As mentioned when I said I’m a mess, I was preparing a talk on mental health, so I did some research. My focus was restricted to anxiety and depression as these are areas with which I have had personal experience.
I just love this definition of mental health which really sets a different standard for measuring and defining mental illness:
“a state of well-being in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.” Source
Jesus said this also in stating why he came to the earth:
“I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” John 10:10
So rather than being about ‘what’s the problem?’ it’s really about ‘what’s going well?’
”Mental health is about wellness rather than illness” source
I LOVE the idea of a continuum for identifying mental wellness, where there are stages of neediness and different approaches required depending on the need and the symptoms. There can be ways a person increases their risk of being ill, in the same way smoking can increase your risk of lung cancer or a sedentary lifestyle can increase your risk of Type 2 diabetes. There are definite links between the choices we make regarding our lifestyle, particularly when it comes to adequate rest, diet and exercise that can increase our risk of mental illness. As noted below, the continuum and the actions to take at each stage can assist in reducing the severity or onset of mental illness.
Having said this, there are many risk factors that have nothing to do with a choice that the person makes. Two of the biggest risk factors for depression & anxiety, for example, are being female and having someone in your family with depression.
“1 in 5 women in Australia will experience depression and 1 in 3 women will experience anxiety during their lifetime.” Source
Another perspective on the continuum model is looking at the difference between well-being on one axis and mental illness on another. This means you can be actually very healthy and functional despite being actively treated for a “mental illness” (see the top left square in the pic below) and you can actually be very unwell and functioning poorly despite avoiding the label of “mental illness” (bottom right).
To have a good state of mental health, therefore, is about a whole lot more than avoiding a formal diagnosis of a mental health disorder. Just like not having a cancer diagnosis doesn’t mean I’m in great physical health. The myth that mental illness is something that the person has any more control over than they would if they had asthma, allergies, Parkinsons disease or diabetes must end. This realisation is actually something which is incredibly liberating.
As Catholics, or Christians in general, there can unfortunately be a whole lot of extra stigma surrounding mental illness. There can be a tendency to demonise the illness or the person, to see this as entirely their own fault, and to therefore lack general good manners and compassion at times when dealing with it. There can be added guilt or shame heaped on the sufferer as though their lack of faith or insufficient religious observance has caused their current sorrow. The person themself, if suffering, can even speak in a derogatory manner to themselves, getting caught up in scruples and blaming themselves for a lack of faith. It doesn’t assist to have others buy in to their mistaken beliefs. I have heard it said that a person with mental illness doesn’t need a doctor, they need an exorcist, or they need to pray more often, or go to Church more. Generally the person making these comments has never suffered an intense period of depression or anxiety and doesn’t really have any idea about it, they overstep the mark in assuming the sufferer is a religious leper. It wouldn’t be the first time in history religious people have been criticised for lacking charity.
“…They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them…” Matthew 23: 4Misunderstandings like this can all increase the person’s stress – another major risk factor in worsening mental health. Thankfully, there are those who are weighing in on this conversation with a much more compassionate perspective. This includes those like Melanie Jean Juneau. She states:
“I would wager that mental health issues are especially prevalent among the devout who are serious about their inner life because when people tackle deep inner issues which prevent God from working in their lives, their inner equilibrium is upset by stress, anxiety, and depression. This probably explains why most saints experienced profound periods of depression when they finally looked beneath their pious actions to face the reality of their own ingrained sin and subsequent need for inner purification.” Catholics and Mental Illness: Coming out of the Shadows
Another interesting risk factor for mental illness is belonging to a minority, socially disadvantaged group. Much focus is placed on the obvious members of such groups, such as migrants, LGBT members etc. However, I would argue that the reality of being a faithful, practicing Catholic also qualifies as a minority, socially disadvantaged group. As Catholics in our current western culture, we are very much in the minority. Many of us have stories of bullying and ostracism from within our own immediate and extended families, from those with whom we work or study, or from the media in general. Catholics find themselves in situations of disadvantage very often, but can be slow to recognise the toll this can take on their mental health, as it’s the new normal in our culture.
In an effort to illustrate the effects of stress on mental health, Juneau mentions in her article on Catholic Stand the stress bucket theory. The theory goes like this: We are all born with a different sized bucket (or capacity) for managing stress. The stress is like water going into the bucket. Various environmental factors can also make our bucket shallower. Holes in the bucket are coping strategies which help let the water out and lower stress. When the bucket overflows we experience signs and symptoms.
An example of how someone with a greater propensity for stress triggers is shown below, using the stress bucket concept, whereby the person may have a more sensitive temperament, or family members with mental illness, or be socially isolated. This can all lead to a worsening (or as I like to call it, a ‘flare up’) of their mental illness.
Aiming for good mental health, therefore, can actually be seen as a basic form of stewardship over the body and mind that God has given us. It can be a powerful way of embracing Jesus’ vision for living life to the full, not only for ourselves but in order that we can be set free from debilitating mental illness to love and serve God more fully. In doing this we will be more able to bring about a transformation of our culture to be one which does indeed live life to the full.