Depression: Did you know scientists and biblical counselors recognize at least three myths about this problem? In part 1 of this two-part series, learn the truth about seratonin as you seek help for you or a loved one. This post first appeared here on CareLeader.org, June 29, 2016, and is used with permisison.
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“Pastor, I’m depressed…doctor says it’s some sort of major depressive disorder.”
We don’t take for granted the amount of trust displayed when someone discloses the diagnosis of a psychiatric disorder. And that’s why we respond gently and compassionately. But we also need to respond accurately.
Here are three common myths about depression to keep you from misleading those you care so deeply for.
Myth #1: Scientists Know Exactly What Causes Depression
Even though pharmaceutical ads say that major depression may be caused by chemical imbalances, many people assume that it is caused by chemical imbalances. But it’s not that simple. As Dr. Joseph Coyle of Harvard Medical School was quoted by National Public Radio,
Chemical imbalance is sort of last-century thinking. It’s much more complicated than that.
And Dr. Coyle isn’t alone in his sentiment. PLOS Medicine collected an eye-opening list of quotes from medical researchers who don’t share the confidence that the general public, some doctors, and even pharmaceutical companies have about the cause of depression.
To get a better idea of what causes depression, scientists are exploring whether the depression is due to problems with brain structure, diminished activity levels in certain parts of the brain, and psychosocial factors like stress. But to date, scientists have not been able to make a clear link between physiological factors and depression. A Scientific American article puts it this way:
- [N]o studies have established a cause-and-effect relation between any brain or psychosocial dysfunction and the disorder. In addition, depression almost certainly does not result from just one change in the brain or environmental factor. A focus on one piece of the depression puzzle—be it brain chemistry, neural networks or stress—is shortsighted.
Scientists Say the Brain is Complicated
Even though we hear a lot of promising news about the latest in brain and genetic code research, it’s important to realize that scientists aren’t even close to being able to explain what causes depression or any other mental disorder. Dr. Allen Frances, former chair of the DSM-IV Task Force1 and of the department of psychiatry at Duke University School of Medicine, writes:
Although we have learned a great deal about brain functioning, we have not yet figured out ways of translating basic science into clinical psychiatry. The powerful new tools of molecular biology, genetics, and imaging have not yet led to laboratory tests for dementia or depression or schizophrenia or bipolar or obsessive-compulsive disorder or for any other mental disorders. The expectation that there would be a simple gene or neurotransmitter or circuitry explanation for any mental disorder has turned out to be naive and illusory.
Frances goes on to quote Roger Sperry, who won the Nobel Prize in medicine:
The more we learn, the more we recognize the unique complexity of any one individual intellect, the stronger the conclusion becomes that the individuality inherent in our brain networks makes that of fingerprints or facial features gross and simple by comparison.
Teasing out the heterogeneous underlying mechanisms of mental disorder will be the work of lifetimes.
Spritual Aspects of Depression Matter Too
Even if scientists are able to identify which parts of the body produce a state of depression, that would be incomplete as an explanation of the cause of depression. Why? It would not take into account man’s makeup as a spiritual and physical creature created in the image of God.
Dr. Sam Williams, a former psychologist who is now a counseling professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, explains:
That which makes us distinctively human, our spiritual and moral facets, is neglected by secular definitions of mental order, disorder, and reordering. Thus, the secular concept of mental disorder is not a thorough description of nor does it provide an explanation for people’s problems.
A more thorough biblical psychology must factor God (and subsequently the moral and spiritual valence of each symptom) back into the equation if we are interested in a diagnosis that is consistent with our worldview.
This is important for the people you care for to understand, because many of them become less receptive to nonmedicinal treatments when they accept a biomedical explanation for their depression. Dr. Todd B. Kashdan, psychologist and professor of psychology at George Mason University, explains in a post on myths about what causes depression:
They become pessimistic that recovery is possible. They become less confident that they can manage and regulate negative moods that arise (and they always do)…. Essentially, they become less flexible in their options for treating depression and less confident that they will escape its clutches.
Just because depression scientists don’t know exactly what causes it does not mean that biological factors don’t play a significant role in why people experience depression. But, again, as Dr. Williams observes,
Superficial, deterministic explanations dehumanize people, rendering them as automatons rather than persons with the dignity and honor ascribed to us in Psalm 8.
Be sure to read part 2 for the next two myths. Be sure to subscribe to our blog to ensure you get it. Below is the sign up. When you sign up, you get a free resource from Biblical Counseling Center.
Struggling? Make an appointment (in person or by Skype) with one of the many biblcal counselors at BCC. –LAM