The Myth of Mental Health Care: The Medication of Normalcy
While the church doesn’t have the best history of handling mental health issues as an institution, we too often transfer this notion into the idea that the majority of Christians outright reject mental illness or counseling. The reality is, while extremists may insist mental illness is the result of demonic possession or sin, the average church member accepts the existence of extreme depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and the other most notable mental illnesses.
The problem is many of these people are ill informed of what living with any of these conditions actually looks like or means, thanks to misinformation and poor depictions of mental health issues in popular media. They believe these conditions exist, but mainly in their most extreme forms.
This is why many who tell their loved ones or fellow church goers that they are taking antidepressants or are dealing with anxiety, they are often treated as if their problems aren’t real. To their eyes, they see a normal person. How could they have a mental illness if they seem to be functioning and … normal?
These types of situations are one of the leading reasons so many people believe the psychiatric community is turning normal behaviors into mental illness. They think doctors are just handing out pills willy-nilly. “You feel anxious speaking in public? Take this.” “You are still sad over your break-up? Try these.”
Anyone who has actually seen a well-educated and qualified counselor or psychiatrist knows how wrong this is, but it is easy to see how the confusion came about. There are psychiatrists out there willing to give pills out for anything, but these people do not characterize the field itself. The practice can actually lose a doctor their license.
Ron Pies, M.D. recently responded to this issue and the myth of medicating normality. In “The Myth of Medicalization” he writes:
In my view, the medicalization narrative contains some kernels of truth, and many defenders of the term proceed from honorable and well-intentioned motives; for example, the wish to reduce unnecessary use of psychotropic medication — and who could be opposed to that?
But on the whole, I believe the medicalization narrative is philosophically naive and clinically unhelpful. On close examination, the term “medicalization” proves to be largely a rhetorical device, aimed at ginning up popular opposition to psychiatric diagnosis. It not only stigmatizes the field of psychiatry and those who practice in it, but it also undermines our ability to provide the best care to our patients, by spuriously normalizing their suffering and incapacity.
The role of psychiatry isn’t to medicate or even to define normality. In Pies’ perspective, the primary role of psychiatry is to relieve suffering or pain however possible. Disease exists so long as there is suffering that qualifies as incapacitating or substantially detrimental to the quality of life. As Therese J. Borchard put it, the mission isn’t to medicalize normalcy, it is an ethical imperative. Pies explains:
Physicians, fundamentally, are not philosophers or evolutionary biologists. We do not, as a matter of daily routine, entertain metaphysical and semantic questions, such as “What is truly normal for the human species?”
Rather, physicians have a general concept of what constitutes health, and a general concept of enduring and significant departures from health. We find ourselves faced with a waiting room full of distressed and often incapacitated human beings who, in ordinary circumstances, are voluntarily seeking our help. We do our best to respond to them not as specimens of abnormality, but as suffering individuals — and as fellow human beings.