An open letter to Pat Robertson about antidepressants and faith

Dear Mr. Robertson,

As a Christian who wrestles with bipolar disorder, I was concerned to hear your October 20th remarks linking a lack of faith in God with depression. Some people ignore them. Others agree with them. Still others spew venom toward you as a person. I won’t do any of these.

Instead, I would like to respectfully share my thoughts on your points. Antidepressants, as your colleague Lee said on the program, are the third most common prescription drug in America. Then you said:

It’s amazing. I mean, the American people—the message is just stay stoned . . .

Being stoned and being medicated are not the same thing. 

. . . and don’t worry about what’s going on in the world.

Please don’t assume that I “don’t worry about what’s going on in the world” because I take medication for my mental illness. My medication doesn’t make me indifferent to the world. It makes me better able to think and better equipped to handle seeing the world around me.

When I wasn’t taking medication, the bipolar disorder made it difficult to focus on anything other than survival. Just get through this day or hour or minute without giving way to despair. AIDS? Political scandals? What did those matter when I was in so much pain? Or alternately, the world’s problems overwhelmed me and forced me deeper into the darkness.

Having the medication stabilizes me and increases my ability to engage with the world in a meaningful and productive way.

Pat:  Prozac, and what are some of the other antidepressants? That’s the one I’m familiar with.
Terry: It’s interesting. We have so many blessings and then to have depression be such a significant aspect of our lives.
Pat: You lose God, you lose hope, and God gives hope and with hope, comes praise and joy and happiness, ‘cause you have a future. . . .

God has not guaranteed happiness in this life. Hope, yes. A future, yes. But hope does not make present pain go away; it doesn’t make grief and sadness disappear. Horrible things still happen, and they happen to people regardless of their faith.

If you don’t believe in the Lord, you have no future, and everything looks dark and gloomy . . .

Don’t assume that depression is always and only a spiritual thing. I’ve heard this in countless ways over the years, usually accompanied by well-intended advice, usually dispensed by overly-cheery people. Read the Bible. Pray. Count your blessings. Meditate on Scripture.

The clear implication: get your spiritual act together and your depression will disappear.

Humans are complex. We’re spiritual beings, yes, but also physical and chemical and mental and emotional beings. It’s all a tangled mess and only God knows where one aspect ends and the others begin. As a finite being, for me to pull out one thread and declare, “Ah, see here’s the definitive cause of my (or your) depression,” seems arrogant and presumptuous on my part. For depression to be treated, the whole person needs help, not just one part.

 . . . so I’ve got to have something to kill the pain, so the way they go—use this term, “self medicating.” I’m not quite sure what all that entails, but it’s not a very pleasant thing.

First, people often take medication without consulting a doctor first; think taking aspirin for a headache or an OTC medication for a cold or downing a pot of coffee to pull an all-nighter.

Second, antidepressants (and other drugs like this) aren’t OTC medications, so technically I can’t self-medicate my pain with Prozac, Lithium, etc. I have to get a doctor to write the prescription for me. Yes, it can be at my request. Yes, I can abuse prescription medications; many people do. Yes, I can get medications that I don’t really need; people do this, too. But assuming that those taking medication for severe depression are “self medicating” is inaccurate.

Elsewhere on your show, you have said that sometimes people need to take antidepressants to stay even while they work things out. (I also noted that someone criticized you for writing something similar in Bring it on: Tough Questions, Candid Answers.) So I know that your October 20th remarks don’t fully portray your thoughts on this.

But there are people who will hear your words and feel despair at their “lack of faith” because they need antidepressants. It’s difficult enough to survive a day of depression without having a public figure make me feel like a second-class Christian. Since I doubt that was your intent, please be careful in how you talk to those in pain.

We need hope, not discouragement.

Sincerely,

Laura

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12 thoughts on “An open letter to Pat Robertson about antidepressants and faith

  1. It’s so frustrating when Christians, or anybody, use a broad brush and paint us all the same color. We had a pastor who got on a soapbox about ADD & ADHD. He decided behavior of children that were difficult to control in Sunday School were the result of poor parenting. His kids weren’t like that, in fact, his family seemed to have no problems like those of the rest of us. Needless to say, some families weren’t happy with what he his opinion. Why do we think we understand what it’s like to be another person, like we have all the answers? Sure, in many cases a spiritual tune up helps a lot, but that doesn’t deal with chemical imbalances. Sometimes I think I can go off my anti-depressant until I do and remember it also helped me focus.

