Mental health matters
Mental health professional shone Jackson discusses with three people how church has impacted their mental health, positively or negatively; how their mental health impacts their faith; and what advice they might like to give readers who would like to know how they and the church can help those with mental health problems.
This article was a privilege to write and I was honoured to have three friends share their stories with me. I have included some of their experiences and insights here. Names have been changed.
“I had told someone in the church that I was struggling with self-harming,” said Julie. “Unfortunately, she then went straight and told someone else, as well as the vicar. In doing so she took all control out of my hands, which was not a good experience. I was put on the back foot and didn’t know what was happening. She hadn’t told me she’d told anyone else but then I got a phone call from them.”
People with mental health problems can often experience disempowerment and discrimination. Julie explained how this experience left her feeling out of control and uncomfortable being prayed for as she had felt forced to pray with them.
She went on to tell me how, in her current church, her experience has been very positive and encouraging: “They’ve accepted me exactly where I’m at.”
She described how she’s been encouraged to volunteer in youth work, which gives her a reason to get out and do something she enjoys. There is an understanding that she can drop out at any time if she needs to. She never feels judged if she doesn’t make it to church, or if she does but she only feels able to sit on her own looking at her phone. She feels accepted and loved just as she is. Julie has a diagnosis of Avoidant Personality Disorder, Depression and Anxiety.
“At times, my prayer life is non-existent, or I only shout and swear and cry to God because that’s all I can manage. I don’t think he minds. God is bigger than any of my struggles, but it’s not always easy to recognise that and actually live it.”
Well, I can relate to that! Personally, some of my most powerful prayer times have been when I’ve been as honest and real with God as Julie is describing. What if we were as honest and real about our struggles with one another in church – perhaps there would be less discrimination and stigma surrounding topics like mental health problems?
Julie’s advice is that it is important not to try to “fix” someone and that a person with mental health problems just needs someone to listen to them and accept them as they are.
Of course, safeguarding is important, and if someone reports to you that they or someone else is in danger, this should always be passed on through the appropriate channels. However, Julie’s experience highlights how we should include the person in these plans if at all possible (and if this does not further endanger anyone involved).
Francis has a diagnosis of Depression, Social Anxiety, Performance Anxiety and Driving Anxiety. Later diagnosed Bipolar, with regular episodes of Depression and occasional Hypomania, also Gender Dysphoria, Francis identifies as gender neutral and requested for the pronoun “they” to be used. Francis told me this testimony of how they first met Jesus.
“My understanding of Jesus, the REAL Jesus, comes from a vivid dream I had early in my journey; you could call it a vision. I know it didn’t just come from my own mind. I could never have created such a pure and perfect image of Christ.
“In the dream, it was a sunny day and I was walking along a pavement with a low wall alongside it beyond which lay a sandy beach and the sea. Jesus was walking alongside me and I was leaning on him very heavily as I felt physically weak. He said these words: ‘You look tired. Run ahead and sing my praises’. And I did just that. My voice was broken and out of tune because I was running and I had a beaten up biscuit tin which I was hitting for percussion and I was full of such joy. In the dream I passed a person walking the opposite way and I caught their eye and there was a connection.”
Francis also told me several examples of God breaking through in their lives when they were at their lowest points, and how God uses them in their brokenness: “Just a couple of weeks ago I was walking home after having been crying inconsolably for a good few hours and just generally feeling great sadness. I had cleaned up my snot and tears but was very much puffy-eyed and weak in spirit. And somehow, in my journey home God managed to use me for good, not once but TWICE!
“Once to comfort a friend who was hiding in a staff-room in a similar mess of snot and tears as I had been earlier (there was a powerful kind of healing to us being able to give each other a hug and kind of laugh at the situation a little bit) and then half an hour or so later, when almost home there was a guy holding a parcel with an obscure road name on it which he didn’t recognise. I didn’t recognise it either and I am about the worst person at giving directions at the best of times but I wasn’t about to leave him there.
“So I looked it up on my smartphone and we stood there for some time both leant in over the phone trying to trace the best route for him to walk there. By the time we were done I had a genuine smile on my face. I already knew that it was God that directed me to help my friend so this was the icing on the cake that I had helped a stranger too. I wonder if the prompt arrival of that parcel led to more manifestations of the goodness of God.”
What came through in talking with Francis, was their desire to trust and know God through the brokenness they experience due to their mental illness. Francis is a very creative person and loves to play music, doodle, paint, draw and write poetry.
“I feel like God wants me to live. I feel like he loves the little poems I write for my friends, the way I can’t help but smile at everybody, even the way I enjoy reality television far too much! He is enough for me and I am enough for Him. Even at my weakest and meekest when I feel completely destroyed he will use me for good and my sadness will be replaced by wonder and disbelief at how awesome he is and a smile of pure joy will come over my face. Like, ‘I can’t believe you just did that!”
Francis reminds me of the fact that we are all broken, and God wants to use all of us. We are all on a journey, and we are all made in his image.
Some ideas Francis had for things that they have found helpful in church were reading psalms, worship, having supportive friends who can stand with them in hard times, and praying with people.
John took time to tell me of his history of contact with the mental health Services. He has a diagnosis of Paranoid Schizophrenia and has spent 30 years on a section under the Mental Health Act.
Some of this time he was in institutions, and in recent years in the community. John has faith in God and has found attending church an altogether positive and encouraging experience.
John feels the church is empathic and understanding but society in general less so. However, he thinks this has improved and that most people are kind and understanding. John says that he has attended church with all sorts of people from different walks of life and has always felt accepted.
My message is that anyone can help someone who is experiencing a mental health problem. Statistics suggest that one in six people currently experiences a mental health problem. We all have “mental health” that we need to look after, and so it should be something that we can talk about and not have to keep hidden.
I think that mental health professionals are, in some ways, not as well-equipped to help as the average church volunteer. This is because the thing we so often lack is time, and that is often what people with mental health problems, and in fact we all, need. To be listened to, accepted, valued and loved for who we are. What a great opportunity to love like Jesus loves us.
What is mental health?
The World Health Organisation defines “Mental Health” as “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community
Charity “Rethink Mental Illness” says that everyone has ‘mental health’ and this can be thought of in terms of:
- How we feel about ourselves and the people around us
- Our ability to make and keep our friends and relationships
- Our ability to learn from others and to develop psychologically and emotionally
When to seek help from a professional:
- When you feel out of your depth, concerned or unsafe; trust your instinct. Don’t hold onto something that you don’t feel able to manage. If you are consistently working with vulnerable people have regular “de-brief” sessions with someone to help you process what you experience yourself.
- When someone seems to be a danger to themselves or others.
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