According to new 2023 findings, over 20 percent of Americans were afflicted with a mental illness during the 2019–2020 period. That’s some fifty million Americans. Half of those reported not receiving treatment. Battles with substance abuse and other types of addictions, trauma symptoms, suicidal thoughts, and even domestic violence have hugely increased. We are in the midst of a mental health crisis, raising the question, what does the Bible say about mental health?
There’s no sign of these trends slowing. According to a CNN poll, 90 percent of Americans say the US is experiencing a mental health crisis. This is especially worrying for the youngest generation, Gen Z.
As a psychologist and therapist for more than thirty-five years, I have worked with literally hundreds of good people struggling mightily with mental health problems. The fact that I am also a lifelong believer has impacted my worldview, which you will see has influenced my thinking about mental health.
Now, let’s seek to better understand how the mind works, the interplay of our thoughts and feelings, the contrasts between what mentally healthy and mentally unhealthy people do, and, ultimately, what the Bible might prescribe for our mental health.
How your mind works
Implicit in mental health is the idea of a “sound mind.” Soundness means having the ability to function in a healthy way. It means you’re capable of generating “non-depressed” or “non-anxious” responses to stresses and challenges. Mental health requires the capacity to ascertain and embrace reality. A mentally healthy person is controlled by rational thought and truth rather than by fear, hopelessness, or other painful but transient emotions.
We are, after all, “homo sapiens.” Sapient means that we’re capable of deep thought, of wisdom, of intellect, and of reason. You have a big brain, which renders you intrinsically capable of being a thinker, of being intelligent and logical. Your mind can direct your choices, thoughts, behaviors, and feelings. This is your superpower, the tool given to you as made in God’s image.
To be of a sound mind means to be characterized by reasoned good judgment. To be mentally healthy is to fully live in reality. Indeed, it seems obvious that willfully or inadvertently choosing to believe in a falsehood is a set-up for trouble. To the extent that you believe something that isn’t true, you are at risk. The more that you believe distortions and lies, the more you are open to the consequences of those misplaced beliefs. For example:
- If you believe you can jump out of a second-floor office window without being hurt, you’re placing yourself at risk.
- If you hold it to be true (the very definition of a belief) that you should never make an error, then you’re primed to feel worthless when your human imperfections emerge.
- If you believe no one can really be trusted, then your relationships will be impaired.
Anxiety and depression might thus be accurately thought of as byproducts of distorted thinking—of believing lies rather than the truth. On the other hand, mental health requires, and is characterized by, living in truth with a minimum of defenses or distortions.
Those who struggle with depression are typically plagued by thoughts such as: “At my core I am unlovable and somehow defective.” Or, “I should be perfect.” If you accept such thoughts as truth or allow them to go unchecked, you’ll inevitably experience the feelings that would accompany that distortion if it were true. Feelings such as sadness or hopelessness, perhaps even suicidal thoughts, could reasonably be expected.
Why wouldn’t they? In your unrealistic thinking, you inadvertently exaggerated the reality of your hopeless plight. Then your emotion followed proportionately. All the while, your brain is constantly generating thoughts consistent with your distorted appreciation of truth—because that’s just how your brain (and mine) works. Such malicious, untrue thoughts drive depression.
Similarly, those who struggle with anxiety are typically plagued by thoughts of vulnerability and threat, such as: “It will be awful if she doesn’t like me,” or, “It would be horrible if I make a mistake.” If you accept those as truth or allow them to go unchecked, you’ll inevitably get the feelings that would accompany that distortion if it were true. Feelings such as fear, panic, and the impulse to avoid or escape could reasonably be expected.
Again, why wouldn’t they? In your unrealistic thinking, you inadvertently exaggerated the true peril. Then your emotion followed proportionately. All the while, your brain is constantly generating thoughts consistent with your distorted appreciation of truth. Such malicious, untrue thoughts drive anxiety as well.
How your thoughts and feelings interact
By design, the part of your brain that thinks and the part that feels are not the same. Anatomically, they are literally separate. For homo sapiens, the physiology is such that the thinking parts dominate, or direct, the feeling parts. Yet we are often much more aware of and focused on the emotion than of the thoughts that created the emotion. In other words, feelings are a product of thoughts.
