“For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” 2 Timothy 1:7
These days, you cannot open social media or watch the news without hearing the words “mental health.” But what does that mean?
That’s a good question – what is Mental Illness?
People have been asking that question for thousands of years, and the results have been instructive, alarming, and sometimes downright entertaining. For example, the word ‘hysteria’ originates from the ancient Greek word for ‘uterus’ (hystera) and was originally a medical diagnosis. Also called ‘wandering womb,’ it attempted to explain various physical and emotional ailments of women with the notion that a woman’s womb literally “wandered” around her body stirring up trouble.
I kid you not.
Thankfully, we have made strides in understanding since those times. In the past century, scholars and practitioners have conducted countless studies to learn how the mind works. Through those studies, we have increased our knowledge of what mental illness is, as well as how best to love and care for those who are struggling.
Mental health has two basic components: Biology and Environment. You may have heard of their other two names: Nature and Nurture. The two are linked very closely together, and separating them is difficult, but let’s give it a shot! This post will focus mostly on the impact of biology (nature) on our mental health, and we’ll discuss the role of our environment (nurture) more deeply in our next post.
Here’s the main point: When either of these parts are misaligned, they have a big effect on the way we function, leading to a chemical imbalance in our brains – mental illness.
Biology (or nature) refers to that which is written in our genes. Just like eye color or the size of our feet (thanks, Dad!), we inherit genetic tendencies for mental illness, too. Depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, alcoholism/addiction, and many many more have been observed passing from one generation to the next and to the next.
Does this mean that you are going to be an alcoholic if your grandmother was one? Not necessarily. Does this place you and your children at a higher risk of developing an addiction? Yes, it does. But why?
Let’s talk about genetic vulnerability. I like to use the analogy of two cups, one which is empty and one which already contains some water. Maybe this illustration will help:
The cup on the left (and the water in it) represents a person (Person A) who is predisposed to something – cancer, diabetes, depression, addiction, PTSD, anxiety, obesity, heart disease, or any other condition. The cup, or person (Person B), on the right has no vulnerability. Are you with me? Let’s keep going…
Now, imagine that Person B, with no genetic vulnerability (the empty cup), experiences a lot of environmental stress, such as an unhealthy lifestyle, job stress, relationship trouble, etc. Their cup becomes nearly full, but it does not overflow. Person B is not a happy camper, but no illness has been triggered. They have not developed the disorder or disease.
Now, back to Person A. They experience the exact same experience as Person B, but their cup overflows. Person A has now developed anxiety, depression, diabetes, cancer, or some different disorder.
To use a real-life example, two soldiers are deployed in the same unit – housed together, drilled together, and fight alongside each other. They have nearly identical experiences. One comes home with PTSD, the other does not. That is genetic vulnerability at work.
“Why are you telling me this, Sarah? I know how sickness is passed through families. I read the internet.”
Why is this important?
For so long, those who struggled with mental illness were judged harshly by their families, friends, and society. Mental illness was considered something that wasn’t real at worst, and a weakness at best. Evidence of poor character. Even sinful or a judgment from God.
“Why are you depressed? Your life is great! You just aren’t being grateful!”
“What are you so worried about? You just aren’t trusting God enough.”
“My cousin was deployed and he didn’t come back with PTSD. You must be weak.”
“Why can’t you just stop drinking? I can have a drink anytime I want, and it’s not a problem.”
As our understanding of the medical nature of mental illness has deepened, the stigma surrounding mental illness has begun to fade. As we continue to learn, we become better equipped to care for and minister to those around us who suffer from mental illness. We do not tell someone with a broken leg that “you just aren’t trying hard enough to feel better.” We care for them, help them get treatment, and support them as they recover. We can do the same for a mental illness.
Though our choices, righteous and sinful, right and wrong, obviously have a big impact on our health and the course of our lives (we will talk about that more next time!), we cannot ignore the impact of our genes. Our bodies, minds, and spirits are knitted together inextricably. Each part influences all the rest, designed by God to work in harmony for His glory:
“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” Psalm 139:13-14a
God does not make mistakes. Sometimes, the weight of mental illness feels like a curse, isolating us from God, our families, and our communities, but God can use ALL things to work together for good and for His glory. He walks with us through all of our struggles and all of our burdens, and He has given us communities of believers to help shoulder those weights, as well. We don’t have to bear them alone.
“In my distress I called to the LORD, and He answered and set me free.” Psalm 118:5
In my next post, we’ll talk about how our choices, as well as other factors in our environment, influence our mental health and how we can use those factors to work toward staying healthy.
Sarah Bradley is originally from Eclectic and is a member at RHC. She is a licensed Marriage & Family Therapist Associate and has a private practice in Auburn. She is married to John and mom to Asa.