The Soul of Mental Health

Originally posted on March 3, 2020 @ 5:30 AM

imageThe idea of a ‘soul’ or life force (psyche) evolved out of the writings of Aristotle and the Pauline anthropology and is a word commonly used to refer to the hidden spirit of something. We often refer to the ‘soul’ of politics, law or the ‘soul’ of a nation. Sometimes we call a person a kind or sorry ‘soul’ in reference to character. We refer in history to ‘souls’ lost at sea and in poetics it is used extensively to convey the emotion of being (eg. Donne – ‘Progress of the Soul’).

Every ANZAC Day you will hear the hymn ‘Be Still My Soul’ () to the very emotional tune Finlandia written by the Finnish composer Sibelius. Our language and discourse is very used to a soul-like understanding of life.

We often connect the notion of soul with love, heart, psyche and being and use such language interchangeably in the same way Paul did (Paul’s word for soul was ‘psyche’, spirit was ‘pneuma’). We even refer to ‘soul love’ at weddings and in romance. We often use the words ‘psyche’ and ‘soul’ interchangeably. Then there is ‘soul’ music most attached to black American gospel and blues attached to express emotions and suffering. The word ‘soul’ conveys the idea or essence of something and in Paul was integrated and interchangeable with some of his other anthropological terms (conscience, heart, spirit, body, skin/flesh, mind).

Of course, in STEM there is no ‘soul’ and in denying a ‘soul’ robs us of a way of explaining the inexplicable and unconscious nature of human ‘being’ and the ‘spirit’ of something. When I used to conduct funerals people would find the use of the word ‘soul’ quite comforting because it conveys the intangible nature of what was present but now gone, a person’s life force. When we can’t answer questions with STEM we go to poetics to find meaning and comfort.

We would do well to heed the semiotic power of myth/symbol in the ‘soul’. In our world that defines so much of life materialistically and behaviourally the discourse of the soul seems to capture the things we don’t understand. In the medical and mental health sector we often seek pharmacological or psychotherapeutic therapies like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy based on the assumption that there is no soul. Of course, such therapies are only partially successful (30%) and unless linked to other holistic approaches have very little chance of success. In holistic approaches one looks for the ‘soul’ of the process more than the mechanics of the process.

If we are human persons as body, mind and spirit then surely holistic therapies and activities must offer more hope of effectiveness? In SPoR studies in holistic ergonomics ( we look at many aspects of living and being that the orthodox safety world ignores and ask the question: if humans embody harm, memory and habit how can we help tackle the challenges of risk for the whole person?

There is still so much about mental health, abuse, trauma and suffering we do not understand yet it seems clear from the research that holistic multi-faceted approaches offer the most likely chance of effectiveness (Van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score). At my local doctor’s clinic are now a range of therapies offered like: Buddhist meditation, yoga, music therapy, art class and complementary approaches to dealing with aspects of illness that are just as connected to social and communal issues as physical issues. The research often shows that medication and pharmacological solutions only serve as ‘blockers’ to issues not really tackling the issue. The drugs only offer space to help tackle the complexity of issues that are often more social than physical. Pharmacological approaches also risk the problems of addiction and dependency without actually solving anything, they don’t actually get to the ‘soul’ of the problem. Unless we tackle the issues that surround the whole person, it is not likely that much will be effective.

One of the problems associated with many approaches to dealing with mental health is the idea that a person is a brain on a carcass, a computer-like model of personhood. In such a model solutions are constructed around the idea of reprogramming thinking and blame is often associated with this approach. Unfortunately, strategies of resilience are often individualistic and therefore don’t work. I discussed an holistic definition of personhood in my latest book The Social Psychology of Risk Handbook (p.30ff) and effective approaches to mental health like the WorkAssist Project and success at the Galilee Project here:;;

SPoR is not just ideas, I have developed practical holistic approaches to tackling mental health at work and these are part of case studies in the Holistic Ergonomics Module.

I think we might do well to follow the discourse of the ‘soul’, maybe Paul knew something? Perhaps we miss real and diverse strategies of tackling mental health at work because we remain locked into the behaviourist/cognitvist definition of personhood. Perhaps we would do well to pay more attention to the ‘psyche/soul’ of the workplace and the invisibles that foster brutalism, this is the power of zero.

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