Giles Fraser, pills and depression: dangerous simplicity and the image of a complex God

In the last few days a major British newspaper published on its website (and in print, presumably) an article by one of the country’s better known priests. Giles Fraser’s career has been studded with controversy, media exposure and challenging output. I can’t claim to always (or even often) agree with him, but whilst not always appreciating the way he’s expressed himself I admit to valuing his voice. He’s from the liberal end of the Church Of England spectrum, prone to political engagement and theological questioning. We need such voices. However his latest column, which he publishes regularly for the same paper, carries with it such a dangerous capacity to damage and destroy that it simply has to be challenged. I’m tempted not to link to it because I don’t want to provide it more publicity. However I’ve chosen to (you can find it by clicking on these words in brackets) because it’s easily available and to save time for those who want more than one side to the story.

The article is a disastrous attempt to challenge the medication often given to those diagnosed with depression and ADHD. His concern appears to be that we are in danger of flattening out our society; that those who don’t quite fit in may be given medication to make them fit. I understand the concern; we naturally want to explain away that which challenges us. Sadly that’s exactly the trap which Fraser’s column falls into in the midst of a no doubt originally laudable desire to challenge the power of pharmaceutical companies and a greying of multi-coloured societies.

However this article was intended, let’s clear up some misunderstandings that have flowed from it. Depression is not sadness. You can be happy, but still depressed. You can have a good life and still be depressed. Depression is an illness, not a mood-swing or feeling a bit down. It is a chemical imbalance, often but by no means always precipitated by the circumstances of life. Medication often helps restore the chemical imbalance enabling the sufferer to function more healthily. Whilst some medications will have unwanted side-effects, they will more often save lives. They will stop people from committing suicide.

On ADHD, the point is similar. I understand the fear. I know people who are diagnosed with this. I have heard them say that sometimes they don’t like the way the medication seems to dull sense or sap colour. That’s a real issue. However none of them refrain from taking the medication. There is an understanding that these medications help the ones diagnosed live the family lives and work lives and leisure lives they want.

Giles Fraser is an intelligent man. Often he challenges us by pointing out complexities we want to iron out; that’s what he’s trying to do here. Unfortunately this attempt backfires. Badly. We are complex beings made in the image of a complex God who can only be understood in the context of an eternal relationship of self-giving love flowing from one part of the Godhead to another. Just trying to get that into our heads fries our circuits. We are made in the image of that astonishingly complex God. My mind, my soul, my body all interact with each other in ways I can’t comprehend. Throw in my sin, the sin of others around me and the general brokenness of creation and it’s beyond me, beyond all of us. Some of us get depressed, some of us sail through life. Some of us need medication to put our minds on an even keel, a regular dose to save us from the deliberate overdose. Others need medication for stomach or arm or chest.

I am no doctor. I am not a chemist or a businessman. There are ethics within the medical arena which I do not understand but often trouble me. Giles Fraser is right to challenge these. He does so in such a way that subtly, unintentionally leads to guilt not freedom and as a result of which some will toy with withdrawing from medication they desperately need. Those people will already being hearing the message  – from themselves or others – that are they weak, that they are failures, that they shouldn’t need medication, that they just need to play the hand they have been dealt.

That message is a lie. God heals through the miraculous intervention of both prayer and pills. Expensive tablets bring profit to people who have convinced themselves they need more when in fact they need less. That is a serious sickness with complex causes and complex solutions. So is depression. Sometimes people are misdiagnosed for cancer; sometimes for depression. Misdiagnosis and the reasons for it should be explored and challenged. They should be challenged in such a way as to bring healing and liberation. That takes time and space, and many more words than Giles Fraser used. Just because one can say something succinctly doesn’t always mean one should. Go at the pace of the slowest, with the nuance the damaged and at risk need. Or don’t go at all.



One thought on “Giles Fraser, pills and depression: dangerous simplicity and the image of a complex God

  1. I’ve seen Giles defending (as far as he ever does) the column suggesting he wasn’t equating sadness with depression and although it took some doing, that wasn’t how I read it either. I believe depression is a disease and that sadness (whatever the cause) is not the same thing, and I think that’s what Giles was saying too. It is a badly emphasised piece and that’s where the danger here has arisen. I’d still rather anyone in doubt get help and advice, but I also would rather see less people mis-medicated as it were.

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