In this review of Will Medicine Stop the Pain we are responding only to “Bill and Laura’s Story,” written by Laura Hendrickson, M.D., “diplomate, American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology.”* Hendrickson begins her story by saying, “Bill was a much-loved eldest son, and I was the next oldest child in our family of eight” (10). Laura describes Bill’s background and her own and tells how she was first “diagnosed [with] bipolar disorder” and how she “wondered if perhaps [Bill] had it too” (12, 13). As a result Bill saw a doctor and “was also diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and the medicines [Laura] was taking were added to his regime” (13).
Laura describes how she initially “felt better” on the psychotropic medications, but then “began sliding downward emotionally,” eventually hitting “rock bottom” (13). At this point she says, “My husband called our pastor, and he agreed to meet with me immediately” (13). She exclaims, “What a life changing visit that turned out to be!” Laura says:
My pastor told me that I did not have to live like this. He told me that Christ had come to set me free from mental agony like this, and that if I looked to Him for victory over my tormenting thoughts, He would enable me to begin thinking thoughts that led to peace instead of despair. We prayed together for God’s power over my thoughts, and I felt flooded by a sense of peace. My pastor warned me that the thoughts would come back, but that I must resist by correcting those thoughts with the truths of Scripture (13, 14).
Laura tells what happened as a result:
I didn’t go to the hospital that day. Instead, I practiced what my pastor had told me to do, and had success with this new way of thinking. My depression and suicidal thoughts left me. After a couple of weeks I decided that the medicines were confusing me and making it more difficult for me to think the truth, so I stopped taking them. In fact, it was the medicine that went off the bridge instead of me! (14, bold added).
After describing more of her story, Laura says, “I have been medication-free for twelve years, and I can testify that God’s pattern for emotional peace, as taught in the Bible, has truly set me free” (15). She then gives a strong appeal with a promise, as follows:
Dear struggling sister, wherever you fall on the spectrum of emotional difficulties, from mild to severe, please know that this book, which I’ve written with fellow biblical counselor Elyse Fitzpatrick, contains answers that can help you begin your own pilgrimage from fear to faith, and from instability to peace in Christ. May He bless you as you look to Him for answers, and may this book be part of His answer to you (15).
In the midst of her story Laura describes how she told her brother Bill about her “spiritual breakthrough.” She says, “Bill, who belonged to a church that emphasized ritual over personal relationship with Christ, sought help from his pastor, who told him ‘We don’t do that in our church’” (14). She describes how she appealed to Bill about needing a “vital relationship with Jesus Christ.” She then describes how Bill later took his life at 48 (14).
Before responding, we want the reader to know that we have not written about psychotropic medications except to say that they are over-prescribed and over-used. The doctors who prescribe them too readily are in error and the patients who clamor for their use are equally to blame. Our concern is that Hendrickson is sending a mixed message to both those who are already on psych meds and those who may consider using them. It is a contradictory and confusing message.
This is obviously a true story, but we have serious problems with it. First, she contrasts herself getting off the psychotropic medication through biblical means with Bill, who remained on medication and ended up suiciding. Granted, Laura gives “A Word of Caution” at the end for those on medication. However, such a dramatic contrast between her biblical means of change resulting in her being set free and Bill remaining on medication and committing suicide could easily tempt her readers who are on medications to do what she did, i.e., she “stopped taking them [the medications].” As she says, “It was the medicine that went off the bridge instead of me!” and, as a result, she responds, “the Bible has truly set me free” (14, 15). Laura’s dramatic contrast, even with her word of caution, could tempt readers, seeking to be set free, to stop taking their medications and to toss their medicines “off the bridge.” Some very vulnerable readers will more likely do what she did (toss the drugs) than follow what she said (word of caution).
