This is one blog in a series where I will be reflecting on the subject of mental illness. My purpose is not to lead the reader to the same conclusions I have, but to facilitate better conversations and reflections on this subject within the church.

In the previous post I examined several definitions of mental illness and tried to summarize their key points of similarity and difference. In this post, I will offer my definition of mental illness and highlights the points I am trying to emphasize with this definition.

Mental illness is a life struggle, which is common to all people to some degree, that significantly (degree of impact) and persistently (duration of influence) impairs an individual’s mental-social-emotional ability to function. With the exception of responses to trauma, this impairment is beyond a normal response to their life circumstances. The strengths and weaknesses associated with particular personality qualities and aptitudes are not mental illness.

Mental illness may have its cause in the physical body (i.e., brain chemistry, habituated neural pathways, genetics, glandular system, viral or bacterial infection, etc…), environmental causes (i.e., trauma, poor socialization, abusive-neglectful home life, etc…), personal choices (i.e., the consequences of sinful or foolish decisions on a spectrum from isolated bad choices with significant emotional-relational implication to addiction), or a combination of these causes.

The primary declaration made by the term mental illness is outside help is needed because the passing of time is unlikely to produce the desired decrease of symptoms. Based on this definition of mental illness any number of soul-body physician-counselors may be relevant and effective in assisting the process of change. A mental illness may be a true disease, a syndrome, or a consequence of life choices / circumstances.

This definition seeks to protect the distinction between “normal day-to-day emotional struggles” and “mental illness,” and, thereby, protect against over-diagnosis and prescription. At the same time, this definition seeks to acknowledge that the symptoms of mental illness are commonly experienced by every person; recognizing that the symptoms of mental illness are not the mental-emotional equivalent of a sixth sense or third arm. This protects against stigmatizing those who struggle with mental illness like emotional mutants in a therapeutic X-Men movie.

The bullet points below clarify key points in this definition.

  • Common to all people – emotional regulation, reality testing, and social awareness are struggles all people face
  • Degree of impact – in order to qualify as a mental illness a struggle must impair someone’s ability to function
  • Duration of influence – in order to qualify as mental illness a struggle must last longer than is normal for its trigger
  • Outside personality trait and aptitudes – the advantages or disadvantages of particular personality types or aptitudes should not be confused with mental illness
  • No one universal cause – our cognitive-emotional systems and struggles are too complex to reduce to a single cause
  • Multiple relevant helpers – the term mental illness should not result in an exclusive or restricted domain of helping relationships; effective care for complex problems will cover the spectrum of formal to informal care