Our students are bombarded with an unprecedented amount of “mental health” jargon and many students are adopting pathologized identities (e.g., “I am a cutter,” “I am a bullied person,” “I am gender dysphoric”). In this cultural milieu, it is imperative that we guide our students to understand themselves and their place in the world with coherent wholeness. Part of how we guide is by conceiving persons as unified wholes instead of a collection of fragmented parts. Someone’s desire for self-harm is not disconnected from one’s physical sensation, thought-patterns, or relationship with God. Similarly, feeling gender dysphoria confusion is not isolated from one’s physicality nor is it isolated from how one relates to God’s design. In an attempt at thinking more holistically about what it means to live a flourishing life, I want to pose a question:
As Christians, should we replace “mental health” with “soul health?”
In the rest of this post, I will argue that “soul health” is a more capacious concept that can help us think about health in a more complete way. Primarily, I will argue that “soul” includes all of the concepts we normally classify as “mental.” In addition, I will argue that “soul health” points toward additional resources that help us flourish and achieve happiness.
Historical use of “soul”
The term “psychology” is a rather recent development. Literally, the term is inspired by Greek words that mean something like “the study of the soul” and seems to have been coined in Germany sometime during the 16th century. However, as it was initially developed, “psychology” was a narrower subfield of “pneumatology” which was itself a subclass of Christian theology that studied “spiritual” substances. Psychology was the study of the human spiritual substance.
Moreover, many ancient theories of the soul were anything but simplistic. Scripture itself affirms a complex reality of the soul. The soul has the capacity to love, obey, and seek God. The soul is capable of knowledge. The soul can be in a state of bitterness, a state of grief or anguish. The soul can rejoice and it can desire. The soul is distinct from the body, but intimately connected to it. The soul can also be conflicted.
Outside the biblical text, other respected ancient sources attributed mental activity to the soul. Plato’s investigation of the soul in the Republic tries to account for the various ways different aspects of the soul interact with each other and how these interactions lead to virtuous or vicious states or dispositions. In addition, Plato attempts to understand and prescribe how to order the soul to achieve a “just” state. For Plato, a just state of the soul is one where the aspects of the soul operate in harmony so that the soul, and therefore the whole person, flourishes.
The early Christian tradition appropriated some of the Platonic framework to develop a vision of the soul consistent with Christian theology. Gregory of Nyssa in his commentary on the life of Moses, asserts that one who puts their faith in Christ has a just soul in the way Plato described (pp. 58-59). Augustine spends almost half of the space in his work On the Trinity (Books VIII-XV) discussing the complex nature of the human soul and how it reflects God’s image. As part of this development, Augustine attempts to understand the nature of a person’s motivations, volition, thinking, and feeling and how all of these particulars relate to one another.
In summary, historically, much of what we attribute to “mental health” was discussed as conditions of the soul. For instance, some anxiety disorders might be thought to be something like a disconnect between one’s thinking and one’s emotions or we might think about addiction as a dissonance between competing desires. Plato argued that the best kind of life one could live included harmony between one’s thoughts, emotions, and physiological urges. Christian views agreed with this basic picture and added that a good life consists in psychological harmony that is directed toward God.
Soul as a concept
The concept of “soul health” offers a more holistic understanding of what it means to be healthy than the contemporary notion of “mental health.” Since its inception, the concept of “mental health” or “mental hygiene” has been used primarily as a contrast to mental disorder. That is, mental disorder has been the core concept so that “mental health” has come to be defined as an absence of mental disorder. However, in the last few decades, there has been pushback against professional psychology’s anemic account of mental health. This pushback was the impetus behind the development of the positive psychology movement. “Positive Psychology is founded on the belief that people want more than an end to suffering. People want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play. We have the opportunity to create a science and a profession that not only heals psychological damage but also builds strengths to enable people to achieve the best things in life” (UPenn Positive Psychology Center). In more classical language, positive psychology seeks to help people to flourish.
In contrast to thinking about health as merely the absence of disorder, often one’s soul condition has been the most important factor in determining whether someone is healthy and thus, flourishing. Plato writes, “Then virtue is the health, and beauty, and well-being of the soul, and vice the disease, weakness, and deformity of the same” (Republic, 444e). Plato argues that this state of the soul leads to living an excellent life. Augustine argues that peace is the goal of all creatures, especially humans. Human peace includes an ordered relationship between one’s mind and one’s body as well as an ordered relationship within one’s mind (City of God 19.13). Moreover, Scripture indicates that living the good life requires one to crucify their sinful desires and be led by the Holy Spirit to develop excellence of the soul (Galatians 5:13-25).
This concern, though, directs us toward an upside of “soul health.” “Soul health” allows us to think about how “mental health” affects one’s moral conduct and how one’s moral conduct affects one’s mental health. For instance, pornography addiction is linked to depression and antisocial behaviors. “Soul health” allows us to investigate the kinds of habits and dispositions that have been associated with right living and how these habits and dispositions promote a healthy inner life. Promoting moral living does not mean that all mental disorders and ailments can be cured by just “living the right way.” Instead, “soul health” allows for right living to be part of a toolkit that includes medication, neuroscientific research, and psychological best practices.
More importantly, though, “soul health” allows us to incorporate Jesus’ prescriptions about persons’ souls into the way we think about and encourage health. For instance, consider Jesus’ statement in Matthew 16. “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” In this passage, the English words life and soul are translating different forms of the same Greek word psyche. Thus, Jesus declared that the best kind of life someone can live is one that is lived in utter submission to Him even if this way of life includes suffering. Thus, one cannot be fully healthy unless one is submitted to Christ.
But, I do not think the upside of “soul health” runs in only one direction. I have spent most of my time arguing that “soul health” brings conceptual resources that can help reorient the modern “mental health” discussion. Yet, if what we have come to know through psychology and neuroscience is true, this contemporary information can provide insight and nuance into how we understand the soul in our theology. For instance, is it possible that Jesus experienced something analogous to traumatic dissociation during His cry of dereliction on the cross? How might His experience shed light onto our own traumatic experiences? How might Jesus’ incarnation and atonement provide a way for thinking about healing from trauma?
In summary, I have argued that “soul health” is a better conceptual framework for Christians to address the holistic needs of people than “mental health.” This is because “soul health” is a more expansive concept that can incorporate insight from current “mental health” research and practice. But unlike secular “mental health,” “soul health” also provides resources for thinking about what has been traditionally thought of as the spiritual nature of human beings. “Soul health” reminds us that our minds are only truly healthy when they are properly in a state of shalom in relationship with God and desiring the Good in all things.