that is a true miracle–the changed heart of someone who is putting you first and loving you, the changed heart that you cannot see or touch or directly perceive rather than a chemo-hormonal physiological instantaneous change in the body that you can directly measure with instruments. A world in which we all strive to love and take care of our neighbours and enemies is miraculous.

Anaeli June 2, 2013 at 9:46 am

I agree in that it is complex combination of things that create mental illness, as well as respecting every person’s religous or spiritual beliefs is a must. When we point out a specific dogma or religion we are missing the point, but we cannot leave the spiritual component from our treatment all together. Noted even in textbooks is the realization that mental illness is the a disease of the spirit. Just as we don’t solely care for a wound, or an infection when treating a patient, paying only attention to the evident problem. We cannot treat a mental illness patient solely looking at their hormonal or chemical imbalance or any other evident problem. There is evidence of success in the holistic approach. It is known for example that 12 steps AA is thought to be effective because it has that important step of giving everything up to something bigger than yoursel AS YOU UNDERSTAND IT. No one is implying the way I understand it, my God, my religion or the majorities religion or belief but that person specific understanding or belief. We must nurture and tend to the whole individual with their many facets spirit or soul being one of them.

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