Connecting Spirituality and Mental Health

It is somewhat commonplace at Boston College to lament the apparent lack of mental health resources available to students. I am not sure, however, that this qualm is accurate if we look at less “medical” approaches to these issues.

Based on what seems to me to be a proper understanding of the spiritual nature of many of the “mental health” problems that affect most students, BC does an admirable job in making resources available for maintaining our emotional well-being. In addressing its student welfare, the University seems to honor this specific understanding.

There are certain types of mental health issues that I am not trying to discuss. I am not intending to address those students who are in need of psychiatric care, who are at risk for self-harm, or are suicidal. It does not seem fair to expect BC to provide full treatment for these sorts of psychiatric problems, except in the case of an emergency. These are medical problems, to be dealt with by each student’s doctor, and not primary concerns of the University itself.

What BC should do is address is the quiet, yet deep, sense of aimlessness that overcomes students as they decide what to make of their lives. I think the group of people that I intend to discuss, and the people that many claim BC’s lack of mental health resources fails to sufficiently support, are the same.

The criticism of BC often comes from the belief that the suitable way to solve conditions described as “mental health” issues would be treatments based on the medical model. The brain, some say, is just like any other organ. Problems that affect say, the liver, are to be treated in accordance with certain scientific principles. Those that affect the lungs, similarly, are subject to another set of principles.

The position I believe many people implicitly hold is that mental health problems, widely understood, are able to be treated by the same type of scientific principles, ones that happen to be specific to the brain’s functioning. Unhappiness is associated with certain chemicals in the brain, so all that needs to be done is to manipulate the brain in such a way with which the undesirable chemicals are dealt. The treatment of a “mental health” problem is thought to be a matter of biology. Many seem to argue that the unhappiness that students sometimes feel could be fixed if BC would devote more resources and funding to University Counseling Services (UCS).

Another way of looking at problems of emotional well-being, one which I think is more natural to a Jesuit institution, is to view them in light of a person’s spirituality. Whereas the medical model seems tied to unease regarding dealing with problems unless they fall under medical categories, the spiritual interpretation of unhappiness attempts to look at the unhappy person as not just an organism, but as a person. The language shifts from that of disease to that proper to souls, which affect a person’s spiritual nature.

The problems that we as students often face are about our failure to live up to our ideals, often through no fault of one’s own. It seems to me that a great source of sadness for some students is a feeling of not being truly known by most of one’s friends, or having no real goal that justifies the efforts required of us at BC. The pastoral approach, which a Catholic institution should take, seems a much better fit to deal with these moral and life problems than the medical model.

In my experience, I have found an organization at BC that offers excellent opportunities to help students acknowledge and potentially overcome the unhappiness that is part of being human. This is the Christian Life Community (CLC), which I joined as a sophomore.

In CLC, I had a leader who came to each of our meetings and talked about what it means to live more fully as a loving person toward oneself and others. I had signed up in search of a community in which my spiritual formation would be valued, and I found others who shared in my desire. I can look back on my first year at BC and recall a sense of alienation which, although not entirely since eroded, seemed to call out not for a medical treatment, but for life within a community that valued me and the same ideals that I do.

My personal experiences have been shaped by people with a religious outlook. This seems fitting, given that the Christian worldview attempts to articulate that persons are of utmost importance, and that their lives have meaning by virtue of being created by God.

It would probably be harder for non-religious people to foster the same sort of communities, who see the value in life, but I do not think it is in principle impossible. Perhaps there are non-religious groups on campus that can foster the same sense of determination to live out one’s values. Groups such as the AHANA Leadership Council or Freshman League may facilitate the creation of value-governed communities of students, and perhaps this could be just as helpful as the religious approach has been for me.

To understand some problems relating to one’s emotional well-being as analogous to a medical problem is the wrong approach. The cause of these issues, in many cases, is not primarily biological, but spiritual. It may of course be true that BC ought to devote more resources to UCS or similar services. But I think that solutions to issues of mental health on campus should be understood less as medical interventions, and more as opportunities for reflecting on the potential existence of problems in one’s way of living and thinking that could be remedied in other ways.

Featured Image by Zoe Fanning / Heights Editor