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“Depression is real, and it is serious, but it is not a simple biological disease like diabetes.”
A recent Op-ed in the LA Times provides us a unique opportunity to take a look at the common cultural assumption (promoted by some even within academia) that mental illnesses are reducible to biological problems, with no recognition of the biblical concept of the “heart” or “soul.” I decided to take this opportunity to write a response for your sake, so as to provide one example of how, as Christians, we might think about these incredibly complex and admittedly difficult topics.
“It wasn’t Andreas Lubitz who flew a plane into a mountain; it was his disease.” This was the pull quote from a recent op-ed piece in the LA Times reacting to the tragic crash of a Germanwings airplane that killed 150 people, including Lubitz. The article promotes the idea that Lubitz was not a mass-murderer, but a victim of a disease. I found this bold and brash op-ed by a professor at Stanford to be an opportunity to address this cultural assumption that simply cannot be ignored. First, let me identify a couple of statements in the article that are not only true and insightful, but important for all of us—regardless of religion or philosophy—to recognize.
1. “Major depression is enormously dangerous to its sufferers.”
2. “Despite the supreme rarity of Lubitz’s manifestations of depression, it is a staggeringly common disease.”
3. “No one is able to overcome that little-ol’ problem just by showing some gumption.”
Depression is incredibly common, incredibly dangerous, and cannot oftentimes be overcome through sheer willpower. However, the truth of all of these facts does not justify the fundamental thesis of Dr. Sapolsky’s article: that depression is a biological disease (exactly the same as juvenile diabetes) and that Lubitz was simply an innocent sufferer.
It is appalling given Dr. Sapolsky’s résumé that he would equate depression with juvenile diabetes and so seek to mislead the general public on the known conclusions of neuroscience. Depression is real, and it is serious, but it is not a simple biological disease like diabetes. Stephen Stahl, in his classic textbook, Essential Psychopharmacology, 3rd Edition, puts the conclusion of modern psychiatry quite plainly: “mental illnesses are defined as mixtures of symptoms packaged into syndromes….Thus, mental illnesses are not diseases.”
Not only does Dr. Sapolsky misrepresent the science, but he gets the question of morality even more wrong. The presence of significant depressive symptoms does not provide a pass from moral liability. While our justice systems may try to parse out intent and motive to determine appropriate punishment, for God to distinguish between the murder motivated by hatred and the murder motivated by hopelessness would simply be unjust. My heart breaks for young Andreas, for the pain he felt and the hopelessness he experienced. I can’t imagine the desperation and soul-crushing weight of his depression. Like many of us, his experience was probably precipitated by a genetic predisposition and a number of environmental “triggers.” But what Dr. Sapolsky cannot see, indeed cannot understand, was that Andreas’ heart was a significant causal component of his experience as well. His self-absorption and sin were also important contributions to his choice to research ways to kill himself and the mechanisms of a cockpit door, as well as his choice to kill 149 people. And, while suicide robs us of justice in this world, we (and the families of all of those killed) can be assured that it does not prevent God’s holy and perfect justice.
My only hope and prayer is that on the way down, like the thief on the cross, Andreas called out to Christ and sought forgiveness for what he had set in motion. If so, the Bible assures us that the wrath of God that Andreas deserved for his mass-murder was poured out on Christ, and that he truly can be forgiven. This is my prayer, because if the justice of God was not poured out on Christ, it surely will be poured out on Andreas. For, before both a loving and righteous God Andreas will bear the blame for his choices, not his “disease.”
Scott serves the church by overseeing leadership, development, global ministries, and counseling/discipleship.
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