I’ve been thinking a lot about mental health recently. Covid, lockdowns and isolation have brought to the fore a subject that, for many of us, it is a constant source of concern and focus. Many years ago I read a rather depressing set of fantasy novels called The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. The titular hero was a man who had contracted leprosy and part of his daily routine was to make visual inspections of his extremities to make sure he had no injuries that would go untreated and become infected. Living with intermittent mental health issues is somewhat like that. There is a need to constantly monitor yourself and be aware of the direction of your mood, your emotions and your thoughts. I have problems with depression and anxiety that if they go unchecked can leave me completely helpless, unable and unwilling to engage with anything. I have received counselling and CBT. I have been on medication to help me through some very dark times. I don’t tell you this for sympathy or attention but to let anyone reading this and dealing with their own issues know that they are not alone. Counselling gave me an understanding of my thought processes and CBT gave me tools to work with to help deal with dark times. I use a mood tracker on my phone to keep track of how I’m feeling and a gratitude diary to help me find good in every day and these help me. A lot. Other people talking about their experience of mental health helped me too. So I talk about it in the hope it will help others.
A week or so ago I came across this question….
and it got me thinking. This is still a very common approach to men’s mental health and, if anecdotal social media stories are to be believed, women’s mental health as well. Although treatment has improved, although understanding has improved, there is still a stigma around it and still an attitude of “pull yourself together and smile” that runs right from medical professionals to family, friends and colleagues. Fear of meeting that attitude, and believing it ourselves in some cases, makes opening up about mental health concerns very difficult. So, if we can’t talk about it, what do we do? For most of us the answer has been bury it and pretend we have healed. We maintain that claim and belief even as our depression or anxiety or suicidal thoughts leak out in another form. Mental illness is a real illness. It is often caused by chemical imbalances in our brain, triggered by events in our lives that can range from the loss of a loved one to it raining on a day you wanted sunny weather.
According to Mind 1 in 4 of the UK’s population will have some sort of mental health problem in any given year, that’s around 17,000,000 people.
Around 3,000,000 people people attend church every week. If Mind’s statistics are correct that means 750,000 people with some form of mental health problem attend church each week. Methodist churches have an average congregation size of 48. That means 12 people in the average congregation has mental health issues of some kind.
The church needs to understand mental health, They need to understand how it is affected by stress, how crippling anxiety and depression can be and that they are real. Being part of a community that understands and is willing to listen or just sit in silence, that is willing to advocate for people, is a great support if you are living and dealing with mental health issues. However, it is very important the church realises it is not about fixing people. Prayer is wonderful but talk to the person and ask if they want prayer and what they want it for. When I was at my lowest point I wanted prayer for peace because peace was what I wanted most desperately and peace, I knew, would be a first step towards healing, whatever that meant. Prayer for freedom from the spirit of depression just made me feel worse at the time. It is something to be aware of when you encounter people with mental health issues.
Equally, try not to let fear dominate your relationships with people with mental health issues. It is very easy to let the changes in people affect how you interact with them but I can tell you from experience, when people start treating you with kid gloves and are awkward around you it can really hurt. Community is often what helps, being part of something but having no demands on you while you heal or learn to manage your illness often helps
I’ve tried four times to write this since December began and had to start again. I apologise if it is a little disjointed, hopefully it is still coherent. Mental Health is something that is important to me and Christmas is a time when people often struggle more with it.
Be gentle with yourselves and each other this Christmas. Show some understanding if others seem strange or different and if you find yourself struggling, reach out if you can.