Definitions to Think About
Mental health — the successful performance of mental function, resulting in productive activities, fulfilling relationships with other people, and the ability to adapt to change and to cope with adversity…
Mental illness — …refers collectively to all mental disorders…health conditions that are characterized by alterations in thinking, mood, or behavior (or some combination thereof) associated with distress and/or impaired functioning.
A Christian View of Mental Illness
Crystal Horning, in her booklet by this title (available from ADNet) refers to the above definitions taken from a 1999 landmark U.S. government report, Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General-Executive Summary. I was interested in seeing whether the report itself gave any further insights that would be helpful for churches in thinking about mental health and mental illness.
After reading through the document online I was impressed by the fact that most of us take our mental health (as well as health in general) for granted, until we face a serious illness.
When we stop and think about it, most of us can acknowledge in our own lives certain “emotional problems” or “mental health problems.” We may think of the “problems” somewhat like we think of a common cold or the flu—by pampering ourselves for a few days and getting some extra rest, we will get over it. Therefore, we think that others should do the same. This is especially the case for mental conditions, which we may think are just a matter of deciding to change our thinking and/or behavior.
Illness and Stigma
However, just as we would recognize a difference between the 24-hour flu and cancer, we should also recognize the differences between "mental health problems" and "mental illness." Yet, the failure of society and the church to do so is a key factor in perpetuating the stigma that still surrounds much of mental illness.
The Surgeon General's report highlights this situation as follows:
The fact that many, if not most, people have experienced mental health problems that mimic or even match some of the symptoms of a diagnosable mental disorder tends, ironically, to prompt many people to underestimate the painful, disabling nature of severe mental illness. In fact, schizophrenia, mood disorders such as major depression and bipolar illness, and anxiety often are devastating conditions. Yet …the symptoms associated with [most] mental illness tend to wax and wane. (p. xiv)
The above quotation illustrates the stigma that comes when people in the larger society don’t understand the nature of mental illness and want to blame the person for a moral or spiritual failure.
Yet, there is also an opposite extreme to avoid. When mental illness becomes the defining reality in someone’s life, it can lead some persons to feel permanently sick, broken, and defective.
One mental health professional thus tries to avoid as much as possible the term “mental illness.” He encourages persons under his care to recognize that they have a "mental health condition" that leads to challenges in their lives. Rather than taking on the often-stigmatizing label of being “mentally ill,” he encourages these persons to recognize the choices they do have to move from illness to greater health.
Health in the Face of Illness
There is an alternative to viewing mental illness, on the one hand, as some kind of myth that covers over real moral and spiritual failure and, on the other hand, labeling a person as broken and defective and therefore not responsible for any of his or her behavior. It is in this middle ground that the church can create a climate where healing and hope can occur.
Perhaps it is like persons who experiences heart disease. While they cannot dismiss the limitations that heart disease may bring, many can take steps to exercise and eat right and thus live a healthier lifestyle. The most helpful approach of all is when persons around them can join in and encourage those efforts and in the process become healthier also.
A healthy community recognizes the reality of mental illness as a disabling condition without allowing the illness to define the person. The church is called to counter the stigma of mental illness and become a place where persons with mental health conditions ranging from “problems” to “illnesses” can find both a welcome and a community environment where hope can flourish and healing can occur.