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David Hegg: Ethics and the definition of mental health

Ethically Speaking

Posted: October 28, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: October 28, 2012 2:00 a.m.
 

The concept of mental health is one that has dominated our society in recent years. Since the beginning of time, physical health has been recognized as essential to wellbeing. But in the last half-century, concern for mental health has become an equal focus for both individuals and society. Much that was once recognized as aberrant behavior is now considered simply the consequential fruit of mental disease.

Unlike physical illness, mental illness is often quite subjective in its manifestation. In fact, some have suggested that psychology and psychotherapy are the only causes of the very diseases they profess to cure. The rise of these areas of study seems to have brought about a spontaneous flood of mental health cases.

In the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report of 1999, “mental health” as defined by the surgeon general “refers to the successful performance of mental function, resulting in productive activities, fulfilling relationships with other people, and the ability to adapt to change and cope with adversity.” If we look carefully at this definition we see that the criteria by which mental health is adjudicated has everything to do with the ethics and values of the society in which we live.

Notice that the definition rests on “productive” activity, “fulfilling” relationships, “adapting” to change, and “coping” with adversity. In each case, the way mental health is to be understood and demonstrated depends on how society defines these key modifiers. What is “productive” activity? Who decides what makes a relationship “fulfilling?” What does proper “adaptation” to change look like, and what is considered adequate “coping” with adversity. Who gets to decide?

The answer to these questions is simply that there are intrinsic moral and ethical standards and guidelines that are part of the fabric of ordered society. They may differ in degree in various societies, but all have an “understood” standard by which to measure behavior. And, more to the point here, it is adherence to those values that constitutes mental health.

So, what happens in a society when the “understood” morals and ethical standards begin to unravel? What happens when those in the society stop believing that there are, and ought to be, absolute values that must be mutually agreed upon? In short, what happens when truth is no longer valued in public discourse, honesty is no longer practiced in the marketplace, and love is no longer understood as a commitment rather than a lustful diversion? The answer must be that the society devolves into a mess of mental and spiritual conflicts, confusion and ultimately, widespread depravity.

If I’m right, a primary defense against an erosion of our mental health must be the promotion and defense of basic societal values. Ethics are, apparently, the guardrails that keep our society’s cars from running off the road and into the ditch of dysfunction. While the psychiatric community prescribes various medicines to help those diagnosed as mentally diseased, perhaps just as important might be a prescription to be painstakingly honest, both with self and others.

Perhaps as we are inoculating our kids against various diseases we should be paying more attention to imparting to them a sense of moral value, respect for authority, chastity, purity, honesty and good ole right and wrong. If our mental health depends on a strong ethic then the best thing we can do for ourselves, our children and our country is buck the trend of personal pragmatism and return to a radical understanding that the basic moral values are not up for grabs.

The same Creator who has endowed us with inalienable rights also poured into us a moral conscience designed to reflect his standards. When, by his grace, we are brought into alignment with him, we find more than mental health. We find peace in the midst of chaos, purpose in the midst of confusion and hope both in this world and the next. Now that’s what I call great mental health.

David W. Hegg is senior pastor at Grace Baptist Church in Santa Clarita.

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