According to the National Institute of Health, twenty percent of adults in the United States experienced mental illness in 2019.1 Suicide was the second highest cause of death for individuals aged 10 to 34,2 and out of every age group, mental illnesses were most prevalent among young adults aged 18 to 25, accounting for 29% of the population. These numbers continue to rise every year without signs of stopping as more people begin to suffer from mental illnesses and not enough seek treatment.3 If we wish to prevent the deterioration of the mental health of our nation, we must first understand the source of the problem: the causes of mental illness and the steps in the recovery process.
Mental illness can originate from a combination of biological, psychological, or environmental factors, ranging from genetic dispositions to severe trauma to cultural expectations.4 Many of the root problems behind these factors, especially the biological ones, are outside of our control – we cannot choose our genes, skin color, or biological parents, and we have little to no choice regarding the circumstances we were raised in.
Consequently, improving the situation necessitates mitigating potential psychological and environmental stressors, and thus requires a significant change in our culture. Without a drastic shift in the widespread beliefs and expectations of people, attempting to heave our nation out of the deep pit of poor mental health is like taping a bandage to a broken arm. For example, if the shaming of overweight individuals results in people obsessing over losing weight, then the solution is to remove all biases around weight until our culture no longer regards anyone differently due to their weight. If abuse is a cause of trauma, then the solution is to reform the systems and beliefs that induce unhealthy relationships to prevent abuse from happening in the first place.
The problem with this approach lies in the optimism of the solutions; it seems like wishful thinking for our society to achieve this perfect harmony in the near future. Even slightly improving the situation is extremely difficult because it requires educating as many people as possible about their prejudices and the condition of their mental health, and then trusting those people to apply what they learned to their lives on a daily basis. Because mental health stems from the mind, the method of thinking requires fixing first, which should theoretically fix the actions that result from unhealthy or problematic thinking. However, expecting everyone to reject one’s conditioned beliefs and actively choose to act in a healthy manner is unrealistic; it requires time, effort, and a shift in mentality that can be elusive. Assuming that a significant culture shift is too idealistic, another option of improving the mental health of our nation is to reform the process of recovery.
The road to recovery is long and winding, featuring a handful of smooth segments and a multitude of bumpy ones. Contrasting to the numerous slopes that descend into mental illness, the road to recovery contains one central road, paved on a solid foundation, that all others branch from: hope.5 The common definition of hope is to desire with anticipation, or to want something to happen or be true.6 In the context of mental health, hope means the desire to recover – the desire to gain control over one’s mental condition and lead a fulfilling life. Without hope, without the belief that life has the possibility of becoming fulfilling, the branches of the other factors in recovery are stunted and unable to grow. Similar to how a person with a physical illness recovers because their body fights to help them get better, a person with a mental illness must also desire to recover in order for it to happen.
So, what constitutes a fulfilling life, and why do so many feel that their life is unfulfilling? People from all walks of life have suffered from mental illness, no matter the state of their situation. The rich, the poor, the healthy family, the broken family, the social outcast, and the popular crowd may all experience a loss of hope and meaning in their lives. In certain environments such as academically rigorous universities or jobs with high expectations and regular overtime, poor mental health stemming from stress, depression, and anxiety is even normalized. On the other hand, the opposite is true: many rich people, many poor people, and people from different family backgrounds may find fulfillment in their lives, even if their situation is unpleasant.
If the circumstances of one’s life fails to explain the state of one’s mental health, then hope must be independent of the circumstances. What then does one find hope in – what does one desire with anticipation? At the most basic level, humans desire food and water, because those are necessary ingredients for survival. However, these often overlooked desires must constantly be met for us to feel fulfilled. Eating a good meal is enjoyable and satisfies your hunger, but within a few hours, you will start craving food again.
In the same way, the greatest desires that one may structure their entire life around must also be fulfilled again and again. Looking for hope in performance always requires one to continue performing; finding hope in financial security means that your hope is crushed when you lose your job; finding hope in popularity is dependent on others liking you; finding hope in relationships means that you lose hope when another person cannot live up to your expectations. Placing hope in something that can disappear in an instant is unsustainable because of the uncertainty. The treasures of our lives are but a breeze that is here today and gone tomorrow, yet we still attempt to find fulfillment in things that will never fulfill us. Many who struggle with poor mental health are often keenly aware of this fact – it is common to believe that because nothing in life can provide everlasting hope, there is no true hope in the world.
C.S. Lewis once wrote, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.”7 Lewis implies that we will never find true contentment in this world because our desires point to something greater than ourselves: a perfect universe where our hope is not in anything temporary or fleeting. In this ideal world, our culture would be perfectly healthy – our relationships would be healed, prejudices would not exist, and everyone would be financially secure. The broken systems that result in injustice would be restored, all fears and anxieties would be gone, and all the descending paths that deteriorate mental health would cease to exist.
In the Christian worldview, this ideal world is what heaven will look like, and our true hope is found in Jesus Christ. Only Christ can fill the holes in our hearts that we try to fill with everything except Him. In Matthew 11:28-30, Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Hope rooted in Christ means coming to him for rest, with all your weariness and burdens, and placing all your hope in him instead of in something that is here today and gone tomorrow. The common definition of hope implies some uncertainty, because one cannot be sure that what they hope for will actually happen. However, the Christian definition of hope is trusting that what God says is true: despite our imperfection, Christ loves us so much that he died for us, in order for us to join him in heaven. Putting your hope in Christ means knowing that God never fails to keep a promise, and trusting that God calls you worthy of his love even if you feel unworthy.8
Even though the hope of Christ brings healing, mental health is an ongoing struggle for Christians. There are many Christians who have experienced mental health struggles for years while still knowing that they are deeply loved by God.9 Romans 8:38-39 states, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” No matter how challenging circumstances prove to be, nothing can separate us from the love of God. The Christian life is difficult, and until we experience the perfection of heaven, we continue to fall and get back up over and over again. We cannot be perfectly healed in our broken world, but the hope of Christ is a perfect hope that will never fail.
1 “Mental Illness,” National Institute of Mental Health (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services), accessed November 30, 2021, https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/mental-illness.
2 “Suicide,” National Institute of Mental Health (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services), accessed November 30, 2021, https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/suicide.
3 “The State of Mental Health in America,” Mental Health America, accessed November 30, 2021, https://mhanational.org/issues/state-mental-health-america.
4 “Causes of Mental Illness,” WebMD (WebMD), accessed November 30, 2021, https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/mental-health-causes-mental-illness.
5 Tanvi Acharya and Mark Agius, “The Importance of Hope against Other Factors in the Recovery of Mental Illness,” Psychiatria Danubina (U.S. National Library of Medicine), accessed November 30, 2021, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28953841/.
6 “Hope Definition & Meaning,” Merriam-Webster (Merriam-Webster), accessed November 30, 2021, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hope.
7 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996).
8 “What Is so Important about Christian Hope?,” Desiring God, March 7, 2008, https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/what-is-so-important-about-christian-hope.
9 Tara Isabella Burton, “Christian Faith Communities Are Often on the Front Lines of Mental Health Care,” Vox (Vox, October 6, 2017), https://www.vox.com/identities/2017/10/6/16395772/christian-faith-communities-churches-mental-health-care-anxiety-depression-mental-illness-awareness.