Should Christians use anti-depressants? Part 3: Navigating a culture of therapeutic narcissism

By Rev. Dr Simon Jooste

The proclamation of the crucified Christ and the cost of Christian discipleship is folly to the world. This is because the world, particularly Western culture, naturally gravitates towards a theology of glory. Whether atheist or not, most forms of modern Western spirituality exalt human autonomy to the exclusion of God, excuse sin and shun suffering. Accordingly, there is an attraction to a medical model that reduces emotional experience and well-being to mere biology: the a-moral firing of neurons or secretions of serotonin. In this view, man is merely another soul-less animal in a morally indifferent universe, having power to re-create, the ability to write his own script. With moral straps loosened, the sky is the limit for experiencing “happiness” in this life. This has led some to describe the ethic of the age as one of pragmatic narcissism (longing for a state of bliss): the triumph of the therapeutic. Practical success is a suffering-free and pleasure-filled individual experience. Prozac can become yet another form of therapy for tangible existential results. Neither practitioner nor patient remains unaffected by the spirit of this age.

Re-defining illness

Coupled with the tendency in modern psychiatry to locate mental/emotional malfunctions in the body alone, the narcissistic push for pleasurable well-being invariably widens the diagnostic pool for so-called mental and other illnesses. Accordingly, health and wholeness looks and feels something like how the World Health Organization put it in 1946: “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. Indicative of this trend in recent decades is the work of Dr Peter D. Kramer, who has argued categorically that depression is an illness rooted in the physiology of the brain alone. In his book, Against Depression, he campaigns to eradicate depression altogether, just as medicine once eradicated smallpox. Although some forms of depression may have physical roots, Kramer is illustrative of a trend toward labelling every form of sadness as sickness (and thus eligible for medication such as Prozac). Accordingly, appropriate grief over the passing of a loved one is now considered a form of illness that must be medicated. Likewise, healthy mourning over sin is considered questionable. The medical community and its view of self are threatening to redefine normal emotions and temperament. But for the limits of medical advance, every effort is made to reshape and reform all those who fall short of complete well-being – if not make them better than well.

The happy and triumphant self

Organically related to the redefinition of illness, and drawing upon the same a priori assumptions, is the leveraging of Prozac for re-creating the happy and triumphant self, for better personal performance. With drugs such as Prozac and more powerful ones on the horizon, comes the possibility of designer personalities through cosmetic psychopharmacology. As supposed “masters and possessors of nature”, man is able to refashion parts of his psyche that don’t suit him. Thus, for example, the under-endowed melancholy personality potentially gets a sanguine boost from Prozac.

A close cousin to the above modern current is something socially akin to steroid use in the athletic arena. Like athletes who soar above their natural abilities through the use of anabolic steroids, Prozac is arguably being used in some instances to enhance individual performance in society. Society defines optimal performance as emotionally upbeat resilience and pressures its members to conform accordingly (for a happy and pleasurable existence). As a result, the accounting clerk looks to Prozac to avoid emotional dips on the job and better position herself for making manager one day. The mother of three turns to Prozac because society has no place for an anxious and frazzled, let alone depressed, individual. Prozac becomes the magic pill to meet the peer pressure of society: the collective drive for establishing heaven on earth.

Click here for Part 4: Towards restoration by sacred and common means

Part 1: Introduction

Part 2: Sin, suffering and bodily health

Simon Jooste is the pastor of Reformed Church Southern Suburbs.

This is an edited version of an essay that was first published in the Stellenbosch Theological Journal 2018, volume 4, number 1.