Stewards of Mental Health
Most people have been granted a reasonable portion of mental health allowing them to hold a general sense of well-being and enjoy life frequently. But preserving mental health does not always come naturally and one needs to learn to keep it and prevent mental and emotional dysfunctions. This means that we need to utilize thoughts and behaviors to stay free from fears and anxiety, to be aware of one’s own potential, to cope with the stresses of life, to choose love over hatred, and to secure a reasonable amount of happiness, even in this imperfect world. With the exception of some extreme cases, everybody has the capability to preserve and enhance mental health. Yes, a healthy mind is an essential part of the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in us (1 Cor. 6:19).
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 26 percent of Americans 18 and older (that is about 60 million people!) suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 26 percent of Americans 18 and older (that is about 60 million people!) suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. This piece of data calls for ways to avoid such common conditions. When we look at depression, the most common global mental disorder, the World Health Organization (WHO) forecasted in the 1990’s, that by 2020, depression would become the second leading cause of disability throughout the world.2 The prediction turned out to be optimistic, for the same organization—in their fact sheet Nº 369 (October 2012), reported depression as the major cause of disability worldwide.3
Other mental conditions are following a similar pattern, effectively alerting everyone to the need to adopt preventive and palliative measures. Much can be done through self-help and by the power of the Holy Spirit that is in our bodies and minds. Let us look at three basic areas of attention for mental and emotional health.
Managing Our Thoughts
It is a good habit to wash one’s hands before eating. But, what happens if on occasion one forgets to do it? Probably nothing! Washing one’s hands reduces the chances of infection, but it is not the only protective mechanism. The immune system of a healthy individual is there to ensure that the multiple germs making it through our digestive tracts get properly neutralized. However, a rude sentence uttered in a moment of anger, or a lustful or greedy thought may produce a virulent moral infection and cause hurt to somebody else, the deterioration of a relationship, retaliation from an opponent, or even damage to an entire community. Morally, undue thoughts and behaviors will cause self-defilement. This was Jesus’ point when he said that, “Out of the heart [mind] come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them” (Matt. 15:19,20). This principle is a sure guide which we can employ to guard ourselves from adverse immoral consequences.
Mental health is partly dependent on the way we process thoughts—our thinking style, which depends on our choice.
But as crucial as the moral implications of our thoughts are, they are not the only implications involved. Mental health is partly dependent on the way we process thoughts—our thinking style, which depends on our choice. Take worry, for example. Worrying can be useful if it is rational and focused on possible solutions. But when worry is compulsive, exaggerated, preoccupied with things that might happen, and unable to suggest solutions, then it is a precursor of anxiety or obsessive-compulsive thinking and it must be rejected. Another example: negativistic thinking about oneself (“I will never be able to adapt to this new location”), about the past (“This is the way I am, because I was bullied in school), or about the future (“Today’s financial crisis will never be solved!”). Such patterns of thinking have been found of higher incidence in individuals with depressive, obsessive-compulsive, and anxious tendencies than in the general population. That is why psychotherapists teach their clients to challenge all-or-nothing thinking (“Either I marry Brittany or no one at all”), catastrophic thinking (“Not getting this job will be awful”), or erroneous attributions (“She had the accident when coming to my invitation, therefore, I am to blame”).
As a steward of my mental health, I must do whatever it takes to dispel erroneous, negativistic, and toxic thoughts. And at the same time, with God’s sure help, I should purposely harbor thinking-content that will nourish my mind (see Phil. 4:8). People use counseling strategies as mentioned above, but religious strategies can be highly efficacious: Fervent prayer and Bible reading (especially portions of Psalms and Proverbs) are excellent ways to dispel unwanted thoughts, achieve solace and promote the flow of positive emotions.
Governing Our Behaviors
But people who have never tried alcohol or drugs may end up caught by addictive behaviors to food, work, pornography, money, shopping, computer games, internet, gambling, soap operas and many more.
There are also behaviors conducive to emotional and mental disturbances. A typical example is addictive behaviors. One does not have to use a chemical substance to be addicted. Many Christians think that they cannot be victims of this problem, for they will never use drugs. But people who have never tried alcohol or drugs may end up caught by addictive behaviors to food, work, pornography, money, shopping, computer games, internet, gambling, soap operas and many more. A number of signs may alert me to the reality that I am approaching a psychological addiction: I feel that I need more quantity of that substance or time with that behavior in order to reach satisfaction. If I quit, I feel very uncomfortable and have strong urges to return. I become weaker and less able to control myself, end up spending too much money and/or time with that behavior, lie in order to hide that behavior and my family/social life deteriorates as a result of my involvement with such behavior. These are serious warnings, and if I notice any of the above, as steward of my mind, I must do something to tackle them, like Paul said: “All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any” (1 Cor. 6:12).
Addictions of any kind are such dangerous behaviors that they require external support. Firstly, supernatural intervention, and secondly, the help of one or more persons that can oversee our attempts to abandon the behavior. Of course, the easiest course is to prevent addictions by avoiding the paths where our weaknesses may lead us. But sometimes people are already caught in the vicious circle and need to admit the situation and work together with other agents to overcome the addiction.
Directing Our Emotions
The concept of emotional intelligence emerged in 1995 with the publication of the book, Emotional Intelligence, by Daniel Goleman. The historic view of intelligence as the construct measured by IQ tests was refuted and a more comprehensive and realistic concept of intelligence added to the field of psychology. Emotional intelligence has to do with mastering our own emotions in order to achieve goals and to build relationships. As steward of my mental health, I must learn how to manage my emotions and transform negative ones into positive ones. I also need to learn to endure those painful emotional experiences that are unavoidable and adopt an attitude of hope as outlined by Jesus.
In the meantime, he invites us to go to Him and learn from Him who is gentle and humble in heart, so that we can find rest for our souls
A helpful passage for dealing with adverse emotions (chiefly unhappiness) is found in John 16:20-24. This statement can be ‘gold’ to believers who need to reject those moods that may take them closer to depression. In this passage Jesus talks about life being unfair at times, like His disciples being harassed for doing the right thing, yet having to experience grief; but Jesus promises that their grief will be turned into joy. It talks about help being on its way (the comparison is made with how quickly a woman forgets pain after her child is born). It talks about unpleasant past memories that would be wiped away. Clearly, Jesus knew that much of the misery that human beings experience human misery has to do with painful workings of their past. It talks about grief being sometimes necessary (“now is your time of grief”) because oftentimes pain has some meaning. And it talks about permanent joy at the time of His return, when He will give his children the everlasting joy that nobody can take away.
Jesus reminds us all of a time when nothing will be requested because all needs will be met. In the meantime, he invites us to go to Him and learn from Him who is gentle and humble in heart, so that we can find rest for our souls (Matt. 11: 29).
1. http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/the-numbers-count-mental-disorders-in-america/index.shtml, accessed August 29, 2013.
2. Murray CJL, Lopez AD. The Global Burden of Disease: A Comprehensive Assessment of Mortality and Disability from Diseases, Injuries and Risk Factors in 1990 and Projected to 2020. Geneva, Switzerland; World Health Organization, 1996.
3. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs369/en/, accessed August 29, 2013.