BCC Staff Note: You’re reading Part One in a multi-part series written by biblical counseling educators. You’ll enjoy great diversity in this series, not only related to the authors, but also to the topics. We simply asked a number of biblical counseling educators to craft a blog post about anything they wanted to discuss related to biblical counseling and education. Some are focusing on their teaching ministry. Others are focusing on their personal educational journey. Still others are focusing on relating important theological issues to everyday life. Enjoy!
A Compassionate Conversation
In the very public aftermath of Matthew Warren’s tragic suicide, the evangelical community rallied around the Warren family with an effusion of prayers and condolences. As a counselor and fellow Christian my heart breaks over the incredible pain Matthew must have been enduring to take such tragic action to end it. As a father, I have wept over the agony that Rick and Kay Warren must still be experiencing in the midst of such a devastating loss. As a minister, I have been overwhelmed with gratitude for the strong testimony Rick Warren has given for Christ in the months that have followed. I have never met any member of the Warren family, but I have tremendous love and respect for them as a result of what I have witnessed in the months following Matthew’s suicide. I continue to join with many other Christians as we pray for God’s continued comfort to that dear family.
Matthew’s loss occasioned a widespread and important conversation in the larger Christian community about mental illness and the use of psychiatric drugs. All sorts of people have weighed in on this issue—some have provided incredibly helpful insight, while others have offered more misleading counsel. I won’t try to weigh in on all of that. Here, in this series, I want to speak to this issue from the perspective of a counseling educator. I teach counseling students at the seminary and Bible college level, as well as at the professional and lay-level through the National Association of Nouthetic Counselors (NANC). One of the most persistent set of questions we must answer when training counselors is how to think through the use of psychiatric medication when we counsel people who are using them.
I want to share with you the three categories that are operating in my head whenever I think about, speak on, or answer questions about the use psychotropic drugs in counseling.
1. God Made Human Beings Body and Soul
When God made mankind He breathed life into dust (Gen. 3:7) thus creating a human being with an outer physical substance and inner spiritual soul (2 Cor. 4:16). Each of these elements are of crucial importance, and each of them are good (1 Tim. 4:8). This means that if we think about people according to the Bible, we won’t be Gnostics or behaviorists. We’ll believe that both the body and the soul are good, and be willing to do effective ministry to both.
2. Physical Treatments for the Body Are as Good as Spiritual Treatments for the Soul
When we’re thinking correctly about the goodness of the physical and spiritual element of humanity, we’ll embrace the use medical treatments for physical ailments just as readily as we embrace spiritual remedies for problems of the soul. Ten minutes ago, I took a Claritin to help with my allergies. That is just as holy as the prayer I prayed earlier this morning that God would remove the fuzziness in my head. One is physical. The other is spiritual. They are both good. Christians shouldn’t give anybody a hard time for honoring the body with medical interventions that God intends, in His common grace, to be a blessing.
3. Psychiatric Medication Is Different Than Other Medications
Many Christians who evaluate the use of psychiatric medications evaluate the first two concerns in my triad, but neglect this one. As I have reviewed the observations of many Christians weighing in on this matter, they don’t express understanding of what is common knowledge among those working in the field of psychiatry from practitioners to drug manufacturers. Psychiatric medications are pressed from a different mold than other kinds of medications like the Claritin I just swallowed.
This is not an obscure observation. The Journal of the American Medical Association, to cite just one source, released a study showing that the actual pharmacological benefit of antidepressant medications for most people is basically non-existent and often worse than a placebo. This means that what happens when you take psychiatric medication to help with sorrow is very different than what happens when you take insulin to help with diabetes. Whereas insulin conveys a physical and medical benefit, psychiatric meds typically work—when they work at all—because we want them to work.
Some Implications for Counseling Education
I think there are several different implications of these three principles for those of us doing counseling education.
First, honor people—body and spirit. We need to teach counseling students to honor God’s creation of humanity in each of its constituent parts, body and spirit. One of the ways we can do this is by teaching counselors not to reject, but rather embrace, medical interventions that help physical problems. Another way we can do this is by training students to be suspicious of medical interventions that are dubious with regard to their physical benefit or else attempt to treat as a medical pathology a problem that is actually spiritual in nature.
Second, be humble. We need to be honest about what we know and what we don’t know. Most Christians who write about mental illness and psychiatric medications know far less about the science behind such things than the experts who deal with them every day. Our role as counseling instructors is to teach those paying attention to us about the complex nature of issues at the intersection of body and soul, and to be humble when their knowledge about these complexities is at an end.
Third, do what you’re supposed to do. I’m a counselor. I train counselors and I lead a counseling organization. I’m not a physician, I don’t train medical practitioners, and nobody wants me in charge of a hospital. I can do almost all of what God wants me to do in counseling regardless of the psychiatric medications of my counselees. This means I don’t have to try and be a physician. I don’t have to tell people to get on medication or to get off of it. In fact, I should do neither of things. I need to leave that to the people who have a prescription pad. The work of counseling is hard enough without getting onto someone else’s turf.
Join the Conversation
What categories would you add to the three listed above regarding how to think through psychotropic medications?
What implications would you add to the three listed above regarding counselor education and psychotropic medication?