What has faith to do with mental health?

A version of this article by Dr. Daniel Norton ’05, assistant professor of psychology, originally appeared in the spring 2023 issue of STILLPOINT magazine.

Psychological disorders are when our minds cause us anguish or limit our ability to do the things we find meaningful. Their striking prevalence currently calls us to action as people of faith. Jesus said that we will be judged on how well we provide water for the thirsty and clothe the naked. Is lacking mental health like being naked or thirsty? Yes, in the sense that it is a form of real suffering. Lacking mental health is also different than thirst and nakedness in that it’s often unclear what we should “give” to someone suffering from psychological disorder. In the absence of clear provisional mandates like water or clothes, people offer their neighbors struggling with psychological disorder whatever comes to mind. For Christians this could be prayer or ways to be righteous. Superbly intentioned, these suggestions are often received as painful judgments, ineffective to soothe the thirsty throat. Early in my training as a therapist, I found that even the best psychological treatments could be received as judgments if I failed to first establish trust and care with my patients. It seems that most of us need to hear a message of acceptance before we can receive help that has a message of change. Relationships where we do feel loved and validated become a place where we may ask for practical suggestions.

One of the most common challenges to mental health today is problematic anxiety. The brain systems that generate anxiety are ancient, and they evolved to cope with things like sabre-toothed tigers and the possibility of not making it through the winter. In our society, real fears abound. I have a long list of fears that my anxiety mind pores over, and you may as well. Compared with our ancestors, though, life today is relatively safe (at least in terms of things that would kill us, like accidents, murders by hostile neighboring tribes, animal maulings, etc.). Nonetheless, the vestiges of our “survival mode” anxiety still cause us to identify and then avoid feared stimuli like the plague. The fact that we continue to live following the application of that strategy causes our anxiety minds to think they are doing a great job—barely keeping us alive amidst a sea of perils! They say something like, “Wow, anxiety kept me safe! I’d better keep that anxiety flowing so I can remain safe next time.” And to be sure, they do help us, as anyone who has finished college, walked safely along a steep embankment or played a more socially conservative role to fit into a new social group can attest (anxiety helps us do all of these things). Often, though, anxiety is too strong or too constant, limiting our ability to enjoy the safety and bounty of the world we inhabit. For some of us, this reaches the level of a disorder requiring treatment. For all of us, our mental health is seemingly diminished compared to what it could be. We’re missing out on the abundant life that Jesus offered.

Part of Jesus’ answer for how to experience real life and the Kingdom of God applies to this modern problem of anxiety. His counterintuitive message was that we should die unto ourselves—lay down our lives, utterly exposing ourselves to the danger we fear most, for the sake of a friend or even a stranger. How would your life be different if you were able to “let go” in this way?