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Descriptions and Prescriptions: A Biblical Perspective on Psychiatric Diagnoses and Medication

Michael R. Emlet

Reviewed by: Daniel F. Patterson

Date posted: 12/30/2018

Descriptions and Prescriptions: A Biblical Perspective on Psychiatric Diagnoses and Medication, by Michael R. Emlet. New Growth Press, 2017. Paperback, 112 pages, $13.99. Reviewed by OP pastor Daniel F. Patterson.

The church has long been polarized over the issues of psychiatric diagnoses and the use of psychotropic medication. At one end, there are those who treat diagnosis and medication as the lion’s share of the work that needs to be done in the care of souls. On the other extreme end, there are those who seek to constantly undermine and minimize the helpfulness of descriptions and prescriptions for mental illness.

Into this highly polarized environment, Michael Emlet brings biblical balance and insight. In fact, Emlet’s treatment of these topics gives one hope that larger sectors of the church are moving away from a highly reactionary stance toward psychology and psychiatry to a more balanced, thoughtful place. This is not to say that Emlet embraces an unfettered acceptance of secularized psychological theory and practice. Far from it. However, he is unwilling to categorically deny the helpfulness of descriptions of mental illness provided in a resource like the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual or the benefit of psychoactive medication.

Descriptions and Prescriptions is divided into two parts. The first addresses the benefits and limits of psychiatric diagnosis. Several of the chapters warn the reader of the problems and pitfalls of psychiatric diagnosis, reminding us that “the diagnostic task, whether using biblical categories or secular ones, is never like following a simple recipe. Wisdom is key” (42). However, from here Emlet goes on to explain a number of benefits to the wise use of diagnosis: it can “organize suffering into categories that prompt focused attention” (43), “remind us that this person’s experience is indeed different from mine” (45), “suggest certain patterns of severity and danger” (46), and “remind us of a more central role of the body in a person’s struggle” (47). It is this sort of balanced approach to diagnosis that the church today desperately needs.

The second section provides the reader with an understanding of psychoactive medications, including their benefits and limitations. Emlet tempers our culture’s enthusiasm for a chemical cure for mental illness by highlighting a number of studies that remind us that, while medication does seem to have a modest effect, other forms of care and counsel have also been shown to be effective. Emlet summarizes the questions surrounding the use of medication in the title of chapter 14, “Walking the Wisdom Tightrope.” He reminds us, “It is profoundly dehumanizing to ignore the ‘heart’—our moral-spiritual disposition and responsibilities that go with that; and it is profoundly dehumanizing to ignore the body and the strengths and weaknesses that go with it” (71).

If you find yourself opposed to the use of psychological diagnosis and psychoactive medications, buy this book and read it. It will challenge you to rethink such a rigid stance. If you find yourself readily accepting of descriptions and prescriptions, buy this book. It will help you to be more circumspect in your confidence. Emlet will not let us be content with shallow thinking on either end of the debate. He wants to bring us to the biblical middle.

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