We’re increasingly aware of our mental health. It’s a constant discussion on our news cycles. We hear that those experiencing homelessness are mentally ill. Young men who commit school shootings are mentally ill. We hear the next generation is more mentally ill than previous generations. We fear it. Then again, we also experience it ourselves, so we wonder what that means about us.
It’s unfortunate that we typically focus on mental illness, rather than health. When someone mentions “mental health” your mind probably goes to anxiety, suicide, and your friend who just started taking medicine. Our medical mindset leads us to perceive the world in terms of problems, diagnoses, and treatments. This is great if you’re working in the ER, but becomes problematic in the regular world of people, thoughts, and emotions.
Mental health is the second topic in our discussion of Wholistic Spiritual Health.Let me define each of these briefly. By wholistic, we mean all encompassing. We’re looking at how to pursue spiritual health in all areas of life. Spirituality is simply the search for meaning in life. It could refer to the pursuit of God or living in the Spirit for Christians, or it could just refer to the desire for purpose. Health entails more than the absence of illness; it’s the presence of vitality and life! Combined together, our series is about finding a meaningful spiritual health in every aspect of our lives. It’s connecting the everyday parts of our lives to the deeper purposes we desire to live by and the God who made us. The blog this quarter will follow our Wednesday night topics.
Furthermore, spiritual communities in particular can struggle to talk about mental health issues for a number of reasons. First, is a simple lack of training. Mental health is its own field of study that most leaders will not have received much training in. Second, people don’t always know how to connect what they know spiritually to what they know about mental health. Unfortunately, spiritual communities can take too simple of an approach, teaching that prayer or faith will always change your mental health. On the other side, secular counseling often leaves out spiritual beliefs as a road toward healing.
I’ve had the blessing of receiving amazing training in both biblical studies, and marriage and family counseling. There are lots of misconceptions about mental health. Some come from a place of fear, while others come from a misinformed desire to help. Both can lead to additional problems of shame, guilt, and fear.
Here are 3 things you should know about mental health:
1. Mental Health is a spectrum, not a category.
A common misunderstanding is people thinking about mental health or illness in terms of categories. You are either healthy or ill; someone either has depression or they don’t. That’s understandable because some of this is directly from mental health providers and doctors. However, there have always been people dissenting this view and opinion is changing steadily. The newest addition of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual includes a much more spectrum-oriented approach. The need for categories in insurance, diagnosis, and treatment purposes remains a necessary evil. Unfortunately, these changes in perspective take longer to trickle down to the general public.
Nonetheless, the reality remains that we are all on the spectrum of any given disorder. We all have anxious thoughts, depressed feelings, and experience mood swings. These are not categorically different than the person diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. It’s a difference of degree. We all experience both mental health and illness.
2. Mental health doesn’t define who you are.
This point flows out of the first. If you experience mental health issues, that’s not the totality of who you are. The guy down the street who’s struggling with paranoid delusions, that’s not the totality of who he is either.
You’re a good friend; he’s generous. You’re hilarious; he could teach you a few things.
We hear messages telling us that people havedepression. They aredepressed. You are more than the diagnoses we’ve created! The people around you are more! Don’t simplify their complicated, messy, beautiful life into one word. These things don’t define a person and they also don’t determine what a person does, their worth, value, or what their life can mean. Mental health issues can be debilitating, however, you can also lead an incredibly rich, purposeful life.
3. Mental health changes.
Our mental health is not static; it’s dynamic. Our minds and bodies are created to adapt and change. Our experiences, thoughts, and behaviors all effect and are affected by our biology. We’ve bought into a disease model of mental health that tells us we have inherited the disease of depression, anxiety, etc. This doesn’t actually line up with what we know about how our biology works.
We all inherit certain predispositions towards health or disorders due to our unique biology. That biology changes throughout our life because of our thoughts, emotions, diets, spiritual beliefs, relationships, and more. The state of your thoughts or emotions give you a snap shot of what you’re experiencing right now. They don’t determine the rest of your life. Often times, people believe they must cope with the mental health they’ve been given. This may be true to some degree and especially in extreme cases, however, this is not the entire truth. You can experience significant change.
As you pursue mental health, do so with less guilt and shame. We all experience moments and extended periods of illness. Use all of your resources to pursue the future you desire: counseling, behavioral changes, spiritual beliefs, community relationships, and yes medicine at times (and be thankful to God for it!). Avoiding illness or coping with illness is not the goal. We want health!
Next week’s topic will discuss how we move forward toward health.