I used to be afraid of treating anxiety or depression with drugs. I worried that doing so would lead to a dystopian “happy pill” society whose people wouldn’t have to deal with right or wrong or personal responsibility.
I worried that the general increased usage of such drugs was a sign of unrest in the soul and that covering up that unrest was covering up the natural consequences of sin and spiritual battle.
I worried that the drugs were a quick fix, failing to get to the root and distracting from it. I even worried that in treating mental suffering the sufferer would lose sensitivity, connection to God, creativity, or even a sense of morality.
I worried about all these things because I knew that feelings weren’t just a brain thing. I knew they were a soul thing. I looked around me and felt like the secular world missed that. The secular world was denying the soul.
So I took what I thought was the heroic stance and thought of depression and anxiety as all soul. I’m not sure I actually thought the Church was against the use of Prozac, but I definitely assumed that no Saint would ever take it.
Then my dog got diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and that got me thinking: if he can have anxiety and not have a human soul, than the human soul cannot be the only cause of anxiety.
Just as the secularists often deny the soul, Christians are in danger of denying the body. The very fact that anxiety and depression medications even work is proof that feelings are more than just a thing of the soul and that, regardless of their many causes, feelings are made manifest in chemicals.
When someone is experiencing anxiety or depression, they are experiencing a chemical imbalance in the brain. They are experiencing a chemical imbalance even if it is a result of some soul journey — even if happens to be their own fault.
It’s our duty to treat such imbalances, our duty to properly care for both the body and the soul. There is nothing inherently wrong with Prozac. Or marijuana. Or a glass of wine or a cup of chamomile tea. Just like there is nothing wrong with watching a movie or putting on happy music or spending time with a friend to lift one’s spirits.
There is nothing wrong with purposefully changing the chemicals in our brains as long as we do it prudently. There is nothing wrong with treating the brain as long as we are not neglecting or harming the soul.
It’s this neglect and harm of soul that ought to concern us. That is what is wrong with the dystopian society’s “happy pill” use— not that a pill can increase serotonin but that serotonin can be abused to the point of creating another imbalance.
Drugs can be so abused as to dehumanize, to neglect and harm the soul. They can be abused to distract from the problems of the soul or from the consequences of sin.
Now, the truth is that there will always be consequences of sin no matter how much people will try to cover them up. I don’t need to cite here the dozens of tragedies that attest to that fact. When people don’t address the unrest of their soul, it will creep up and it will demand to be dealt with— whether that unrest is individual or within society at large.
Right and wrong aren’t going to go away just because some people are distracting themselves from it. But even as people may continue to distract themselves from it, it still doesn’t mean the drugs can’t be used prudently. In fact, I would argue that it is often imprudent not to use them.
I would go so far as to say that St. John of the Cross would be right in taking a drug for the anxiety of his Dark Night of the Soul (unless God explicitly instructed him not to, which He very well may have.)
I think it would be no different from Thérèse of Lisieux treating her tuberculosis. There is a tendency among devout people to over-emphasize suffering, especially mental suffering.
Jesus certainly made suffering redemptive, but he also cured people of diseases and asked us to do the same. It is one thing to embrace and offer up suffering, but it is another thing to pridefully cling to it. Even the stigmatist binds his holy wounds so he does not bleed to death, and so should we.
So if you are someone struggling with anxiety or depression, I recommend asking yourself the following questions:
Have I done, or am I doing, something sinful? The question is NOT “do I feel guilty?” One can feel guilty as a result of scrupulosity, and giving into that guilt will only deepen the problem. If you need help answering this question, seek that help. If the answer is yes, make amends for the sin and find ways to counteract it.
Is there something in my environment, lifestyle or relationships that is causing the anxiety/depression? If the answer is yes, figure out what is in your power to change and seek help in changing that.
But if the anxiety or depression still remains, consider treatment of your brain. Do for the brain as you would for any other treatment. Find what will do the least amount of harm but still provide benefits. Usually these more holistic treatments take longer to work and require more patience and fortitude, but so it always is with doing the right thing.
Because although the elimination of suffering is one of our goals, it is not our ultimate goal. The treatment of the body should never get in the way of the soul. Thankfully, if we exercise prudence, it usually doesn’t have to.