What do you do if you have perinatal depression when you are a Christian?
The reason that this is on my mind recently, is that I’ve been seeing some pieces by people encouraging other women who are suffering with a perinatal mood disorder, to think a lot of positive thoughts and pray.
I am absolutely not criticizing the power of prayer here. I think that prayer should definitely be used in conjunction with medical treatment. But when I see things like the above observation, it makes me very, very nervous.
There already is a stigma against medication as treatment for perinatal mood disorders (and mood disorders in general). There seems to be both a secular and religious perception that mood disorders, depression and anxiety all can be cured through mindfulness, positive thought, etc. I’ve written about this before, when I was exploring whether or not happiness is a choice.
At first I thought, well perhaps this is pure reliance on God because if you suffer from chronic depression or anxiety, then that is how He made you and this is your cross to bear. But that didn’t make sense to me, because you could be born with a weak heart, a weak kidney, cystic fibrosis, an autoimmune disorder, etc. I could be wrong, but generally we all seek medication for those conditions that we were born with. Otherwise, we would have heard more stories in the news about Christians rejecting heart implants or treatment for cystic fibrosis and so forth. It’s true that Jehovah Witnesses reject blood transfusions, but they do seek out medical treatment for most of their ailments, after all in accordance with Luke 5:31, “Jesus answered them, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick'”.
I’ve read comments or blogs that imply or evenly overtly state that if you don’t pray to God to help you through your perinatal mood disorder, that you then don’t truly believe in the power of God, the power of prayer and aren’t in fact a true believer. Perhaps this is more of a fundamental mindset, but let’s pull on that thread a bit.
I find this to be a strange place to draw the line on what can make one a Christian or a believer in God. Why stop and draw the line there? Why not reject all medical intervention and turn purely to prayer for all ailments?
There seems to be a weariness among the non-religious, other faith-devout and Christians, toward medication for mental ailments. Is it because you can’t see the mood disorder? Of course that doesn’t make sense, because you can’t see leukemia, either. Or is it because of a perception that mental health medication will ease your life in a way that God didn’t intend?*
Perhaps it is a misunderstanding of how both mood disorders work and how medication works. Of course this idea is not exclusive to Christians; people of other faiths or no faith have trouble with this too. I find it interesting how often I see women of all walks of life, writing about how they are struggling with postpartum depression and need help and that they are open to anything…except medication.
Having dealt with perinatal depression, perinatal anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) firsthand, I think there are a couple of things to discuss.
The symptoms of any of these mood disorders are not strictly ‘feeling unhappy’. The symptoms involve crippling depression, constant crying, irrational anger, hopelessness, debilitating fatigue, physical side effects, etc. Postpartum anxiety involves your mind constantly tying itself in knots and worrying about anything and everything, to the point of physical and mental exhaustion.
These symptoms are crippling. They are not just opting out of life’s struggles and setbacks. They’re not just being unhappy or choosing to be unhappy.
They are real mental and physical limitations brought on by the body’s chemicals acting out of control. In studies with people who have chronic depression, research suggests that these individuals were born with malfunctioning neurotransmitters. That means that just like someone who is born with a physical defect, research suggests that sufferers of chronic depression are also born with different neurological traits that create a state of persistent chronic depression and/or anxiety.
That certainly doesn’t mean that every single person needs medication. Plus, there are many different types of depression. But it means that a lot of people do need medication…and not just temporarily. It means that they need medication to bring them up to the same starting line that everyone else is at. But that’s a very, very basic explanation of mood disorders – as I’ve mentioned before, I am not a doctor or licensed care provider, just a critical reader.
So let’s talk about what medicine does.
Taking medicine isn’t just a prescription for “happy pills”. It’s not going to make you immune to sadness, disappointment or the challenges of life. It just is regulating you to get to where everyone else is. Even with the right amounts of medication, many people with chronic depression still struggle in a way that the non-chronically depressed person simply can’t fathom.
So now let’s talk about what’s going on with perinatal mood disorders. You’ve got chemicals rising and falling…crashing in some cases. Your body has changed; in some cases permanently. If you don’t believe that can wreak havoc on your mind, your rationality and your sanity, then you’ve never experienced PMS before (which if you aren’t a woman, this is a harder example to relate to). It truly can be an out of body experience; you feel like you’re watching yourself do things that you can’t understand or relate to. Such are the effects of hormones.
This of course is not to absolve people of responsibility, but we must be both empathetic and intellectually honest in our analyses. We must admit and understand when people aren’t able to make rational choices for themselves. We must be nuanced in our approach to mental health treatment and save our judgment when we can’t actually relate to what someone is going through.
I get it. Hearing the words that you should reserve judgment when you can’t relate feels like a slippery slope to nihilism. Extreme cultural relativism and nihilism drive me crazy. I definitely think that C.S. Lewis’ plea for objectivism has its place in our society. But none of this has to be a slippery slope and we don’t have to over rotate on personal responsibility to avoid nihilism. Rather this is just nuanced…much like most of life.
But getting back to what we were talking about, with no disrespect intended here, I truly mean you don’t understand if you’ve never been through a major depressive disorder.
If you’ve suffered from anxiety or depression that you can treat with exercises (both physical and mental)…you maybe have a better than average idea of what the chronically depressed and sufferers of perinatal mood disorder go through, but you still don’t understand.
Let me demonstrate why I’m saying repeating this so firmly. I’m not trying to be disrespectful or unkind, but I want to be clear.
I for one, always was an advocate of mental health treatment. But I really just didn’t understand how much your body holds your mind hostage during depression. I didn’t even really get it when I was going through it, I just knew that I was miserable and suicidal. Your body creates this alternate world, where 2 + 2 = 17 and you think it’s totally normal and real. I didn’t understand how irrational and out of whack I was until I got better. When I got treatment and recovered, I didn’t feel happy…I felt like myself. I felt equipped to handle the highs and the lows of life. Most importantly, I was blown away by how real the lies feel during depression.
Your body’s just trying to survive during a major depressive episode. It knows things are out of whack, but it has to work with what it’s got. So your hormones and chemicals create a new baseline to survive. Isn’t it amazing how resilient God made us?
Your body is telling you that everything is normal. But while your body is fighting to maintain some type of equilibrium, your new baseline for normal erodes…so slowly that abject hopelessness seems normal too. Things have gotten worse at such a slow rate, that by the time they’re wildly out of control and you’re doing the bare minimum to function, you think that this abject hopelessness is permanent and real. That hopelessness can kick start a slide into suicide ideation. That’s why we should take advantage of God’s gift of physicians, science, research and good health options.
No matter how hard I try to explain this, you will not understand what people go through and why they need medication until you go through a major depressive episode or disorder. You can’t. And I pray to God that you never do understand it, because I never, ever want anyone to experience what I did. That’s why I blog.
So that’s where grace comes in.
Seeking medication isn’t an indication that someone has given up on God. It means that they’re doing everything in the power that God has given them to get healthy so that you can face life’s challenges and hurdles. They’re treating their illness.
Any Christian knows that just because we don’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not there.
So I challenge all of you, whether your background is secular or religious: be full of grace and empathy to our fellow brother and sister’s struggle. Encourage them to seek the treatment that they need, and if you are a Christian, pray for them and help them. After all, that’s the Christian thing to do.
*I’m truly asking. Please feel free to comment. I would love to hear from you.