God is an anti - depressant
Mental health has popped up on the agenda of schools, apparently out of the blue. There seems to have been an increase in awareness of the health issues since COVID revealed an epidemic of anxiety and depression. It is good to see the training opportunities for mental health first aid begin to expand. Some of these courses are free. However, I want to point out that mental health first aid is not new and despite the freshness of positive psychology and techniques for managing stress and sadness, we can find most, if not all, of that wisdom embedded in religion.
Religion has a depth of wisdom that speaks between generations often separated by thousands of years. As human beings we have always struggled with mental health and with the management of our moods from the earliest days of written history. Religion brings a perspective to that struggle that we ignore at our peril because it has roots, not just in good psychology, but also in meaning and mystery. So, let’s take a brief look at some of the deep wisdom for mental health tucked away in our Judaeo Christian scriptures.
Let’s start with St Paul, writing to the Philippians.
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Celebration, cheerfulness and gentleness, the intimacy of God, gratitude and peace are all woven into these words. The ability to focus on what is good, to count your blessings, is one of the ways that we can re-focus our lives when overcome by sadness and worry. Paul goes on to write that we need to focus on whatever is good, true, beautiful, and worthy of praise as a pathway to peace of mind. There is also a reminder in the text that much of our lives, and especially our search for meaning, transcends understanding. We will never have it all worked out. Mental illness is often caught up in an unrealistic expectation to understand everything, “if I can just think it through and understand then I can relax.” The truth is somewhat different and closer to the role of a higher power in the twelve-step programme of Alcoholics Anonymous. The second step in that process is expressed like this:
I came to believe that a power greater than myself could restore me to sanity.
That trust in something beyond the individual, a transcendent presence, seems to have the power to overcome isolation and give hope back to an individual. It is not based upon understanding anything better but on a surrender of one’s whole life to this presence. It is rather surprising that such surrender leads an individual to more self-control, more hope, and more joy in life. St Paul is giving us a lesson in mental health first aid in writing to his community in Philippi. We can hear that wisdom addressed to us over the centuries and still draw strength from it.
Another piece of scriptural wisdom for first aid health is found in the 6th Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel.
“Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, or what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?
Here Jesus is speaking mainly to peasant farmers, many of whom are illiterate. He is using what is around them and asking them to see it all with new eyes. Often the way we look at life can be distorted by our own immediate situation, and we see a darkness that is not really there but rather a reflection of an inner darkness that fills our minds. That darkness isolates us from others who cannot see why we are feeling so negative. Jesus turns the eyes of his listeners outwards, away from self-concern and into the world of nature.
The website for Mind, the mental health charity, explains that getting out into nature among the birds, the flowers and the trees has multiple benefits for mental health including: improving mood, reducing stress and anger, building confidence and self-esteem, reducing isolation, and increasing activity. Again, Jesus refers people to a higher power, a transcendent and caring presence that he names as our heavenly Father. He also reassures them of their eternal worth, they are worth more than many sparrows. It is the antidote to the self-hatred that lies at the root of many mental health problems. But such writings are relatively recent. If we travel back in time perhaps 3000 years, we encounter one of the psalms of King David in Israel. In this 43rd psalm we see a key phrase eloquently expressing the power of inner self-talk. I have illustrated just one short verse from this very rich piece of scripture.
Such wisdom and human understanding from the psalmist comes from so long ago. It shows that we have not changed so much over those thousands of years. We are always running into mystery, into confusion and into self-doubt. We are always in danger of getting things out of perspective and not seeing ourselves in a more compassionate light. We are always hungering for the love of a God that draws us onward and deeper into the mystery of life. Our restlessness is innate, as St Augustine reminds us in his Confessions.
“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
Religion has always recognised the incompleteness of human existence which calls and aches for something more. It turns that ache into a journey that is both inward to our own soul and outwards to the world and the people around us. It is the mystery, the unknown, that draws us forward and leaves us not with answers, but with a relationship. For Christians that relationship is an eternal belonging to a loving Father who alone can ease the restlessness within.
May our work on mental health be more than just good therapy but also become an embracing of the mystery of life, or a higher power, or a loving Father who dwells within each of us.