Understanding mental illness

Julie Liggett

Society – including the Church – has, for too long, fell for myths and lies surrounding mental health. But its widespread presence means that it has become foolish to ignore. Now is the time to take on the task of understanding and loving those with mental health issues.

One in four

One in four people in Northern Ireland will experience problems that affect their mental health. The statistics are well publicised, mental health is a big issue for society but where does it fit with the church? Maybe it makes it on to the prayer list as we pray for those ‘out there’ struggling with depression, anxiety or suicidal thoughts, but do we recognise it in our midst? Is it in our midst? If its one in four people it should be.

How about that annoying person who arrives late every week? They may have tried so hard to be on time, but their repetitive, compulsive morning routine just gets in the way.

Or how about that person that makes you wonder why they bother because they seem disinterested in being part of the church, arriving just as it starts and out the door as soon as its over? – When actually they are gripped with social anxiety and fear having a panic attack in church in front of everyone.

Painted smile

The person who hasn’t felt like getting out of bed all week, but they put all the energy into getting up and dressed to be in church, and there they sit with a painted smile on.

We look at mental health problems as something that happens to other people and we think about it in terms of extremes – people who are mentally ill and those who aren’t. We need to understand mental health as being on a continuum instead of a ‘them and us’.

Mental Health Illness

A person can fluctuate on this continuum depending on both internal and external factors so realistically anyone can experience mental health problems. Life throws a few curve balls at you and no one knows how it could impact. It may not lead to a mental disorder but can cause us to battle some problems that take their toll on our mental wellbeing. Thinking about it more like this changes the dynamic from ‘them and us’ to anyone of us. It becomes our battle, our collective responsibility.

Where it’s meant to be different

In society, very few people are willing to talk about our mental health openly, the way we do about our physical health. We ask, “how are you?” and the accepted responses are along the lines of, “Not bad”, “Oh, I’ve a bit of a cold”, “My knee’s playing up”, or we might take a chance and say, “I’ve been feeling low” but quickly rescue the risk of any uncomfortableness with a follow up “I must be coming down with something”.

Church is meant to be different, a place of love and acceptance but unfortunately that’s not always the experience.

Most people with mental health problems experience guilt and shame, like it’s somehow their fault, that they are less somehow. Imagine how it feels for a Christian when they are told that “our joy is our strength” and they can’t feel anything, never mind joy. Or the person with anxiety that knows they are to “cast all your worries on him because he cares for you” and “do not be anxious about anything” but feels gripped by fear and dread. Or “we are fearfully and wonderfully made” and “made in the image of God” yet they are filled with self-loathing and battling an eating disorder.

The sense of failure can be overwhelming: ”I’m failing God”, “I’m not good enough”, “I don’t have enough faith”. These unhelpful thoughts impact negatively on our mental health and feed depression and anxiety. We need to understand this, so we don’t accidentally compound the problem.

God’s word is good and true and when a person reaches of a point of being able to claim it for themselves it can be transformative but until that moment it can feel like a big stick to beat themselves with.

Mountains and valleys

As Martin Luther King Jr said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter”. Our mental health matters, sharing our struggles matters, being able to be vulnerable and experience acceptance matters. As a church we can break the silence by talking about mental health, making it part of our sermons, our testimonies, our calls for prayer. We can create a culture of acceptance.

As we become more vulnerable with each other about our struggles we create a culture of openness and acceptance.

Maybe your struggle hasn’t been with mental health, maybe its finances, anger, lust, self-esteem, divorce, loneliness. We all struggle at times, experiencing mountains and valleys and we’ve a tendency to celebrate the mountain top experiences and hide the valley ones. As we become more vulnerable with each other about our struggles we create a culture of openness and acceptance. We create a culture of being the same with people no matter where they are at, cheering them on the mountain top and cheering them on in the valley. We can be imperfect and that’s okay.

Listening well

There are practical things we can do like:

  • educate ourselves on issues like depression and anxiety so that we have a greater understanding;
  • push beyond our fear of not feeling equipped, of not knowing what to do or say;
  • accept that it’s okay not to ‘get it’ or to know what to do.

The greatest understanding comes from listening. Let the person tell you what its like for them and how you can help. Its different for different people so asking is a good start and listening well is a great next step.

Accept that its okay to feel that it’s tough going sometimes and your feelings of frustration and powerlessness. No matter how much you love and care for someone with a mental health disorder its normal to feel frustrated with them sometimes – they feel frustrated too. Try not to ‘fix them’. You can help to make things better but don’t set yourself up for disappointment but thinking you can fix someone.

The thorn

Of course, people can get better, God can heal but sometimes the outcome is about learning to live with it, living life with that thorn in your flesh. What is important is that you do not give up on them, hold on to hope for them even when they can’t hold on to it for themselves. To do this you need community, people to share the responsibility and provide support. Sometimes that will involve knowing your limitations and referring to professional support is necessary, doing this is sometimes the best way you can help someone.

We each have a story and for some people mental health difficulties are part of theirs. If we do not provide an opportunity and a space for people to share all of who they are we are missing out. We are missing out on insight, on developing greater understanding and compassion, on being able to appreciate strength and determination, of breaking down myths and building up each other, on being the church Christ meant for us to be.