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Soul Fitness: A New Approach to Mental and Emotional Health for Leaders and Members of Faith Communities

For too long, mental health has been perceived as either/or: either you have it or you don’t. But in my roles as a minister, a mother, a community activist, and a person in recovery, I am learning that mental, emotional, and behavioral health is really more like a continuum. Like physical health and fitness, states of soul health span the range from acutely ill to fit as a fiddle and everything in between. This calls for an approach to health that, like our culture’s modern approach to health and fitness, reaches people where they are and offers something for everyone.

Physical Fitness: the degree of one’s capacity to meet the physical demands of circumstances and environment

Soul Fitness: the degree of one’s capacity to meet the mental and emotional demands of circumstances and environment

We are a nation in crisis when it comes to physical health, but the crisis is not confined to the huge numbers of people who are acutely ill with preventable diseases. The people who we see as acutely ill now started off as ticking time bombs – in various states of declining fitness due to lack of preventive care and poor daily health habits but not aware of it because they were functioning. In the same way, individuals’ states of mental and emotional health, or soul fitness, vary widely and are not easily seen or addressed with urgency until a crisis forces them into the light.

I am a mother of teenagers. About a month ago, one of our son’s friends, a young man with whom he shared sleepovers and birthday parties, took his own life. My heart was broken and I looked at my own children with new eyes – what toll was being taken by the pressure to perform, being overscheduled, the lack of sleep, their parents’ overstressed lifestyles, and battles with acceptance and self-esteem? They smile, function well socially, and draw admiration as “good kids,” but what is really going on in them? I recently watched the documentary Race to Nowhere, which confirmed that the souls of our nation’s teens often crumble under the pressure to perform. They look great on the outside, but their mental and emotional health is dangerously out of whack. After my son’s friend’s passing, I learned that he had confessed his depression to a youth leader at church who prayed for him but did not go further to address his mental health crisis.  

That hit home for me. I am a licensed and ordained minister and I spend a lot of time in church. There, I encounter thousands of people, many of whom are currently or have experienced crisis or trauma or are just finding it difficult to cope with life’s demands. Outwardly, they present themselves as committed, faithful, spiritual, and often high functioning. But it breaks my heart to know that they also do not feel free at church to present the broken, hurting parts of themselves and when they do, they are sometimes given a spiritual prescription – my husband calls it the “three scriptures and a prayer” approach — that does not address their soul hurt. I was recently helping a woman in crisis at our church and she was concerned that, because of her behaviors, I would think of her as “crazy.” That is the stigma that accompanies soul work and makes it so difficult to have conversations about mental and emotional health.

I am passionate about soul health for two reasons. First, my work in communities has convinced me that the battles we fight are not just economic (poverty), social (institutionalized racism), or spiritual (lack of relationship with God) but also mental and emotional. Addiction is self-medication. Relationship violence is co-dependency. Gang membership is an effort to belong. Teen pregnancy is an effort to self-soothe. None of these behaviors emerge overnight…they are the natural result of unresolved trauma, crisis, and stress. And we all literally pay the price for the results: widespread poverty, incarceration, foster care, and dropout rates.

I am also passionate about soul health because I am a high functioning, Harvard trained, high achieving professional who battles anxiety. On the outside and on paper, I have it all together, but I have experienced various states of soul health, including not being able to sleep at all, waking up every day to a blanket of dread, considering medical intervention, and fearing mental breakdown. For the past several years, I have been in active recovery and I now have more tools to assess and address my mental and emotional health status. Like going to the gym and eating clean are daily commitments that contribute to physical fitness, there are things I have to do every day to maintain my soul fitness.

One key to my recovery is relationships in which I can be honest about challenges and receive not just concern and spiritual solutions but also practical guidance to guard and maintain my mental and emotional health. As I have battled, I have also learned that faith communities can be helpful in efforts to increase soul fitness but it does not come naturally – we must be deliberate about it.

According to Barna’s 2016 study, 55% of Americans are churched, meaning they have attended a church service within the past six months. Estimates of weekly church attendance in Florida range from 15 to 34%. Because we touch such a high percentage of the population and also have the privilege of interacting with people when they are vulnerable or in crisis, faith communities are an excellent context in which to assess and give people tools to address their soul fitness, and also to triage and life-lift them to help if needed. Here are some things for faith communities to consider:

Culture Change: We must begin to talk about mental and emotional health as a continuum on which we all find ourselves, rather than an issue that only selects a few of “those people.”

Preventive Care and Daily Regimen – In our youth groups, small groups, and services we must not just focus on the outward signs of success: active church involvement, financial health, academic success. We must encourage people to look inward at their inner lives. What do they do when nobody is looking to cope with stress, trauma, and crisis? What daily checks and practices do they need to put in place to maintain soul fitness?

Triage – people come to churches and faith communities at their lowest point. How can we ask questions and care for them in a way that pinpoints where they are on the soul fitness scale, especially when they are not in a full blown mental or emotional health crisis?

Relationship-Based Intervention – We must create structures and equip leaders and members of our communities to provide support and intervention in the context of relationships that value, rather than label, people.

Access to Intensive Care – We must know where to send or take people when they need more help than we are qualified to provide. If a person came to us with symptoms of cardiac arrest, we would not pray for them, counsel them, and send them on their way. We would not consider our job to be done until we had connected them with a health professional. In the same way, we must recognize when people are in trouble and do all we can to get them the help they needed.

Advocacy – We must be advocates for federal funding for mental and behavioral health. For instance, the Medicaid expansion provided by the Affordable Care Act has enabled individuals coping through addiction to receive care. Without that support and others, rates of addiction, overdose, and the resultant incarceration and child removal to foster care will increase throughout our communities.  

Fitness is everywhere – magazines, commercials, television shows, even whole channels are devoted to it. There is a fitness center in every strip mall. Even the former White House promoted a fitness campaign. Information about how to eat healthier and incorporate more physical activity is ubiquitous. People talk freely at the water cooler and post pictures on social media about their efforts to become more physically fit. Stigma is decreasing, awareness is increasing, and people have more access to the tools they need to change. My hope is that soul fitness will become just as much of a priority, and that faith communities, as the front line of helping and caring for people in times of crisis, will lead the shift.

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