    I’ve also been made to feel like a second class Christian because I had to work, I’m overweight, my house isn’t magazine picture perfect, I cuss sometimes, and on and on. The Christian culture makes it very easy to be hard on ourselves and I’m sure that’s not what Christ died for. I tend to avoid people like Robertson because they, well, help me feel depressed.

    Once again, a well-written, thoughtful article.

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    1. Thanks for sharing this, Theresa. I, too, have been made to feel like a second class Christian because of certain things, though thankfully not as much at my current church….and then I also remember looking down on others because they weren’t “perfect enough” in their behavior, etc. Ironic, huh?

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  2. Well said, and thoughtfully written. I am glad you addressed this, since many Christians have undoubtedly said similar words, and in doing so, hurt the people that need help so desperately. Yes, meds can and will be abused, BUT with our faith and continually seeking God’s wisdom, I believe the Holy Spirit will guide us in using these medicines, which are much needed to some, in a responsible manner. Thanks!

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    1. Agree. I’m thankful for friends who pray that my psychiatrist and I will have clear direction as far as what meds I need (or don’t need) to take. Thanks for reading!

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  3. Thank you for a gracious response to a difficult issue. Some Christian leaders could learn a lot from it. The rush towards superficiality in faith and medicine by some who should know better smacks of pandering to the unthinking (Christian) masses. Be encouraged.

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    1. Thanks for reading! I think we all need to be willing to think deeply on these issues rather than “rush towards superficiality”, as you said.

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  4. I have a love/hate relationship with psych meds. I’m ending a 12-year period of being on significant amounts of benzos and will be happy to be rid of them. I get where people are coming from on both sides of this, since I wish I had learned to control my anxiety without depending on pills. BUT…I’m also on an antidepressant, and it really helps. I feel really conflicted about staying on it, because, yeah, I’d like my faith to boost my mood. But then again, perhaps I should be thanking God for letting me live in an era when I can use this tool.

    It’s sad that he paints everyone with the same brush. I know I didn’t start taking these things because I felt a “little bit” bad. At the time, it was simply to be able to function.

    I can’t believe that Robinson is promoting worrying. The Bible instructs us not to do so! (A pretty difficult directive to follow.)

    Anyway, interesting blog. I found you at Donald Miller’s and find your writing thought-provoking.

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    1. Michelle,
      I, too, have that love/hate relationship with my meds. On the one hand, it’s not fun to deal with side effects and such. But on the other hand, I’m thankful that the medications are available; they help me function so much better. Thanks so much for stopping by and letting me know how you found me!

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  5. A timely word to be sure! My husband and I have been Pat Robertson fans for 30 years, so I was disappointed but not surprised to here his opinion. Although, I’ve heard him say, like you stated, that medication can be important. I agree totally with everything you wrote. Cud-o’s for taking a stand in writing! Blessings… T

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  6. The problem is that some people out there really take pills because they cannot handle life. Life in the West.

    I am not saying nobody needs chemical help. But I think it is very few percent of the population. Surely not 10+ % of America. So I get when one uses better living through chemistry to live and to be able to be a part of the world. But the existing awarness campaigns promote completely different picture. Lately most human emotions have been getting pathologized…. how can one then learn to handle extreme emotions, when we are told that even feeling bit sad, or anxious is not normal?

    (and yeah, sadly when I once told to somebody how watching happening in Libya threw me out of loop and I am losing my faith in humanity, which scares me because I am a do-gooder and idealist…. I have been told to talk to my pdoc about my thoughts as med tweak may help (I don’t take anything atm) and turn off the news because it is depressing… so I have dealt with the other opposite of specter, and it has been very frustrating as well).

    I am sorry if I come off as too harsh… but there are two sides to the story. And I can totally see where the other extreme comes from. Does it help anything? Of course not. So it is nice to see reasonable response here from you.

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    1. I agree that a lot of our normal emotions have been pathologized recently. I remember looking at the DSM-IV several years ago and thinking, “Um, so what IS normal?!”
      I have no clue on the statistics as to how many people are actually depressed and needing medication to function, versus people who aren’t depressed, versus people who are experiencing what they think is depression but is really within the range of normal human emotion (say, the blues or normal grief after a loss). I do find it sad when people take medicine they don’t need or refuse medicine that they do need.

      I’m glad to know that there are other people out there who feel thrown for a loop by current events. Sometimes I think I’m the only one who has a hard time handling news like Libya, etc.

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