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Mental Health and The Gospel

Joke: Photons have mass? I didn’t even know they were Catholic.

Some of the words and phrases in common use – like ‘mental health’ – don’t occur in the Bible. We, therefore, need to pause and think: Do we all mean the same thing by the phrase? And, what are the contact points between this phrase and the Bible?

  • Let’s think about this phrase ‘mental health’.
  • Take 2 minutes to come up with some descriptions of what this phrase means to you– Compare your description with the other people doing this study

Look again at your list – mental health is more than not having a mental illness, isn’t it? Good mental health is characterised by a person’s ability to fulfil a number of key functions and activities, including your ability to

  • Develop emotionally, creatively, intellectually and spiritually
  • Initiate, develop and sustain a mutually satisfying personal relationship
  • Face problems, resolve them and learn from them
  • Are confident and assertive
  • Are aware of others and empathise with them
  • Use and enjoy solitude
  • Play and have fun
  • Laugh, both at yourself and at the world

What is also likely to be evident from your list is that no-one is perfectly mentally healthy – we are all on a spectrum – and we may move up and down on it from day to day

Some background! 

Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, director-general of the World Health Organization, reported in 2000 that “five of the 10 leading causes of disability worldwide … are mental conditions” ( Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 2000, 78).

The five conditions she listed are major depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorders, alcohol abuse and obsessive-compulsive disorders. In addition, significant mental-health disorders plaguing humanity include phobias, generalized anxiety and panic disorder. Any of these maladies can be disabling.

Worldwide, mental-health afflictions are increasing. The total share of disability caused by them increased from 10.5 percent in 1990 to 12 percent in 1998 and is expected to increase to 15 percent in 2020—almost a 50 percent increase in only three decades. Depression, currently the fifth-leading cause of disability, is projected to jump to second place by 2020.
While treatment options—including medication and counseling—are available, prevention is the better choice.

Why is prevention preferable rather than treating a problem after it arises? Although treatment often works, it usually is much more costly. The costs often include financial losses, physical-health deterioration and trauma to family members—sometimes resulting in family disintegration.

Many mental illnesses can be prevented, and the Bible provides helpful information to that end. After all, it is a handbook from God on what we should think and how our minds should work. Among other things, the Bible tells us how to relieve stress and the kind of stimuli we should allow into our minds. Here are some crucial biblical keys to mental health.

Discussion

  • What are your thoughts on this?
  • How do you deal with your mental health

Here are some helpful ways of addressing mental health.

1. The power of a positive attitude

We start with the obvious merits of simple positive thinking. In Philippians 4:8 the Bible instructs us in proper thinking: “And now, my friends, all that is true, all that is noble, all that is just and pure, all that is lovableand gracious, whatever is excellent and admirable—fill all your thoughts with these things” (New English Bible, emphasis added throughout).

Those who consistently apply these positive words will practice positive thinking, a habit crucial to mental health. “A positive outlook is known to improve recovery from surgery and the immune system’s ability to fight off disease as well as aid in cancer recovery, to reduce the fight-or-flight response and hence stress disease [and can] … restore our tranquillity and turn our unhappy, anxiety-producing hormones into happy ones” (Archibald Hart, M.D., The Anxiety Cure, 1999, p. 217).

The characteristics of an optimistic mind-set include the ability to focus on the positive when the negative seems overwhelming. The key lies in turning a problem into a challenge and then working to meet it.

Negative thoughts are often the product of established patterns that are related to our belief systems. This could be about a variety of things, such as self-esteem, productivity, finances, relationships, a career, or anything else.
We also must avoid filling our minds with the negative and degrading aspects of the world around us. The apostle Paul wrote that some things are so shameful we should not even speak of them (Ephesians 5:12). Yet many of the degrading things to which Paul referred fill our print and electronic media.

If we want good mental health, we should discipline our minds to avoid a degrading mental diet. The principle of “garbage in, garbage out” certainly applies with respect to our minds. The net effect of what occupies our minds—and often comes out of our mouths—will be as pure or as corrupt as whatever we let enter our minds. We jeopardize our mental health when we subject our thinking to mental trash. To remain psychologically stable, we must discipline our minds to avoid thinking in the gutter.

  • Often criticizing people
  • Being attracted to drama
  • Having a victim mentality
  • Always expecting the worst
  • Feeling depressed
  • Taking things personally
  • Dwelling on bad news

IN PLACE OF THIS WE CAN

  • Spend less time with negative people
  • Don’t feel guilty
  • Like attracts like
  • Reprogram your mind
  • Practice Gratitude
  • Celebrate Small Wins
  • Say LOVE more
  • Say Thank you more

2. Reining in feelings and emotions

Where do feelings and emotions come from? 

