Mental Health: What Is It?

Jun 5, 2018

The setting: a psychiatric hospital. Four consumers are seated around a card table in the corner of a brightly-lit community room. One is diagnosed with severe bipolar disorder; one is labeled schizophrenic; two have multiple diagnoses involving substance abuse, personality and mood disorders.  They are playing the board game, Sorry.  The corner resounds with peals of laughter as they compete, joke, and enjoy the game.  It’s easily apparent they are having a good time.  Meanwhile, just feet away, behind the glass of the staff station, the unit psychiatrist, Dr. Gooding, is in a snit. Consumer’s charts haven’t been filed alphabetically and he can’t find what he’s looking for.  Angrily, he throws charts on the counter and snarls at the staff.  Clearly, HE isn’t having a good time.

Given that scenario, who is mentally ill?  Who is mentally healthy?

When first presented with that scenario by psychiatrist Bill Pettit, M.D. (now my husband) at a training in the Three Principles understanding over 15 years ago, I, an experienced counseling psychologist, stopped in my tracks.  A kaleidoscope shifted; I glimpsed a startling question.  What if all human beings are going in and out of “mental health” and “mental illness”? What if mental health and mental illness are moment-to-moment for everybody?  What if there is something to see behind life that helps all of us have more moments of well-being and fewer moments of suffering?  What if there is total hope for those of us who suffer more than we would like to? What if, as Bill suggests, a diagnosis is a statement of WHERE a person is, not WHO a person is?

Certainly, it was my reality that my mental and emotional states fluctuated.  Much of the time I felt wonderful: whole, content, happy and full of love.  But I also experienced times of anxiety, depression, dissatisfaction, suspicion and anger.  And I knew I wasn’t alone.  I remembered a time when my doctoral cohort was studying the assessment of personality disorders.  Ruefully, and somewhat fearfully, we confessed to each other that we could identify to some degree with every single disorder!  I think each of us lost a little bit of sleep wondering about our “behavior pathology.” My uncertainties drove me into therapy! Was I mentally ill or mentally healthy?

The Three Principles understanding, as I explored it, brought an exquisite logic to my understanding of the relationship between mental health and mental illness.  The originator of the understanding, Sydney Banks, in his book, The Enlightened Gardener, asks a provocative question of his fictional characters, four psychologists: “Has anyone ever suggested to you that the secret of healthy psychological functioning is woven from three spiritual gifts which are the fiber of all human realities?” (pgs 18-19).

Pointing to the fundamental and simple, but hardly simplistic, Syd continues, “Mind, combined with the power of Thought and the power of Consciousness, are the determinants we use to direct ourselves through life. We can choose to use them wisely or unwisely.  If we use them unwisely, our lives can become a long series of bewildering periods when we feel utterly lost. On the other hand, if we use them wisely, we will experience more contented lives.” (pg. 20). When I read that statement years ago, I realized that Syd was describing my DAYS, much less PERIODS of life!  In every day, there were moments of joy, happiness and peace interspersed with moments of varying degrees of misery.

I began to SEE that the thinking I was noticing and energizing, (the gifts of Thought and Consciousness in action) was perfectly and absolutely correlated with how I was experiencing life, what I was feeling and how I behaved.  And I saw that was true for all human beings.

The Three Principles understanding brought hope, personally, that I could have a more stable, happier life.  It also brought hope that I could share what I saw with others.  Time and time again, I have witnessed how simple conversations about the Principles transform lives. When the rigid constructs of “mental illness” and “mental health” were blurred for me, the utterly beautiful universal logic of the human experience blew away diagnostic barriers. Everybody became companions on the bus of life trying to make their way home doing their best given their level of understanding of how life works.

*Banks, S. (2001). The Enlightened Gardener. Canada: International Human Relations Consultants, Inc.  ISBN: 978-1-55105-298-4

Photo by Kristopher Roller on Unsplash