In this second article of a two-part series (read part one here), I offer five more reasons why faith is good news for our mental health.
A sixth resource that comes with faith is the support it provides through community. Many depression and mental health problems are made worse by isolation and thinking we are suffering alone.
Christians believe in a God of relationship—of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who share a life of communion and love. Faith draws us into that communion of love, uniting us to God and to others who share that relationship with us. Here is the spirituality of communion, which gives us an ability to think of our brothers and sisters within the profound unity of the Mystical Body of Christ and therefore as part of our lives. For all Christian Churches, a sense of welcome and belonging is fundamentally important along with the provision of times and spaces where people can meet, befriend each other, and provide mutual support and encouragement. Church communities can be and indeed are places where people with mental health problems feel accepted and supported in the same way the community supports people with any other illness.
A seventh dimension of mental health that faith illuminates is the link between leading a virtuous life and the experience of happiness. How we act effects how we feel. Before Christianity, Plato made this connection as he argued that justice is always happifying (The Republic, Book 2, 358a). For St. Augustine, happiness is more than a feeling but is always linked to the truth: “The happy life is joy based on the truth. This is joy grounded in you, O God, who are the truth” (Confessions, 10, 22, 33). For St. Thomas Aquinas, all the prescriptions and prohibitions of the Gospel are ordered to our joy (cf. Summa theologiae, q. 99). Here is the invitation to order our lives along the domains of justice, truth, peace, and love as the gateway to authentic happiness.
The Christian tradition also insists that our conscience is a mechanism that teaches us what to avoid and what are the right choices to make. The conscience can distinguish which actions will bring sadness and which will bring joy. For St. Ignatius of Loyola, when we make bad choices we must welcome the prick of conscience and note the misery that sin produces. This desolation is purifying (cf. Spiritual Exercises, First Week). In this light, not all guilt is negative. It is like pain to the body, telling us something is wrong.
There is a strong argument that this link between morality and mental health is neglected and ignored in much public debate on the issue. However, if we are serious about treating the root causes of mental health problems, then we cannot avoid the evidence that links virtue to happiness and vice to misery.
The eighth resource provided by Christian faith is that of right order. Emotional well-being comes from having right order in our lives. For Augustine, peace comes from “tranquillitas ordinis” (the tranquillity of order) (City of God, 19). This means having our priorities right. The first is to love and worship God, then family and friends. The more our lives are rightly ordered, the more the boundaries of the self are firm and clear with a stronger locus of self-control.
Christianity calls us to be free and responsible. It provides a foundation for a person’s life and can provide a moral compass that directs our actions. Experience also shows that this proper order in our lives can easily be disrupted. If temperance is not part of our lives then disordered passions can compromise our freedom, leading to destructive addictions and compulsions that cause misery. For Christians, the Commandments, Beatitudes, and the teachings of Christ are not just laws but blueprints for the happiness God wishes us to enjoy. They are antidotes to chaos and slavery, and the key to a well-ordered life that leads to blessedness and peace.
A ninth resource that comes from Christian faith is the practices of prayer, ritual, and rites of passage. Viewing the experience of life as a pilgrimage, along that journey there are key moments that need to be marked and celebrated. The prayer and sacramental life of the Church is rich in marking the passage of time, the rhythms of life and the transition from one state of life to another. These include birth (Baptism), moving into adulthood (Confirmation), weekly gatherings (Eucharist), forgiveness (Confession), marriage and death (funeral rites). These can be moments that are therapeutic, healing, and have a positive impact on our mental health and well-being.
In relation to prayer, there is proof that contemplative or meditative practices have wide-ranging health benefits that combat depression and anxiety. When we pray we give expression to gratitude which mitigates against self-pity, narcissistic tendencies, and pride. So, for example, the Psalms offer a vocabulary and grammar that give voice to emotional sorrow and pain: “My heart pounds within me death’s terrors fall upon me. Fear and trembling overwhelm me; shuddering sweeps over me” (Ps. 55:5-6); “I am withered, dried up like grass, too wasted to eat my food” (Ps. 102:5). With Job many can cry: “I will not restrain my mouth . . . I will complain in the bitterness of my soul” (Job. 7:11). But having grappled with despair, in God’s Word we also discover hope: “For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for peace and not disaster, to give you a future and a hope” (Jer. 29:11). In the end, sorrow and pain will be overcome (Cf. Isa. 35:10, 51:11).
The tenth resource is that Christian faith is a wellspring of hope without which the human spirit disintegrates. Many believers who suffer from mental illness testify that had it not been for the hope that comes from their Christian faith, they may not have survived. Countless people of faith have seen in their suffering the seeds of a future of hope—that the sorrow they experience will give way eventually to joy: “You will be sorrowful but your sorrow will turn to joy” (John 16:20). This is not a form of wishful thinking that consoles them in present misery but a real act of faith that sees mental suffering as a participation in Christ’s mental anguish that precedes new life in the future. For the Christian, the Gospel gives us hope and gives life a trajectory toward that definitive future. Unlike many other root causes of physical and mental illnesses, there is no prescription or medical cure for a lack of hope. The only cure for a lack of hope is hope itself, which can be infused only by God’s grace that comes with faith.
These two articles have teased out ten advantageous effects of Christian faith for mental health: that God’s unconditional love is available to all; that God’s love confers on us a basic identity that reveals who we are; that faith is a source of meaning; that every human experience, including mental anguish, has been assumed and redeemed by God in Christ; that with faith in Christ comes the gift of forgiveness and the power to forgive; that being drawn into a supportive faith community means we are not alone; that faith highlights the link between living a virtuous life a healthy mind; that faith moves us towards the right order necessary for peace and tranquillity; that with Christian faith comes a life of prayer and ritual, essential for mental health and well-being; and that Christian faith brings hope that lifts the spirit towards new horizons. Together we pray that we may grow in awareness of the benefits of faith to mental health and a renewed confidence to contribute confidently to this important debate.