This month, the pharmacy services company Medco reported that in 2010, one in five American adults took a mental health prescription drug, a 22 percent increase since 2001. Antidepressant use by men is on the rise, but women still take more antidepressants than men, with 21 percent of women taking at least one antidepressant in 2010. I was one of those women.
When my twins were born four years ago, it didn't take long for us to realize I was struggling. Post-partum depression hits many women during the first year after childbirth. With the natural hormone swings after giving birth, it can be difficult to tell if a new mother is trying to adjust to new demands and sleep schedules or is clinically depressed. When my mother found me crying while running a bath for our oldest boy, it became obvious that I was struggling with the latter.
All it took was a quick visit to the ob-gyn. I remember being grateful I didn't have to work out psychiatrist appointments or introduce a new doctor to the problems. Instead, the ob-gyn wrote the prescription as we talked. It was so easy.
Getting off the drugs proved to be a bit more difficult. Each year I went to my check-up, determined that I would get a plan to step down. Each year, the doctor encouraged me to stay on the meds. Each year he said, "It's a really benign drug, there are no side effects. It helps take the edge off."
He wasn't quite accurate. Zoloft's website lists plenty of physical and psychological side effects. Besides the warnings, Zoloft was also made to treat a range of personality and depressive disorders, but post-partum depression is not on the list.
Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) are the most common antidepressants prescribed today. They work on the theory that depression is caused by the absorption of serotonin in the cells of the brain, leaving the synapses free of the needed chemical. The SSRI keeps serotonin from being reabsorbed, and the increase of that chemical in the body causes the mood to lift.
The use of antidepressants is not without controversy in the Christian community and beyond. Our knowledge of the brain has grown significantly in the past 20 years, but we still have a lot to learn. The theory on which these medicines are based could be completely misguided, and because the earliest SSRI, Paxil, is only 23 years old, we can't be completely sure of its long-term effects. Add to this the fact that primary care physicians—not licensed psychiatrists—are the main prescribers of these medicines, and the case against them gets stronger.
The past three years of my life, during which I have taken an SSRI, are a little fuzzy. Perhaps they would have been anyway, with three boys born 19 months apart. But I often wonder if the little blue pill I swallowed every night contributed to the fuzziness. The irritations, frustrations, and struggles may have been blunted, but so were the joys and the triumphs.
It's so important for us just to remember that yes, perhaps the anti-depressants are making it so that we're not feeling those raw, painful emotions. But those emotions are given to us by God to drive us to himself and then to force us to ask questions about our faith and about the way that we're living and thinking and responding to things.
Should Christians avoid taking antidepressants, instead "letting go and letting God" lead us through the ups and downs of life? I'm not sure. After all, depression is a real mental health issue, one more piece of evidence that our minds and bodies do not function as they were intended to in our fallen world. I'm glad that the stigma of depression is lifting; gone are the days of whispered: "She's on medication." What I do know is that we should resist thinking of meds and the one and only answer to depression and consider a more well-rounded response to mental health, which might include the following steps.
1. Find a true professional: a psychiatrist, psychologist, or counselor. Christian counselors especially are trained to help patients talk through problems with a view of the gospel, and that may be all we need sometimes. If there is a true need for antidepressants, a psychiatrist is easier to trust than the person who delivered your baby hours before.
2. Stay healthy. Exercise, eat whole foods full of nutrition, and get as much rest as possible.
3. Re-evaluate. Are you depressed only because life isn't what you expected? In my case, I had an image of happy stay-at-home moms constantly thrilled with their little darlings and the messes they make. Much of my anxiety centered on not fulfilling this picture. Instead, look to Jesus, casting all your anxieties on him because he cares for you (1 Pet. 5:7). He can give us a much more accurate picture of what to expect in this life.
Certainly antidepressants can take the edge off the pain of living in this broken world. But is it possible that we need those edges, which so often lead us to Christ?