Side Effects: Can one pill change your life?

Posted: February 8, 2013 by John C. Kwasny, Ph.D. in Drama, Thriller
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side_effects_ver2As the senior Biblical Counselor (and only psychology major) in the group, I tend to get assigned the cool psychological thrillers like Side Effects. Personally, I’d rather talk about the more comedic sorts of counseling movies such as the classic What About Bob? or even Analyze This. Those fine films do a great job of poking fun of the psycho-therapeutic profession. But as you can tell from the poster, movies like Side Effects take the world of counseling and psychological medication much more seriously. Some of the early reviewers who have already seen the film claim that Side Effects only raises issues of mental health and psychological medication, then quickly descends into a pretty predictable thriller. So if you are looking for a thorough commentary on the cultural impact of modern psychotropic medication, then maybe you should look elsewhere.

But, here at Reel Thinking, we’ll use the opportunity of this particular movie to discuss the issue of the use of medication to treat mental and emotional problems. Where should we stand on this issue as Christians? Let’s briefly look at the two main opposing views.

On one end of the issue, we have Christians who believe that psychological medication is a crutch that displays a lack of faith in God for our mental health. Some in this camp even look at the taking of a pill for depression, anxiety, etc. as a sin. They believe that all of our problems should be handled spiritually by faith instead of depending on a pill to fix us. While this view certainly recognizes our tendency to overuse medications in modern society, it neglects the fact that some medications really do bring about important symptom relief. And, the reality that a person is both body and soul can also be ignored. As much as Christians are to submit to the Lordship of Christ when they are suffering and struggling, this does not have to totally eliminate the use of certain medication.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have Christians who treat psychological medication as if it is the only or best treatment for any sort of personal difficulty. These folks tend to almost be dismayed if a person decides not to take medication for ADHD, depression, anxiety, etc. They see mental problems as mainly physiological at their core, therefore demanding mainly a medical solution. The pill becomes the agent of change. This view overestimates the benefits of psychological meds and minimizes their side effects–the physical, emotional, and spiritual ones. Those who get too focused on having people medicated can downplay the need for spiritual growth, Biblical decision-making, and relational counseling.

Now you can probably already tell that my view lands somewhere in the middle–the coveted place of balance! Like all proposed solutions for our ills, psychological medication must be handled with godly wisdom and discernment. The advertised promises of many of these pills should be taken with a grain of salt, understanding that they can really only relieve symptoms at best. As Christians, we still need to deal with what is deep in our hearts, the idols we are serving, the wrong thinking we are holding on to, and poor patterns of behaving, relating, etc. And, even with medication, we need Biblical counsel, the work of the Spirit in our hearts, and the full-orbed work of the church (preaching and teaching of the Word, the sacraments, etc.). What is a shame to me is how many people look to solve their problems with medication (and other things) first, and ignore all the rest of God’s provisions for their healing.

But let’s consider one last element of the question raised by Side Effects–the issue of the side effects of medication. Isn’t it interesting how most of us tend to ignore the side effect warnings of most medication? If I have a bad headache, or even just a mild one, I will try to find two ibuprofen as quickly as is humanly possible. The problem is, as a person who struggles with stomach issues, these two little pills have the unfortunate side effect of exacerbating my IBS. At the time of a headache, I really don’t care how much it affects my stomach–I’ll deal with that problem LATER! Do you see the problem? It’s really quite easy to actually make long-term issues worse in the effort of short-term pain relief. Instead of really counting the potential cost to body and mind before taking a particular medication, we just hope the side effects won’t be too much trouble, or ignore them altogether.

So whether or not Side Effects really delves into the issue of the impact of medication for psychological problems, Christians should be discerning about the personal use of these meds as well as advising others about them. It is easy to fall into the idolatrous belief that one pill can change our lives (for the better). Ultimately, in any situation, we must hold tightly to the only ONE who can and will change our lives for the best!

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