What kind of messages about mental health diagnoses and medications do you receive in your community? What do you hear about these in the church? Silence? Warm embrace? Implicit or explicit rejection?
Mike Emlet, a former family practice physician and now counselor, has written a small book to introduce readers to a nuanced and biblical take on the value of diagnoses and medications. Descriptions and Prescriptions: A Biblical Perspective on Psychiatric Diagnoses & Medications (New Growth Press, 2017) comprises 22 short chapters exploring the pros and cons of both arenas for those who are “too cold” or “too warm” towards the use of mental health diagnoses and medications.
In the first section Mike explores some of the weaknesses of the current DSM (psychiatric diagnostic system). Those who are “too cold” and who think the system is fraught with problems may find themselves saying “yes, exactly.” But rather than just stop there, he begins to articulate implications for ministry responses—how to go deep to understand the person behind the diagnosis. There is much the pastor or counselor can learn.
One key point is made here and in later chapters: we live in bodies and Scripture takes this seriously. So learn about the symptoms a person experiences.
So, you might think this book is negative on the value of diagnoses. It is not. Chapter 9 begins to describe the potential value of diagnoses, especially to those who tend to see mental health problems ONLY as spiritual and ONLY or usually involving just the will. If there is one thing the reader should get from this chapter is that humility is in order. If you don’t put much stock in diagnoses you likely don’t put much stock in published research exploring symptom clusters. As an example, Mike briefly discusses the multivariate experiences of those with obsessions and compulsions. This little window into the problem of OCD should remind us that we must work hard to understand the many subtle forms of obsessional thinking and consider how best to describe and care for the person suffering with them.
On the final page of chapter 9, Mike takes on one crucial criticism—that since you can’t see structural differences in the brain that implicate a particular diagnosis then the diagnosis isn’t real. From his point of view, this is a simplistic understanding of biology and diagnoses.
The second section explores the challenges and benefits of psychiatric medications. Mike gives a very brief overview of the categories of medications and how they work (what we know and what we don’t know). He summarizes the research as indicating a modest positive effect, though also showing that other means are quite effective (placebo and counseling). Such results show us that there are a range of helpful responses. While it is true that medications for anxiety and depression aren’t cures and aren’t without their side effects, it is important to remember that the individual in front of you may in fact benefit immensely. Thus it is good to remember that we don’t offer advice to others based on population statistics. Rather wisdom is in order for this particular person.
In probably the best part of the book, Mike walks the reader through a wisdom approach to the use of medications—walking the tightrope as he suggests. Too much suffering and too little suffering can be hazardous to our spiritual health. We can make idols out of medications or out of not taking them. Medications aren’t good or bad on their own. It is how we approach them that matters.
He makes this statement nearing the end of the book,
“I hope you have seen that there is not a clear-cut “right” or “wrong” answer. There is no universal “rule” that we can apply to all people at all times. There is no simple algorithm. Rather, the use of these medications is a wisdom issue, to be addressed individually with those we counsel. There will always be a mix of pros and cons, costs and benefits to carefully consider.” (p. 87)
This answer may frustrate those who want a clear-cut “this is right/wrong” response. However, counselors are not umpires calling what is “fair” or “foul.” Instead we are walking with and helping others look for relief (what can I do to make the moment better?) and look for acceptance (what is God up to in my life?). Sometimes relief means medications, other times it means examining thoughts, habits, perceptions, etc. Sometimes acceptance means pursuing other goals beyond symptom relief, other times it means understanding accepting that God has, in his providence, allowed them to have a body that needs external supports.
Book Recommendation: Great first text for those who either over-estimate the value of mental health diagnoses or medications or those who minimize their value. Author leans to a conservative approach and probably spends more time speaking to those who might over-value medications. Yet, he also repeatedly affirms that biblical counseling must take seriously the fact that humans are embodied souls and that diagnoses and medications have value, albeit limited value. Great text to start the conversation and lead to deeper study about our responses to suffering, especially for beginning pastoral counselors and lay helpers.