Painful feelings (e.g., depression, anxiety) result from thoughts that generate painful feelings. Pleasant feelings (e.g., peace, joy, hope) result from thoughts that generate pleasant feelings. The feeling parts are not “rational.” Of course they’re not; they’re feelings! Feelings don’t act; they react—to thoughts. Emotions are a result of, at the mercy of, and reliant on the accuracy of thoughts. When thoughts become distorted and are not true or rational, they inevitably produce distorted and potentially damaging feelings. The painful feelings we call emotional problems are the product of irrational thought patterns.
- are correct or incorrect
- are accurate or inaccurate
- are valid or invalid reflections of reality have moral value
- are right or wrong
- are true or untrue
In contrast, emotions are byproducts of thoughts. Consequently, emotions don’t have moral value—they’re just feelings, neither right nor wrong. Certainly, some are more desirable than others. I’d much rather feel happy than sad, but it is not “wrong” to feel sad. Such a feeling might be pointless, unnecessary, or disproportionate to the situation, but feeling sad is not wrong morally. Feelings are just feelings.
However, the part of your brain that matters, in terms of where your emotions go in response to those thoughts, can’t tell the difference between a true thought and a false one. So, an emotion gets generated as if your thoughts were accurate—even when they’re distorted.
For example, if you believe that your spouse no longer loves you, you will have the feelings that go with that circumstance without regard to his or her true sentiments. “As [a man] thinketh in his heart, so is he” (Proverbs 23:7 KJV). Yet, I have argued above that, to the extent you accept something false as the truth, you are in jeopardy, and mental health requires living in truth. To be mentally healthy, you must tell yourself the truth. And you will lose mental health to the extent that you do not tell yourself the truth.
However, we live in an age that increasingly rejects the idea that objective, indisputable truth even exists. Many prefer to believe that it is all relative, that your truth may be different from my truth. Many see the answer to the question, “How’s that working for you?” as the critical criteria. If it’s working, then it’s a good thought. If it’s not working, it’s a bad thought.
In 2 Timothy 3:16, Paul tells us that “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” Scripture was given by the inspiration of God—the ultimate source of truth—and is useful for correcting our thinking. At this point, Christians stand in direct contrast to our culture. Part of the definition of being a Christian is submission to and acceptance of God’s truth rather than our own.
If you’re to live in reality, you must consider your Creator’s perspective. You must accept his definition of truth.
To increase your level of mental health, you must increase your level of healthy thinking. But is there hope that any of us can actually do so?
If so, how?
How to increase your healthy thinking
The anatomy and physiology of your big brain means that it is independently and spontaneously generating thoughts all the time. That’s simply what it does and is supposed to do. I once had a patient who accurately and succinctly described his brain as “secreting” thoughts. What those thoughts are—the content of what pops out of your brain—is outside of your conscious choice or control, perhaps even your awareness.
However, this is vital to realize: you most certainly have an impact on what happens to those thoughts after they pop in. Therein lies your power. But the other side of the double-edged sword may appear, and you fail to use your power to intervene. If you’re going to feel differently, you must think differently.
In the absence of an intentional effort to change, your brain tends to develop patterns of thought or belief systems that become ingrained or automatic. You tend to continue to think the way that life—events, circumstances, and teachers—taught you to think. You get stuck in what might be called thinking habits and tend to accept them without question (if, indeed, you are even aware of them at all).
Absent intervention, your brain tends to just go with whatever thoughts pop out. After all, it’s what your brain told you, so it must be accurate, right? It rings true to you. And, once you believe something, you tend to gather reinforcing data and ignore things that might challenge your comfortable, well-rehearsed (though perhaps miserable) way of thinking. So, since you had the thought, or have always thought it, or were taught by powerful people or life events to think it, that thought is inevitably true and you must continue to think it, right?
That big brain is constantly secreting, and you simply don’t choose what pops out. Part of your humanness means that you’re flawed and will have some damaging lies masquerading as truth. That’s one product of living in a fallen world. Martin Luther is credited with saying, “You cannot prevent the birds from flying in the air over your head, but you can certainly prevent them from building a nest in your hair.” A therapist friend had a bumper sticker that said: “Don’t believe everything you think.” You must actively and vigilantly patrol your thoughts and assess for truth. If you expect to improve your mental health, you have to improve the veracity of your way of thinking.
First, consider this perspective.