The second problem we have is with what she says about her pastor. Her story leads one to believe that her pastor tells all those in similar circumstances the same thing. A person on medication would be sorely tempted to toss them “off the bridge” as Laura did in response to her pastor saying that:
Christ had come to set me free from mental agony like this, and that if I looked to Him for victory over my tormenting thoughts, He would enable me to begin thinking thoughts that led to peace instead of despair (13).
Laura’s response to his word was “I felt flooded by a sense of peace” (13). Excuse the pun, but this is pretty heady stuff. A woman on drugs reading Laura’s story about a pastor promising that “He [Christ] would enable [the person on psych meds like Laura] to begin thinking thoughts that [lead] to peace instead of despair” and then reading about Laura being instantly “flooded by a sense of peace” would be tempted to drop her own use of drugs without a doctor’s supervision, just as Laura apparently did, in spite of what she cautioned. The many pastors who would speak likewise would be confirmed in Laura’s pastor’s approach, especially as experienced and recommended by Laura, a “diplomate of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology.” With those pastors who repeat Laura’s pastor’s litany and promises, many serious and disastrous results could occur, maybe even some suicides.
Laura’s story implies that if people just think biblically their mood problems will go away and it further implies that if anyone is depressed it’s because that person is not thinking godly thoughts. This may be true in some cases. However, some of the most-used saints of the past suffered from depression. For instance, Charles Haddon Spurgeon suffered severely lifelong from a number of diseases including depression. Was Spurgeon depressed because he was not thinking biblically? The depth of Spurgeon’s spiritual walk with the Lord and his biblical thinking can even be seen in his suffering letters, sermons, and devotional writings where he talks about how God uses suffering, including depression, to mature and perfect His saints, that they might be conformed to the image of Christ. Women reading Laura’s story who continue on psych meds and/or continue to be depressed could actually end up feeling condemned rather than encouraged to seek the Lord to work spiritual growth in them even through the suffering.
In describing Bill’s church, Laura says that it was “a church that emphasized ritual over personal relationship with Christ.” Laura says that Bill sought help from his pastor and she quotes his pastor as saying, “We don’t do that in our church” (14). It is hard to tell if Laura is saying that all ritually oriented churches emphasize “ritual over personal relationship with Christ” or that only Bill’s church was guilty of this. In either case, we doubt that Bill’s church and pastor would say that they emphasize “ritual over personal relationship with Christ.” All churches have some level and form of ritual. However, we know of no church that would say that they emphasize ritual over a personal relationship with Christ. Since we do not know Bill’s church, we cannot say for sure. However, it is somewhat certain they would not agree with Laura’s accusation of “ritual over personal relationship with Christ.”
No one knows what Bill said to his pastor, so the pastor’s response, even if Bill accurately heard and remembered what he said, may have been appropriate. If Bill told his pastor about Laura’s experience with her pastor, including the fact that she was on psych meds, what Laura’s pastor promised, and the fact that she stopped taking her meds, Bill’s pastor’s response may have been very appropriate. Laura’s testimony of success may actually have had as negative an impact on Bill’s thinking as his own pastor’s comments. No one can say that if Bill had changed churches, gone to Laura’s church, heard what her pastor said and followed it, that he would not have committed suicide. Think of all the individuals who have never taken psych meds and committed suicide. Also, think of all those individuals who have been on psych meds, stopped taking them even with the help of a doctor, and committed suicide.
Laura’s testimony as an introduction to the rest of the book misleads women. The great mistake she makes is not about what God can do regarding the “spectrum of emotional difficulties, from mild to severe” (15), including “depression, anxiety & other troubling emotions” (cover), but rather what God will do. The fact that God has allowed many saints of the past to suffer painful emotions should have been enough for Laura and her coauthor, Elyse Fitzpatrick, to exercise restraint in their hyped up puffing of promises in this section and throughout the book.
*Endnote: Laura Hendrickson and Elyse Fitzpatrick. Will Medicine Stop the Pain? Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2006, back cover. Hereafter, page references are given in parentheses within the text.
(PsychoHeresy Awareness Letter, September-October 2009, Vol. 17, No. 5)