This article is part of the Questions and Answers series.
Q: What is mental illness?
A: Mental illness is an old problem; as old as the fall. Although God made everything very good (Gen. 1:31), when sin entered, humanity came under the divine curse together with the rest of the creation (Gen. 3:16-19). Every part of us was disordered and broken, including our bodies, our minds, our emotions, and our souls (Rom. 8:20–22). All depression, anxiety, bi-polar, schizophrenia, PTSD, personality disorders, etc., can be traced to that terrible turning point in world history. Mental illness is not a new invention, but a sin invention.
Mental illness is a complex problem. Some kinds of mental illness can be a simple fix, but usually, it’s a lot more complicated. That’s because it affects, and is affected by, multiple parts of our humanity. To one degree or another, it affects every part of us and impacts every part of our lives.
Mental illness is a varied problem. It’s varied in who suffers from it (all kinds of people) and in the nature and degree of symptoms. It’s also varied in timing and duration. It can begin when everything is going well, or when everything is going terrible, or even many years after traumatic events. It can last for weeks, months, years, and even be lifelong. It can be a one-off episode or be repeated.
Mental illness is not a new invention, but a sin invention.
Mental illness is an urgent problem. Although some mental illness can be mild, suffered in silence and alone, and occasionally may clear up on its own, it usually has serious life-altering effects. It therefore should be addressed today, not tomorrow.
Q: Is mental illness a helpful label?
A: There’s no doubt that mental illness has become one of the most overused diagnoses today. It now covers everything from schizophrenia to alcoholism and even pedophilia. It is frequently used to minimize responsibility and to blame all events and actions on factors beyond our control. This overuse, in turn, has led some to avoid the label.
Part of the difficulty is the ambiguity in both the words mental and illness. For example, Mental suggests it’s just something to do with our thoughts, and therefore something exclusively to do with our brains. It can be, but it’s often experienced primarily in the emotions (e.g. sadness, anger, fear) rather than our thoughts. Also, mental tends to distance the problem from any spiritual or heart component and therefore excludes pastoral and spiritual input. It also fails to account for situational or social factors.
Despite its limitations, mental illness is still the preferred label in the medical profession and in popular culture. Although it creates difficulties, it does direct us to a general category that distinguishes it from other issues. As such, it can be a helpful starting point, a way of orienting ourselves to what area we are talking about, but then go on to ask for more details, especially in the realm of spiritual causes and effects.
Q: How does mental illness affect someone?
A: It imbalances feelings resulting in intensely painful emotions such as overwhelming sadness, fear, anger, despair, and worthlessness. It distorts thoughts, making them largely negative, often obsessive, usually exaggerated, sometimes hopeless, and frequently fearful. It even damages their bodies.1It impairs their relationships, causing them to withdraw from others, and it especially undermines their relationship with God. For the Christian, the impact on their spiritual life is the most painful part of mental illness. Our spiritual life is impacted by thoughts, feelings, body, relationships and, therefore, if these things are malfunctioning, so will be our spiritual lives. But it goes the other way too. Our spiritual life affects our thoughts, feelings, bodies, and relationships, and, if unhealthy, it can be the cause of mental illness. Which brings us on to our next question.
Q: What causes mental illness?
A: There are three main causes of mental illness: what we are (we have the wrong biology), what we do (we have wrong lives), and what others do to us (others wrong us).
We may have the wrong biology. Mental illness can be caused by what we are physically. When death entered humanity, it altered our perfect genes and made us susceptible to damaging changes, diseases, and so on. As our brain is the most complicated organ in the body, we shouldn’t be surprised that mental illness can affect us. For example, there is research showing that schizophrenia is possibly connected with auto-immune disorders.2Also, researchers have found common genetic factors in five mental disorders.3 Interestingly even the Puritans distinguished between depression which had physical causes from those which had spiritual causes.4Having said this, it’s also important to remember that although our genetics are influential, they are not determinative. Just like people with cancer in their family, not all in that family will contract cancer.
Adults play a vital role in helping teenagers through anxiety and depression, and this book gives spiritual encouragement and practical direction for parents and other adults who want to help but don’t know what to do. A companion volume to Murray’s Why Am I Feeling Like This?, written for teenagers.
We may have wrong lives. Although we should normally not run to this first as our default, we must acknowledge that our sinful attitudes, desires, and actions can cause or at least contribute to mental illness. The most common spiritual causes of mental illness are addictions, immorality, greed, overwork, bitterness, anger, hatred, pornography, idolatry, and unbelief. This is partly because some of these cause physical damage. But, there’s also a spiritual element to all these sins. Shame and guilt wear and tear our bodies, God can chastise us, sinful thoughts and desires that we choose can also damage us.
We may have wrong done to us. Physical and sexual abuse, especially at a young age, can change the size, composition, and connectivity of the brain, resulting in changes not only in our thoughts but in our feelings too. While some of this can actually be reversed with professional interventions, it can rarely be completely cured, leaving some with mental and emotional vulnerabilities. Just as we wouldn’t blame somebody for not running when they have a broken leg, we must not blame people who have had their brains broken by the sin of others. Further, it’s not just physical and sexual abuse that damages us, so does verbal abuse. It not only can change our brains physically; it can also change the way we think and our sense of identity.
Q: What cures mental illness?
A: As mental illness can have multiple symptoms and causes, the cure usually has multiple components as well. Depending on the symptoms and the causes, the cures may include repentance and faith, medications, counseling, exercise, diet, friendship, fellowship, prayer. etc. A team approach is, therefore, most likely to help, including pastors, counselors, doctors, family, friends, nutritionists, and fitness instructors. Ultimately, we need God to guide each team member to address the relevant part of the whole person. And we need God to bless the various components of the cure.
David Murray is the author of Why Is My Teenager Feeling Like This? A Guide for Helping Teens through Anxiety and Depression.
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