‘It’s all in your head,’ mental illness in a Christian community

In Features, Latest News by Savanah Duffy

A large, aged-looking world map hangs on the wall of her small but cozily-furnished apartment room. There are 47 blue tacks pressed into the map, marking off each state and country she has traveled to. Surrounding the map are patches from various parts of the world: England, Switzerland, Ireland, The Netherlands, Vatican, Austria, Thailand, the Bahamas and other countries. She has driven, flown and hiked with friends, family, and on most occasions by herself.

But on this day, this adventurous young woman is not driving across the country or lounging with tigers in Thailand, as the photographs in her room show her doing. Instead, bio-chemistry major Meghan Campbell is curled up under her bed, hiding among the Harry Potter books and scuba gear she stashes there, wrapped in her deep red comforter and trying desperately to wait for her anti-anxiety pill to kick in as she fights back the uncontrollable panic attack that had been rising in her that afternoon.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety is a normal reaction to stress for most people, but when it becomes excessive, it can become difficult to control and may have a negative impact on a person’s ability to function normally on a day-to-day basis. The NIMH states that anxiety disorders are among the most common mental disorders experienced by Americans. A study done in 2005 showed that 42.2 percent of those with an anxiety disorder were receiving treatment.

The use of medication to treat psychological and behavioral disorders is on the rise, according to America’s State of Mind Report by Medco Health Solutions, Inc., with an increase of 22 percent from 2001 to 2010. Furthermore, data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys from 2005-2008 show an increase of nearly 400 percent in the use of antidepressants for all age groups.

Campbell’s most recent panic attack, the one that left her hyperventilating and in tears under her bed, was triggered by heightened anxiety and depression that was occurring as her  doctors were trying to readjust her medication since Campbell had reported feeling “off” recently. Campbell says she had attempted using behavioral methods such as consciously reminding herself of her worth and the good things in her life before taking the anti-anxiety medication, but to no avail.

Campbell’s struggles with depression, anxiety and ADHD stem from an uncommon source of distress. According to Campbell, she first experienced mental health issues when she reached high school and began experiencing severe pain throughout her body. Ripped away from her generally active lifestyle that included gymnastics, rock climb, surfing and dancing, Campbell found herself more isolated and having to cope with her newly discovered plethora of physical disorders.

According to Campbell, she was diagnosed with Ehlers Danlos, a “zebra” disease in which the impacted individual will experience extreme pain, but will often display symptoms of anxiety, depression, and ADHD; fibromyalgia, which causes extreme sensitivity to pressure and is linked to chronic fatigue; and Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome, which is an autonomic disorder that can cause an individual’s blood pressure to drop, heart rate to spike, and potentially cause the individual to pass out.

Campbell was then put on over 15 different medications, including narcotics, OxyContin and three different antidepressants. After achieving no relief from her pain, she decided to “cold turkey” all of the medications at once, resulting in a dangerous swelling in her brain and prompting doctors to put her on Prednisone (anti-inflammatory medication). Prednisone was combined with some of Campbell’s older medications to help ween her off of medications entirely.

It was Prednisone’s side effect of suicidal ideations that resulted in Campbell’s refusal to touch any other medications for pain or mental health once she had detoxed under the care of her doctors. Thinking it made her weak to accept medication for her depression, Campbell waited a month and a half before changing her mind.

“It’s honestly sometimes a difference of being strong enough to realize that some of this, or a lot of this, isn’t your fault,” says Campbell. “And a lot of this doesn’t mean you’re not strong; in fact, you’re strong enough to realize that this [medication] helps.”

Now, Campbell carries around a small tin box separated into two compartments—one to hold the small white pills for her nerve pain, and the other to hold the blue Adderall pills for her ADHD. The box is decorated with a pin-up girl in a magician’s cape and a caption that reads “My Magic Pills Get Me Through Another Day of Your Bulls***.” The box was a gift from Campbell’s best friend who also struggles with anxiety.

Despite the rise in medicated treatment of both depression and anxiety in America, hesitation to accept such aid is a common occurrence.

For PLNU alum Erin DePuy, medication would have been a clear sign of weakness to her family, though she was struggling with suicidal thoughts as young as 12 years old.

According to DePuy, terms such as “pathetic,” “weak” and “too much” were used by her mother and sister to describe her, despite the fact that depression is a hereditary issue in her family.

DePuy began wondering if her depression and suicidal ideals were something that other people felt, but never discussed, or if there was something wrong with her.

By the time DePuy was in college, her grades and ability to focus on school work were also reflecting her struggle with symptoms of ADD.

“I thought that was a part of my personality, that when I studied I couldn’t retain information and that was my fault, and there was something wrong with my brain,” said DePuy.

During DePuy’s senior year at PLNU, she took Professor Diana Sjostrom’s Group Dynamics class, and that was when Dr. Sjostrom encouraged DePuy to see a professional therapist off campus. DePuy attended therapy with an organization she prefers not to mention. After eight months with minimal results and being told that she did not need medication, but simply needed to “love herself more,” she eventually stopped attending.

