Why is it that Christians have so much trouble understanding mental health? Perhaps it’s because it involves the mind. That’s an enigmatic concept in itself – the mind. What exactly is it? Is it a bio-chemical collection of nerves, synapses, chemicals and electrical impulses as the materialists would have us believe, or is it the soul, or even the spirit of a person? We struggle with definitions here, don’t we?
Perhaps there’s an even more fundamental question – what is a person? Some argue from the Bible that we are made up of mind, body and spirit – tripartite. Others, again from the Bible, that we are only body and spirit – bipartite. Whichever school of thought you may fall into, I think the important thing to acknowledge is that we are, each of us, one whole, made in God’s image. If we take this holistic view it’s easier to understand that the physical affects the psychological and visa versa (for the purpose of this blog by psychological I am including our emotions).
If I had a physical injury of some sort and had to stay in bed for a few weeks I might become fed up, I might even become depressed. In fact, depending on my psychological predilection, I might end up in despair, feeling that I was finished as a human being unable to work or to be of use. The physical affecting the psychological.
To look at this from another point of view, have you ever noticed that if you are feeling low or sad, that your physical energy levels decrease? You might no longer be able to get as much achieved in the day as you could when you were feeling on top of the world. Research into this is quite an eye-opener. Patients who are given hospital beds that look onto green trees, shrubs and plants are more likely to recover sooner, need less pain relief, and are discharged quicker than those in windowless wards!
We are complex creations and every part of us interacts and affects other parts of us. In fact, perhaps it’s not helpful to think of ‘parts’ at all – we should try and be holistic.
An even more shocking piece of research has emerged in recent times, since neurologists have been able to scan the brain and observe real-time interactions. It has been found that children who have spent their very early years in a deprived environment, suffering from emotional neglect, not receiving the love and nurture that we all – let alone young children – need, have under-developed parts of the brain compared to those children who have grown up in a nurturing environment. That is an extraordinary concept isn’t it? The brain under-developing because of emotional neglect.
Fortunately, as the Bible tells us, we are fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139). The brain is an amazingly adaptable organ; in fact it has a remarkable plasticity. The same children whose brains were under-developed were discovered to have recovered after a period with carers who gave them the love and nurture that they needed. To be clear here, the under-developed part of the brain was no longer under-developed, it was now the same as the nurtured children’s. The psychological affecting the physiological!
The truth is that our psychological state can affect us physiologically and our physical state can affect us psychologically. Mental health issues can have physical causes as they can have causes rooted in our experiences – someone may suffer from depression because of their brain chemistry, others because of psychologically damaging events in their life that may or may not result in physiological changes. The brain seems to be the physical vessel that the mind inhabits – if it becomes physically ‘faulty’ is it a surprise that it affects that which inhabits it?
We live in a fallen world; there is decay, illness and death in this life. Mental illness is an illness, be the cause physical or experiential.
Back then, to my original question: why is it that Christians have so much trouble understanding mental health? But, perhaps we should ask why it is that society as a whole has so much trouble understanding mental health? Are we, as Christians, any different to secular society? Should we be?
To be continued…
By Steve Atkinson