Often when we think or talk about mental health, we tend to think of the extreme – of the person who is so unwell as to require hospital admission either voluntarily or involuntary. On the contrary when it comes to physical health, it will be unthinkable to conceptualise it in terms of a broken arm or a broken leg.
Our view of mental health is therefore skewed or biased toward illness. But is that all there is to mental health? Is there not more to mental health than mental illness?
Mental health is defined as:
“…the emotional and spiritual resilience which allows us to enjoy life and survive pain, disappointments and sadness. It is a positive sense of wellbeing and an underlying belief in our own and others dignity and worth.” (Health Education Authority, 1997).
In another definition, mental health is also said to influence:
“…how we think and feel about ourselves and others and how we interpret events. It affects our capacity to learn, to communicate and to form, sustain and end relationships. It also influences our ability to cope with change, transition and life events, having a baby, moving house, experiencing bereavement.” (Friedi.L 2004).
Without attempting to over simplify it, to me, these definitions point to our ordinary, everyday experiencing of life in relationships – our experience of joy, laughter, happiness, sorrow or sadness. They also highlight our humanity and our frailty, pointing to the ever changing circumstances of life that affect us all, either for good or for bad.
As the writer of Ecclesiastes in the Bible puts it:
“I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.” Ecc. 9:11 (KJV)
In reality those factors that can bring a person of a sound mind into the realm of mental instability or even mental illness affect all humans whether Christian or non Christian, rich or poor, educated or uneducated.
These factors range from genetics to chemical imbalances in the brain, trauma, childbirth, bereavement, transitions in life, long term physical illness, stress and even the weather. Such is the complexity of human life that mental illness is not easily explained by any one single field of human search for knowledge.
In real life, there is a very fine line between mental illness and mental health. In my own brief life, it saddens me when I remember at least two people that I have known personally, who later turned out to become completely “mad” in the real sense of the word through life circumstances. I recall years ago as I struggled at the crossroad of a major decision in my life, I found myself in deep emotional turmoil and finding the hope for living slipping away slowly on the inside. I am sure that you may also have faced situations in your own life which may have involved deep hurt, disappointment, shame, guilt or some form of mental distress or emotional anguish. Oh that God may help us to value and to treasure this precious life He has given us!
One of the beauties I find in God’s account of human life in the Bible is how He portrays the weakness of heroes at the same time as their achievements.
So where does this leave the Christians? What hope does the Christian faith offer in our experience of mental health? What has the Bible got to teach us about our mental health? We will turn our attention to these issues in our forthcoming discussions.