When God created man in His own image (Genesis 1:27), He included the human personality, which can express godly feelings.

The primary characteristic that summarizes God’s very being is love (1 John 4:8, 16). 
But Paul describes a greater range of godly characteristics and emotions as aspects of the fruit of His Spirit. They include “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23, New International Version). 

The Bible exhorts us to be full of this Spirit (Ephesians 5:18).

If these traits are dominant in our personality, we are less likely to suffer from mental aberrations. Such a mind will be self-controlled; it will be stable and able to endure the difficulties of life. It will be optimistic and optimism is a vital part of a healthy mind. “Optimistic people are more able to roll with life’s punches and slough off stress—and they live longer” (Bradley Wilcox, M.D., Craig Wilcox, Ph.D., and Makoto Suzuki, M.D., The Okinawa Program, 2001, p. 273).

Conversely, “a person without self-control is as defenseless as a city with broken-down walls” (Proverbs 25:28, New Living Translation). This person will be vulnerable and driven frequently by negative emotions. His outcome is described in Galatians 5:19-21. His accompanying problems can include adultery, sexual immorality, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, envy and drunkenness. Living this way exacts an automatic penalty that makes one a candidate for instability, unhappiness and mental problems.

We choose our emotions, and we live with the consequences. The types of emotions that prevail in our minds are a major determining factor in whether we succeed at life itself. “Emotions are a mixed blessing. They are responsible for many of man’s finest and greatest achievements. They are also responsible for some of the greatest tragedies in our world” (Norman Wright, The Christian Use of Emotional Power, 1974, p. 13). If we choose healthy emotions, we can be happy and achieve success in life.

3. Taking time Out 

We live in such a fast-paced world that it is essential to schedule breaks from our routine. “Taking time to rest is not an option in today’s world; it is a necessity. Yet more people struggle here than in almost any other area of their lives. It is perilous not to take time to rest” (Hart, p. 118).

Even Jesus and His apostles felt this need. Notice one such occasion in Mark 6:31: “Then Jesus said, ‘Let’s get away from the crowds for a while and rest.’ There were so many people coming and going that Jesus and his apostles didn’t even have time to eat” (NLT).

For mental rejuvenation and avoiding stress overload, we need daily rest. Especially as we get older, an afternoon nap can rejuvenate us. We also need regular vacations if our financial circumstances and work situations permit. Even if one does nothing but stay at home on holidays, breaks from our routines can be beneficial.

In addition, God tells us we need to schedule one day in the week for rest. After completing His work of creation, God rested on the seventh day (Genesis 2:2). The Hebrew word for “rested” is shabath, the verb form of the noun translated as “Sabbath” in Exodus 20:10-11, where God gave the Ten Commandments to Israel and commanded the Israelites to keep His Sabbath holy by resting on the seventh day of every week

4. A social support system 

“… Woe to him who is alone when he falls, for he has no one to help him up,” says Ecclesiastes 4:10. 

Good mental health requires contact with other people. One of the first revelations of the Bible is that God designed us to need other people: “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18).

See our previous study on Fellowship

The need for emotionally supporting family and friends is scientifically established. “What happens if we have no close relationships? The message that emerges loud and clear from scientific evidence accumulated since the mid 1970’s is that having a reasonable quantity and quality of social relationships is essential for mental and physical wellbeing” (Paul Martin, M.D., The Healing Mind, 1997, p. 157).

Human interaction spawns growth and is essential mentally and physically. Proverbs 27:17 tells us that “as iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (NIV).

Perhaps the chief benefit of uplifting social contact is that it provides us the opportunity to learn how to love and serve. This is vital to mental health. “I have never met a person who is genuinely focused on helping others who is unhappy or dissatisfied with life … I can assure you that they are happy because they are directing their attention away from themselves” (Hart, p. 223).

Jesus recognized this and demonstrated that love and service are keys to happiness and mental health. He performed the menial task of washing His disciples’ feet to demonstrate that His disciples were to serve one another as He had served them. After washing their feet Jesus said, “Now that you know these things, happy are you if you do them” (John 13:17, Twentieth Century New Testament). Later in the same chapter He told them, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (verse 34).Jesus earlier said, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39).

Discussion

  • What stands out?
  • What additional ways can we look after our mental health?
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