May is Mental Health Awareness Month and we are thankful to hear from Alliance’s Director of Pastoral Care and Counseling, Toby Bonar, Psy.D, M.Div., CFBPPC on the importance of mental health when caring for the whole person.
“The richest and fullest lives attempt to achieve an inner balance between three realms: work, love, and play.” -Erik Erikson
May is Mental Health Awareness Month and it reminds me of how most discussions regarding mental health often focus on mental illness. In this article, I hope to center the discussion on the triune elements of mental health—work, love, and play—to highlight how, when balanced, they spur us toward a life of growth, development, and fullness. When one or more of the three is disproportionately represented, we can become preoccupied or distracted from what we need, resulting in unhealthiness.
Most of us are likely familiar with the old saying, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” We also understand the idea in its less familiar counterpart, “All play and no work makes Jack a mere toy.” The couplet demonstrates the need for a balance between work and play. Freud similarly highlighted how essential it is to have a balance of work and love to live a healthy life. So, what do work, love, and play mean in the context of our mental health?
Work in the sense of well being is not simply about having a job but rather the ability to be generative and find meaning in what one is doing. A job is a means toward making money, but neither having a job nor making money are sufficient for the kind of work that contributes to mental health. Also, work is more than being productive and competent in one’s tasks. To be generative is to have the capacity to be productive and creative while doing work that extends beyond one’s own self-interest. Parents, for example, can work generatively toward the benefit of their children. Work needs balance with love and play to prevent the dullness Jack experienced, i.e., obsessiveness, compulsiveness, and/or workaholism.
Freud also warned against working to the point of losing one’s capacity to love. Our understanding of the capacity to love has centered on the ability to devote one’s self to another while remaining a self. We know folks who have lost themselves in relationships, foregoing their agency and autonomy for the sake of the relationship. We also know folks who have avoided relationships or entered relationships that do not require much of them as a way to protect against any loss of self-sufficiency. Healthy love instead balances dependence and independence. When we are able to be full persons in and of ourselves while also devoting ourselves to others, we can achieve the kind of interdependence from which life-giving relationships flourish. Too much self-sufficiency or depending too much on our partners for our identities prevents us from relating healthily.
For adults, play is different than it is for children. Adults experience play as the opposite of work as in Jack’s proverbial quip. Play achieves re-creation and rejuvenation from work. Play is about enjoyment, a break from the seriousness, and entering into playful games and imaginative activities. The King or Queen has a jester to provide entertainment just as our inner rulers and jesters counterbalance one another. Too much play leads to self-indulgence and irresponsibility, while healthy amounts of play invite us not to take ourselves too seriously and to let go of our rigid desire to be in control. Adults can learn from children how to play in life-giving ways that highlight the joy of life in the moment.
For children, play is also the means through which they develop and work out their inner-conflicts and identities. Children are unable to articulate their emotions and conflicts so they creatively play them out and imaginatively learn how to develop themselves through their ability to play. Therapy with children often involves toys to invite them to play out their unconscious processes through their imaginations. Adults develop the capacity to articulate our inner conflicts and replace our childhood need to rely upon play as the means through which we grow and progress through our struggles. In other words, the conversation becomes for adults what play does for children. We know what a rare gift it can be to have someone with whom we can discuss our conflicts and play them out in conversation. We also recognize that often we can feel particularly overwhelmed or ashamed and may instead unconsciously guard against them.
Work, love, and play all involve a relationship to thrive, and unsurprisingly therapy for our mental health involves a collaborative relationship with a psychotherapist or counselor. Psychotherapy is an invitation to work, love, and play in relationship with a caring listener in a safe setting wherein we are invited the freedom to tell our stories that we might hear them ourselves and discover our capacities for balance. Therapy invites us into a process wherein a patient and therapist can trust the relationship will enter into parts of a patient’s life that strengthen development, honesty, and self-esteem and balance self-sufficiency, devotion, re-creation, productivity, generativity, and meaning-making.
Alliance Medical Ministry recognizes how mental health significantly impacts our well being, along with our physical, spiritual, and social wellness. At Alliance, we understand how rare it can be to have someone with whom one can explore the inner balances of life in a safe space with a compassionate listener. Being an Alliance patient is an opportunity to receive onsite mental healthcare from a psychotherapist, counselor, or psychiatrist who are trained to help empower the inner-balance between work, play, and love. In the first quarter of 2019, we have hosted 459 mental healthcare visits. We are so thankful to have a Pastoral Care and Counseling program that engages our mission of providing comprehensive care to the working, uninsured adults living in Wake County.
To learn more about our Pastoral Care and Counseling program, visit here.