“It doesn’t help that there’s a certain part of the Christian culture that is very much like, ‘You just need to give it to God, lay all your burdens down and He will heal you’ and, ‘You need to pray more.’” DePuy says that such comments had “unintentionally” affirmed that she did not have enough faith to be healed.

After approximately eight months without therapy, DePuy, at this point graduated, chose to return to Dr. Sjostrom for counseling for her persisting depression. According to DePuy, it was Sjostrom who assured her that her struggles with mental health made sense given the hereditary condition of depression in DePuy’s family.

“If it’s [depression] on your DNA, it’s like if you’re allergic to strawberries, you can’t have a shame about that, you just are allergic to strawberries,” says Sjostrom.  She says it is not appropriate to have shame about getting depressed from a significant amount of stress either. “It’s the same kind of thing,” she says.

In a phone interview, Rebecca Bass-Ching, founder and CEO of Potentia Family Therapy in San Diego discusses integrative medicine, which takes into account the whole person—mind, body and soul. Though Potentia does not prescribe medication, they work closely with psychiatrists who study, research and prescribe medication. While DePuy may have been experiencing a lack of support in the Christian community, Bass-Ching sees the same issue elsewhere as well.

“I think it goes even beyond the faith community, too,” says Bass-Ching. “There’s become a general distrust of medicine and doctors and a fear of even just the stigma of taking medication; ‘I’m not understanding, am I gonna be addicted to this or stuck with having to take it my whole life?’”

Dr. Kim Schaeffer of the PLNU Department of Psychology says that sometimes, therapy is simply not enough when there is a chemical imbalance in the brain, which makes the use of medication necessary. While Schaeffer says that some severe anxiety disorders require medication, such as agoraphobia, mild cases of anxiety do not necessarily require Xanax or similar medication.

“Just to give somebody Xanax if they’re anxious, for mild anxiety, is just the equivalent of giving them a six-pack,” says Schaeffer.

At the same time, Schaeffer and Sjostrom maintain that someone who is suffering from more extreme cases of anxiety, such as panic attacks, may need that anti-anxiety medication.

While Schaeffer has kept he view through the years that prescribing medication is necessary when there is a chemical imbalance in an individual, he has realized that just because someone has the proper medical license does not make that individual a solid professional to turn to for medication advice. Schaeffer says that sometimes poor diagnoses are made.

Sjostrom agrees with Schaeffer and says that prescribing the wrong medication for someone can lead to worse effects than the actual depression or original issue.

In an attempt to receive psychiatric help, Campbell experienced a poor diagnosis by a psychologist firsthand when she went to see a doctor at UC Irvine.

“He basically said to my mom, ‘I don’t think there’s anything wrong with your daughter other than she’s a narcissist and is doing this to try and get attention, so I’m going to diagnose her with narcissistic personality disorder, and there’s nothing wrong with her health-wise,” says Campbell.

The following month, Campbell was informed she would be paralyzed if she did not receive an emergency surgery on her neck. The psychologist who had claimed Campbell was a narcissist then retracted his earlier diagnosis, Campbell said.

This misdiagnosis is one of the reasons Campbell refuses to see a psychologist today, and sticks to medication alone.

For DePuy, on the other hand, the combination of medication and psychiatric help was what she needed. After upping her dosage to 40 mg, the highest legal dosage for her particular medication, and continuing in therapy, DePuy finally felt, in her words, “hopeful.”

Today, DePuy’s mother takes the exact same dosage of the same medication for depression as DePuy does, despite DePuy never telling her mother she was on medication. Though she had been told by some in the Christian community that she needed more faith to rid herself of her depression, this similarity in medication usage has only reaffirmed DePuy’s realization that her depression is more than a faith issue; it is a result of genetics.

According to Sjostrom, claiming a lack of faith as the reason behind someone’s depression is an uneducated response.

“I had faith before,” says Campbell. “And I guess the way people in the Christian community treated me and… the fact that their answer to everything was just ‘Oh pray about it and it will get better,’ completely destroyed it and I have no faith anymore in the Christian god.”

Campbell still holds a belief that there is some form of higher power, though she does not see herself becoming involved again in the church or “organized religion.”

Regardless of the backlash from some in the Christian community, DePuy holds on to her faith in God.

“I learned and realized that God wants me to live,” says DePuy. “God does not want me to suffer. It wasn’t that God was waiting for me to pull myself together.”

Though their spiritual journeys may look different, Campbell and DePuy are grateful to medication for the lives they live now. According to Campbell, those blue pins stuck into her world map would not be there if not for her medication helping her through each day. As for DePuy, she claims the medication saved her life.

Campbell’s decision to stay away from both psychologists and the church stands in contrast to DePuy’s decision to do just the opposite. But Bass-Ching understands why that is.

“Healing looks very different for every person,” says Bass-Ching. “And there isn’t a one-size-fits-all for healing… I truly do believe everyone is doing the best they can.”

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