Medical Breakthroughs and the Dangers of Reductionism in Mental Health

 Theodora Hawksley

Last month saw the announcement of a new success in treating persistent and severe depression. In an experimental treatment at the University of California, San Francisco a 36 year-old woman, Sarah, was fitted with a brain implant which detected brain activity linked to her symptoms, and stimulated an area of her brain that alleviated them.

In a press conference, she said: “It was a gradual process, where my lens on the world changed,” she says. “As time has gone on, it’s been this virtuous cycle upwards – everything has gotten easier and easier. Hobbies became pleasurable again. Now, a year into therapy, the device has kept my depression at bay.”

The treatment is a long way from becoming widespread, as it involves mapping an individual’s brain circuitry to find the patterns associated with depressive symptoms, and personalising the stimulation needed. Nevertheless, the treatment provides hope that relief could be possible for people with the most intractable and severe depression.

Sarah, who received a brain implant for her depression, is attended by researcher Katherine Scangos at the University of California, San Francisco. Credit: Maurice Ramirez and U.C.S.F.


Depression is a widespread and growing challenge. In the six months before the Covid-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, an estimated 10% of UK adults experienced symptoms of depression; by March 2021, this rose to 21%. What roles do religion and religious communities play in the ways we think about depression? And what role might they play in supporting people living with mental health challenges?

In her book Christianity and Depression, Tasia Scrutton explores how some religious accounts of the causes and ‘cures’ for depression can be unhelpful. Telling someone that depression is caused by sin or lack of faith can make the person feel blamed for their depression. Adopting a solely religious explanation for depression can also distract from attention to other causes: if we believe a person’s illness is caused by demons, for example, we may be less likely to ask about the circumstances of their lives that contribute to depression, like insecure work, poor housing, or financial difficulties. ‘Spiritualising’ depression in this way can be unhelpful, if we think that ‘spiritual’ means not concrete, physical, or related to the ordinary circumstances of everyday life.

But if exclusively religious accounts can be problematic, so can reductively scientific ones. It is helpful to be reminded that we are bodily beings, and that depression can have its roots in chemical imbalance and can be successfully treated through medical interventions including drugs or electroconvulsive therapy. But if we insist that depression has a solely biological cause, and in every case needs treating on a solely biomedical level, we may miss the complexity of the factors that can cause depression, which can include psychological causes, like past trauma, or social causes like the existential insecurity faced by long-term asylum seekers. Today, most mental health engagement is ‘biopsychosocial’, taking into account biomedical, psychological and social elements in the diagnosis, treatment and accompaniment of people with depression.

What resources can religion or religious communities offer? Scrutton draws attention to the way that Christianity affirms human beings as bodily, without reducing us to our bodies, and affirms human beings’ social nature. Where local churches are strong communities, they can help advocate for and support self-care and social support, as well as wider action for social justice that can support those struggling with life circumstances.

Elijah, The Tishbite – Let’s Talk About Mental Health is a community outreach project organised by RCCG Royal City, Sevenoaks. The project is funded by ECLAS through the Scientists in Congregations programme. According to Adeyinka Oshin, a co-director of the project, the aim is to create a conducive forum to talk about mental health and receive help to recover. The project is based on the mental health challenge of Prophet Elijah (1 Kings 19: 1 – 21) and the practical strategies of diet, sleep, retreat, new information, new perspective, new assignments, and new relationships that helped him to recover and continue with his life.



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