Pastoral Perspectives

What does this Doctor say?

Recently, the death of Robin Williams has put the topic of depression and mental illness back on our radar. Interestingly, considering the amount of research that has been done, one may be surprise to learn that defining mental illness is much more difficult to do that one might expect.

It has been reported that even the writers of psychology’s authoritative manual on mental illness, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), cannot agree on what constitutes a mental illness. After all, the most recent edition of the manual, DSM-V, made a substantial change to the definition of mental illness included in its previous edition. Likewise, it was not too long ago when homosexuality was also included in the list.

This raises the question on how should Christians, especially those in the psychology and counselling community, view the DSM when the categories are like shifting sands and dependant on the opinions of those individuals on the DSM committee and what they believe are behaviour which falls outside the range of normalcy. For example, we are introduced to a condition labelled as oppositional defiant disorder. If one were to examine its characteristics, you would not be blamed for concluding that it looks more like teenage rebellion, especially if you are a responsible parent!

When it comes to the depression, there is no denying that some Christians experience a greater intensity of sorrow, gloom and hopelessness. Moreover, the Bible also provides us with the language to describe such emotions as seen in how the psalmist often groaned before God and is said to be downcast in spirit. More importantly, this reminds us that while such emotions are real, a person exhibiting certain behaviour need not be necessarily be suffering from some depressive disorder and be prescribed medical intervention.

Usually, there are varied causes behind what an individual is experiencing. Sometimes it could be the result of how they have chosen to respond to life situations. Sometimes there are physiological factors. Michael Horton aptly puts it this way, “physical and spiritual issues intersect in ways that cannot be easily pull apart”.

Thus, someone who is suffering from serious physical injuries may be susceptible to bouts of depression, doubts and even anger. Given that the causes of depression are as elusive as the wind, Christians know better than to offer a simplistic diagnosis. Biblical wisdom is needed lest we adopt a purely secular approach or have a hyper-supernaturalistic reaction, treating mental illness as a spiritual problem.

Thankfully, there are testimonies that those moments of despondency do not always persist even if the individual feels otherwise and are unable to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Although our words of affirmation may appear impotent to lift the spirit of someone gripped with depression, we can take heart that God’s truth may yet be given the power to awaken hope in the person’s heart.

Furthermore, it would be helpful to encourage the individual who cannot seem to get over those “negative” feelings that he needs not be defined by them. God has used individuals such as William Cowper to minister to others through his hymns despite him struggling with frequent bouts of despair.

We should understand that those who are trying to manage their emotions often struggle with a sense of guilt. They feel that they ought to be stronger and better in dealing with them.

Likewise, those who require some medication should not be made to feel embarrassed about needing them. After all, they are no different from others who take medication for health concerns.

To be sure, Christians understand that medicinal aid is never the total solution to depression. The Bible shows us that humans are more than just bodies with physical needs. While we are fearfully and wonderfully made, we are also tragically fallen. In the midst of experiencing brokenness and pain, we await for our Saviour to restore everything and make them good again.

Undoubtedly, Jesus is the only healing available. Apart from him, any medical relief we receive is only temporary. Only this Redeemer has conquered sin and death. Only this Great Physician can heal us of our emptiness and wretchedness.

We thank God that Jesus declared that he has come for the sick and not the healthy (Lk 5:31). Let us pray that this will always be received as Good News, news which you will hardly welcome if they came from any other doctors.

Rev Edwin Wong

August 24, 2014