The Brain, an Organ It Is

Out of order, these words are. It wasn’t until I took a formal rhetoric course that I realized my favorite Star Wars character’s iconic phrases were examples of a classical rhetorical device traditionally used for emphasis. Anastrophe is the deliberate positioning of words outside of the normal order. Thus when Yoda says, “Powerful you have become; the dark side I sense in you,” the transposed word order places emphasis on power and dark side. The fact that Yoda always speaks with anastrophe highlights the emphasis the Star Wars franchise places on his character.

I’ve hit the mid-40s stretch of my life as a mother, a wife, a writer, and a teacher, and I’ve learned that many of the certainties I thought were set in stone are not so clear cut. Politically I’ve moved from a Tea-Party protester to a human rights advocate. Religiously I’ve transitioned from a certain faith in the Bible to a mysterious faith in God. Personally I’m struggling to parent a college student and deal with a hollow, empty nest. So it is that Anastrophe is a perfect metaphor for my life. The order that I thought was set in stone exists no longer.

One of these upheavals in certainty revolves around mental illness, particularly as it is viewed in the conservative Christian mindset. Praying and having faith isn’t enough — if it were, I would not have a daughter sitting on the edge of the precipice dealing with depression and suicidal ideation. I have prayed over her, with her, and through her, believing in faith that God would reach down and touch her. But he didn’t, and the Christian medi-share insurance we had at the time specifically excluded all mental health services, including counseling, psychiatric care, and inpatient and outpatient services. What is a person of faith to do when prayer and the Christian community fails? “Waiting on the Lord” is not an option when the waiting leads to suicide, especially when the overarching attitude of some church leaders toward mental illness assumes that depression and anxiety are symptoms of unconfessed sin, are the result of living in sin, or are sins in and of themselves.

The Brain Is An Organ, Too
Those who deny medical care for mental health are misinformed about the physical underpinnings of mental health. For much of the past century, Western thought has kept separate those bodily functions that can go awry, such as sugar metabolism, and those functions that direct and drive thoughts and emotions. The mind-body connection is complex and is still not fully understood. What is known is that depressed brains operate differently than non-depressed brains, as shown in these PET images (credit WebMD):

Size Matters
Additionally, the size of certain brain structures is related to depression. The hippocampus, cortex, and basal ganglia are smaller in size in people who are depressed. The number of nerve fibers in certain regions of the brain are also affected. Interestingly, brain imaging studies have shown that people treated with anti-depressant medications successfully experience growth both in the number of neurons and the size of these parts of the brain.

It is unclear whether the depression causes the structural changes in the brain or whether some outside source (some research indicates chronic stress) induces them. Certain genes have also been found to contribute a person’s risk of contracting depression.

Connection between migraines, anxiety, and depression
A 2016 study by Minen et al, shows that people who suffer from migraines are 2.5x more likely to develop depression than those who do not experience migraines. For patients who experience chronic migraines, the link is even greater. This suggests that the disorder causing the migraine is also causing the depression.

The link between anxiety disorders and migraines has also been observed. People who suffer from complex migraines are up to five times as likely to experience an anxiety disorder in their lifetime, especially generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or panic disorder.

Christian Medishare, We Did Drop
The research shows that Christian medi-share groups that exclude mental health services are operating on a comparative understanding as those who still treat fevers with leeches. So when my daughter developed major depressive disorder along with severe, chronic complex migraines, we dropped out and jumped into the Obamacare fray. It’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but at least it covers therapy and medication. One of my resolutions for 2018 is to advocate for those who suffer from mental illness. If this is you, take a note: Do not be ashamed. Your brain chemistry is not your fault. And if you are a Christian who views all mental illness as sin, research you must do lest the dark side be sensed in you.