A Brief Primer on Mental Health
We work with many people from our conservative Mennonite constituency on a weekly basis who entrust us with intimate glimpses into their lives, their challenges, and the battles they face with mental and emotional health. There is still a cry for a greater understanding of these issues. There are those suffering from mental and emotional dysfunctions and disorders whose needs are not being effectively met. Many times they feel sidelined, judged, or misunderstood, which only adds to their frustration and confusion.
Following are a few points for our consideration.
PERMS. We often use a Venn diagram—five overlapping and interconnected circles—to illustrate the human makeup. God has created us with five distinct parts: Physical, Emotional, Relational, Mental, and Spiritual. Every part overlaps, interconnects, and influences each other. There is a distinct and definite mind body connection. Think hard about a lemon—imagine the texture and taste—and you will likely salivate. Think about something scary and you may feel your heart rate quicken and the hair on your neck stand up. Unforgiveness and bitterness can make us physically sick. Gratitude can improve overall health.
A brief primer on trauma. Trauma comes in many shapes, some of which we don’t think of right off the bat. Physical and sexual abuse are obvious traumas. Emotional abuse is not so obvious. Consider abandonment and neglect, both physical and emotional. If a child or adolescent loses a parent, this is traumatic and will likely impact their emotional and mental wellbeing. Poverty, transience (moving often from one place to another), and parental disabilities are lesser known aspects of trauma, as are close calls, accidents, and hospital stays. Those who have not encountered or experienced the effects of trauma at times tend to be flippant, dismissive, and inconsiderate of it.
People with mental and emotional challenges are often misunderstood. Until we have walked in the shoes of those suffering from these challenges, we must be careful where and how we place judgement. The tenor of the gospel teaches patience, compassion, and the willingness to get down in the dirt, bind up the wounded, and go the second mile. Usually the loudest voices with the most advice have never been there; they have never experienced the trauma of a broken home, a dysfunctional family, sexual abuse, emotional neglect, or lack of parental connection. Phrases like get over it, it’s time to move on, or you’re making mountains out of molehills seldom are helpful.
Depression and anxiety can have spiritual components but often do not. Depression and anxiety comes in many forms. They can be the result of trauma; occasionally they may be organic in nature, that is having what is sometimes called a chemical imbalance. They can also be spiritual in nature. No one description fits all when it comes to treatment. Some may benefit from medication; some from better nutrition, exercise, and sleep patterns; others may require a deep dive into a dysfunctional past. As in most issues pertaining to mental health, every case has its nuances, peculiarities, and differences.
Childhood trauma such as neglect and abuse results in physical changes in the brain. It is helpful for us to understand and accept this truth. Past abuse causes real physical changes in the brain. However, the brain has neuroplastic properties, that is, the ability to change and reorganize after injury. The efficacy of physical, occupational, and speech therapy after a stroke is a testament to this. God is the ultimate healer but in the same way that He doesn’t usually miraculously heal a fractured bone or fix heart disease, He also doesn’t often spontaneously repair the trauma-injured brain. Of course He is interested in your healing journey but it’s often that: a journey.
If the advice given is not working, maybe it’s time to try something else. We hear from people who have been struggling emotionally and mentally for years, and they are still being told the same thing: Your problem is a spiritual one only and once you give in, submit, and meet the Lord, things will clear up for you. This is the easy way out and too often we can say this, wash our hands of the problem (the individual), and walk away feeling justified. Obviously, this statement that their problem is a spiritual one may be true. The point here is this: if there is any semblance, suspicion, or shadow of past abuse or trauma in a person’s life, it must be considered and factored into the whole equation. Remember PERMS.
If someone seems blocked spiritually, consider all causes. This point is closely connected to the previous one. Sometimes people seem to be stuck, or blocked. They are not able to get anywhere or maybe tend to cycle through ups and downs, highs and lows. It is easy to label a condition as rebellion, stubbornness, and lack of surrender. Again, these labels may be accurate but if this person has a dysfunctional past, the role trauma plays must be considered.
What treatment and healing looks like. Treatment and healing will look different for everyone. We have heard it said that “it worked for him to pray and he immediately had deliverance from his smoking or porn addiction,” and it is then assumed that prayer is the only answer for everyone. Prayer is always part of the answer, but the reality is that healing from an addiction most often requires a dedicated and deliberate commitment over an extended period of time.
Generally speaking, using the examples of anxiety, depression, or OCD, medication may benefit some; others may need weekly counseling with a professional who understands trauma and its effect on the brain. If someone is stuck, making very little progress, or not willing to become vulnerable, they may benefit from an intensive or retreat that focuses on compassionately breaking through and addressing core issues. We have seen cases where the emotional and mental need required a breakthrough before the spiritual need could be addressed. We have seen just the opposite as well.
Conclusion. We realize that there will be those who question these points. We may feel that sincere fervent prayer should heal all things and if people just surrendered to God, all would be well. We may also feel that the past simply needs to be forgotten, covered up, and left behind. If we say this, it’s likely we’ve never experienced trauma and have simply not been on the same road many traumatized, hurt, and wounded individuals have been. Prayer and a surrendered heart are certainly vital aspects of anyone’s healing journey but in many, if not most cases, God requires the process. This process usually encompasses the elements of surrender and openness to change; it can include counseling and resultant self-discovery and insight; it often requires therapy with deliberate and concentrated exercises. Whatever the case, may we approach those in need with a heart of compassion, an empathetic listening ear, praying God will give the needed direction to move forward.
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