There are many ways to define mental health. The answer varies widely depending on who is asking or answering the question. All of us have different world views that shape our understanding of the world around us. Depending on our profession, our religion, our cultural identity, our role in life, and our lived experience, how we define mental health will look different than someone else’s. As a prospective client, it is important to have an idea of how your therapist defines mental health. Your therapist’s working definition will influence your treatment.
“Human Dignity” is a concept that the Roman Catholic Church uses to define and describe ethical behavior. Human dignity means each individual has an essential value. This idea forms the foundation of Catholic social teaching. To quote the Catechism (not something I’m in the habit of by the way):
God created man a rational being, conferring on him the dignity of a person who can initiate and control his own actions. God willed that man should be ‘left in the hand of his own counsel,’ so that he might of his own accord seek his Creator … Man is rational and therefore like God; he is created with free will and is master over his acts.
According to the Church, anything that reduces a person to something less than fully human is a major problem. Slavery, prostitution, inhumane working conditions, sterilization, human trafficking, etc. are all fundamentally evil because they limit the expression of human dignity. I like the idea of human dignity because it mirrors the secular idea of human rights. Human dignity is also an idea that can be separated from a religious viewpoint.
How to Define Mental Health from Human Dignity
Human dignity offers a perspective useful for defining mental health. The pain and problems I see in my practice come from experiences that harmed the human dignity of my client. The woman who lived in an abusive marriage cannot see the value and dignity she has. Her human dignity remains, but it is buried under her husband’s abusive behavior and painful insults. An adult child of an alcoholic believes his dignity is of no consequence to others and unconsciously allows people to take advantage of him. The survivor of rape cannot believe that she has a value all her own, a value her experience does not erase. Clients fighting addictions cannot exercise free will without limitations. Angry teenagers lash out at parents because their dignity as human beings is not being respected.
I like to define mental health as being able to accurately perceive our own dignity and act accordingly. We act accordingly when we perceive and respond to the dignity of others around us. Whatever limits human dignity limits our ability to live lives of fullness and happiness. When we accurately understand our own dignity, then we are able to consciously choose how we respond to the world around us. We are less likely to respond defensively, feel negatively about ourselves, or make choices that are bad for us or harmful to others. Knowing my dignity means I know I have worth, no matter what. When I am confident in my own dignity and worthiness, I am less likely to belittle someone else to make myself feel better.
As a therapist, I enjoy the process of helping people discover their own human dignity and watching how this awareness changes their life. I see individuals move from a place of fear and shame into the fullness of life that is their birthright, as a human being. Defining mental health as a full, lived awareness of human dignity is a holistic framework for healing and a beautiful way of consciously living our lives.