Your big brain likes information. It wants to grow and do a better and better job of protecting you and getting your needs met. You have nourished this brain in just the last few minutes by your attention to this essay. The simple acquisition of new information and determination to apply it has started you already on the path to health. You now are in possession of psychological principles—of a way of thinking about mental health—that is consistent with objective, biblically sound truth. Never again do you need to be confused about what is generating emotional distress; it is distorted thinking.
Second, thoughts may accurately be conceptualized as conversations in your brain that you are having with yourself.
Everyone has those conversations, although the “volume” can be very low—until you intentionally begin to listen in. Yet what goes on at the level of those conversations is extremely powerful in determining your emotional state or your mental health. It is possible to tune in more effectively to those conversations and even to begin to alter them.
Note that the same “rules” which apply in your conversations with other people also apply in conversations with yourself. You might tell your friend that he is defective, unlovable, and hopeless, but it should not surprise you if doing so damaged him and your relationship. In the same manner, you cannot allow such thoughts to occur unopposed in your conversation with yourself and then wonder why that damages you and the relationship you have with yourself. The rule of thumb is that if you wouldn’t say it to someone you cared and wanted the best for, you cannot say it to yourself. Unchecked lies inevitably damage. If it’s not consistent with biblical truth, it has to go.
If your goal is to be mentally healthy, you must endeavor in all things to tell yourself truth and to intentionally fill your mind with truth. You have to challenge and alter whatever thoughts move you toward a decrease in health and an increase in the likelihood of depression and anxiety. You have to take captive destructive thinking patterns. You have to teach yourself a new skill. You have to replace automatic, deeply ingrained (but dynamic and ever-changing) distortions with truth. You have to, as Romans 12:2 admonishes, renew your mind.
Third, if you are going to change something, you first have to figure out what needs to be changed.
In other words, you must begin to tune in or listen in to those conversations effectively. In my experience, each of us seems to have a “volume” setting that is our norm. Some seem to be naturally aware of the thoughts their brains generate more than others, to have a louder default setting. Others may be so oblivious that they doubt such conversations are even happening. Without regard to where you start, it is possible to turn up the sound level. There are two ways to begin this part of the work that leads to an increase in your awareness.
You’ve already begun the first. It is simply to grasp the intellectual truth that those conversations are occurring and to commit to making a sincere effort, including the investment of energy involved in finding them. You have to work at listening, to become an “active listener.”
Do a little thought experiment wherever you are right now. Be still and listen for a moment to whatever ambient sounds are around you. I can hear a white noise maker, the air rushing out of the heating system, my clock ticking, a car passing outside, and a mockingbird—none of which I was aware of as I began to type this sentence.
What can you hear?
Then, in a similar vein, tune in to your thoughts. Teach yourself to listen better. Practice. Exert your will. Teach an old dog a new trick. What are you telling yourself in conjunction with the feelings you are wishing to change? Capture these and write them down. This is an ongoing process that requires effort and vigilance.
The second is less accurate than actually listening and hearing but still quite functional. It involves deductive logic. If thoughts cause feelings and you are having some feelings—especially those painful, unwanted ones—then you know you are having painful-feeling generating thoughts. When you have a “surge” of emotion, that is a signal that you just had a thought. You can work backward. Deductive logic tells us that if thoughts cause feelings and you have a feeling, you had a thought. Now backtrack. Follow that trail! What thought must you just have had to produce the surge?
After you’ve heard your thoughts, you are in a position to assess, evaluate, and make decisions about them.
- Is what you’re hearing true?
- Is it a thought you’d advise others to listen to, to tolerate, or even to embrace?
- Is it something you’d like to nest in your hair?
- Is it something you’d be comfortable if others knew you were thinking it?
If the answer is no, the thought is creating a problem for you. It’s damaging your mental health. And it must be confronted. You have to replace lies and distortions with truth.
What might you suggest a friend say to self instead of the distortion? What does your self need to hear that is edifying rather than destructive?
Most importantly, what would God say? What’s the biblical truth?
- “Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:13).
- “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8).
- “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).
- “You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you” (Isaiah 26:3).
- “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Colossians 3:2).
- “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).
- “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).
Renewing the mind is an ongoing, dynamic, ever-changing task. It requires listening for lies, catching them, and replacing them with truth. Renewing your mind can be done, but it requires understanding, work, vigilance, and commitment.
But mental health is the reward.
“3 reasons why churches fail at mental health” Chris Legg, LPC
“Struggling with mental illness? Consider these 7 ideas” Chris Legg, LPC