Faith and Islam in The Age of Antidepressants

Without question, prescription drug use to remedy our insufferable moods has skyrocketed in the last few decades. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), antidepressant use has increased by 400% since the 1990’s. That figure alone should be cause enough for alarm for all us, Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

This is not an indictment on those who feel compelled to use medication to ease their suffering (including my friends and members of my own family). Rather, it’s in indictment on the misguided belief that such pills and potions are actually curing us of our existential ills and angsts. They are not. They are simply numbing us to life and that distinction cannot be emphasized enough.

Unfortunately, so many of us have simply accepted the use of antidepressants as necessary to quell the grief, anxiety and sorrow that hover like foreboding ghosts in our lives. Faith and God are no longer considered sufficient for us to endure the various trials and tribulations inherent to existence. Certainly, the psychiatric paradigm has little use for faith with its dogmatic insistence that chronic anxiety, depression and all else that assails our proverbial psyche are the results of chemical imbalances in the brain. And, yes, it is a dogmatic claim. Take, for instance, the following quote from a piece in The New Yorker from 2013:

“Despite their continued failure to understand how psychiatric drugs work, doctors continue to tell patients that their troubles are the result of chemical imbalances in their brains. As Frank Ayd pointed out, this explanation helps reassure patients even as it encourages them to take their medicine, and it fits in perfectly with our expectation that doctors will seek out and destroy the chemical villains responsible for all of our suffering, both physical and mental. The theory may not work as science, but it is a devastatingly effective myth.”

For all the rampant use of antidepressants such as Zoloft, Paxil, Prozac, etc., the actual science behind them is not only suspect, but may be categorically wrong as well. The commonly held notion that depression is the result of low serotonin levels in the brain is, at the very least, an antiquated notion. It’s also imperative to note that placebos are close to 40% as effective as antidepressants.

However, what all this rampant prescription drug use is doing is numbing us from both the necessary joy and suffering inherent to our lives. It is also turning us into inadvertent addicts at the behest of our, albeit, well-intentioned, but often naive doctors. According to Brene Brown, a professor of Social Work at the University of Houston famous for her TED Talk:

“We are the most addicted, we are the most medicated, obese and indebt adult cohort in human history.”

Worse, suicide is a secret epidemic. Even amid all the gun violence and mass shootings, suicides still outnumber murders 2 to 1 according to the Center for Disease Control. Things are clearly not right in our so-called modern world and the pharmaceutical methods we desperately cling to have failed us.

The Case For Faith

 “Trust in God, but tie your horse’s leg.” – Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)

I certainly don’t believe that one can simply pray their way out of anguish or sorrow. It requires work, sometimes arduous, painful work. In many respects, faith is synonymous with endurance. In Islam we are taught to gracefully endure our mental and physical burdens. In fact, endurance, patience and gratitude are hallmarks for all the major religion traditions including Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, etc. In the Quran we are told:

“Your Lord has neither left you, nor despises you. What is to come is better for you than what has gone before for your Lord will certainly give you, and you will be content. Did he not find you an orphan and take care of you? Did he not find you perplexed and show you the way? Did he not find you poor and enrich you? So do not oppress the orphan and do not drive the beggar away and keep recounting the favors of your Lord.” – Quran, 93:2-11

This specific Surah was directed at the Prophet (pbuh) in his own moments of anguish and grief and also has universal implications for all of us. Not only does it assuage and avail our own sufferings by insisting on patience, gratitude and compassion, these verses also demonstrate that even our beloved Prophet (pbuh) suffered, but steadfastly held onto the reigns of faith and gracefully endured. As Muslims, this is the example we must follow.

While I do believe that offering empty prayers in any time of need often proves insufficient in addressing all that we may suffer, it’s not the prayers themselves that are at fault. It is the inherent lassitude involved in such mindless efforts. Certainly, saying our daily prayers, performing zikr and meditating on God are a boon to our psyche and can remedy the chronic stress that fuels our modern, maddening pace of life provided we remain steadfast and consistent in our efforts. In this sense, praying is not wishful thinking, it is actively engaging our soul with our Creator, giving us reprieve from the burdens of the world.

Speaking of effort, we are told and taught to battle with the negative aspects of ourselves, our nafs so to speak, not accept them as facts of life. Even something as simple as 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise is proven to be more effective than taking antidepressants according to this study done at Duke University. Some may object and argue that even something as simple as exercise requires a Herculean effort. That is the battle we must fight with faith and with fortitude. Despair is not an option.

Faith and Addiction

If any of you have a friend or family member recovering from addiction, chances are you’re, at least, somewhat acquainted with the twelve steps associated with Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. Aside from the very first step of acknowledging the addiction, the very next steps require the recognition of a Higher Power, i.e., God and putting one’s faith and trust in this Higher Power.

Many of you might object with the argument that drug addicts and alcoholics are not the same as individuals on antidepressant medications. While the consequences of such obvious addicts are easier to discern the goals are the same: An ardent desire to quell the fatigue, the gloom, the despair. As a society, we’ve simply accepted some forms of addictions as more palatable and, therefore, acceptable as long as a doctor has scribbled it on a notepad. However, the motivations are the same. Any honest addict will tell you the goal is not to feel good, but to stop feeling bad. Addicts genuinely seeking help are also at rock bottom. Many have already spent a lifetime contending with the maze of excuses and rationalizations to avoid confronting their sufferings head on. Unfortunately, the same is not true for many people on antidepressants. The actual causes of their anguish and sorrow have been swept beneath the medicated rug.

Depression, anxiety, stress, etc., are not new phenomena.   Suffering in all its various guises is inherent to existence and has been around since the Fall. How we go about enduring all our trials and tribulations is a testament of faith and who we are as human beings. Viktor Frankl, no stranger to suffering as a Holocaust survivor, puts it quite succinctly in his seminal work, Man’s Search For Meaning:

“It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.”

“What is to give light must endure burning.”

It also must be noted that Frankl believed faith in God an imperative even though he lost almost his entire family in the Holocaust including his beloved wife.

No pill or potion can avail us of our suffering no matter the popularity of such false remedies. Faith is not offered as some easy platitude, but as a necessary way to orient ourselves toward the proverbial light and away from all the encroaching darkness around us. Amen.