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Faith and Mental Health, a conversation - Part 1

Introduction and Part 1

The importance of our mental health has been highlighted widely in recent years. This is a welcome and necessary development. Professional voices from psychology, psychiatry and medicine have all argued for increasing awareness of the importance of mental health and the need for greater support structures to help people with mental health problems.

One resource we have in improving our mental health and keeping it healthy is our Christian faith. For the next 10 weeks, we will offer ten reasons why the gift of faith is an invaluable source of strength in helping us to have a sound and healthy mind. First though, it is important to explain three important caveats before we begin.

The first of these caveats points out the obvious, namely that having faith does not immunize us from mental health problems – as we see in the lives of people like St Louis Martin (1823-1894 - father of St Therese of Lisieux), St Benedict

Joseph Labre (1748-1783) and Fr Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) – it is known that all three suffered from mental health problems despite a heroic faith. Second, not every mental illness has a spiritual cause so having weak faith or no faith is not necessarily the cause of poor mental health. Third, religious or spiritual therapy is never a substitute for medical treatment of mental illnesses. Mental health is best served by a wholistic care of the whole person’s body, mind and spirit. That said, while spiritual therapy is never a substitute for medical intervention, neither can medical intervention, on its own, be sufficient. Any materialistic reduction of the human person is not consistent with how we understand who God created us to be. With these caveats in mind, the following points try to show how faith can be an invaluable resource in improving and sustaining our mental health.

The first and most basic message of the Christian faith is its pronouncement that we are accepted and loved unconditionally by God. As St John reminds us ‘God is Love’ (1 Jn. 4:8). Christians believe that God loving us does not depend on us earning that love by anything we do. This is the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ and continually offered to all in every place and time. Here is a positive, hopeful and transformative truth that directly addresses the human need to be loved and to love in return.

This experience of being loved unconditionally and empowered to love in return is essential for our emotional lives and mental health. Here is an inexhaustible source of self-esteem and positive energy that cannot be replicated by our own efforts and that awaits broken humanity. It means that no matter how alone I feel or how desperate I become, the love of a God who knows me and accepts me is ever present. Closely related to this truth is that God has made us in his own image and likeness. This means that there is an innate goodness in all of us that is beautiful and sacred. In the words of St Catherine of Siena, God has fallen in love with what he himself has made. Through faith and baptism, we have become children of God our Father who possess the goodness and beauty of God himself.

As we endure any difficulty, mental or physical, ‘nothing can separate us from the love of God, known to us in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Rom. 8:39).

Part 2 next week...

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