The Day I Wished I'd Died: Understanding and Navigating Mental Health as a Christian
The Day I wish I’d Died
The bus just missed hitting me and possibly killing me. Instead of relief I was disappointed.
I was in London, walking along the very edge of the kerb, dropping into the gutter and then back up, trying to avoid the crowds as I replied to messages on my phone. I looked up just in time to see the wing mirror of a bus moving at speed directly towards my head. I leaned back reflexively and felt the mirror make the briefest and most minuscule of contacts. Like a fast moving butterfly grazing my forehead.
My brain started to come to an adrenalin fuelled awareness. That if I had not looked up, the momentum of a London bus would have passed through my head via that inflexible mirror. That sent a chill through me literally, as my body began reacting to the near miss. Apparently distracted pedestrians being hit in the head by bus wing mirrors is a common, but thankfully not frequent occurrence.
But what shocked me the most, were the thoughts and feeling of disappointment that then surged up within me. If I had been hit, I’d likely have been rendered unconscious and then maybe to have died. And all without having known anything about it, and all my struggles would have been over.
You see, I was beyond overwhelmed. My parents, separated for over 30 years had recently taken their own lives 6 months apart from each other. Their last communications to me were to write in their own but similar ways, to inform me how I was a disappointment to them, how their deaths were my fault. Years in therapy had helped me anticipate this as the logical conclusion their mode of abuse as parents. To take their own lives and use that as a mechanism for one final assault on me. To curse me to the core of who I was as they died.
I was at this time also facing another tribunal for my autistic daughter’s special education needs, where my local authority were causing me to incur non recoverable legal costs that I feared would bankrupt me. As I write this the systemic breaking of the law and abuse my local government for hundreds of parents of children with special education needs, has come to national attention.
I was also in the midst of a challenging time in church life and ministry, income and budget pressures, and some major conflicts, that would have been hard to navigate at the best of times. Depression had settled upon me like a dark cloud, while anxiety at the perceived threats to my daily life assailed me. I had friends, support, and love. But it was not enough to lift me from the daily despair that seemed to dwell at the bottom of my soul, like a black hole, sucking any hope from life. My disappointment at the bus not hitting me, had emerged from there.
Stigma and Shame
Being honest about mental health is a difficult thing to do for so many reasons. When going to see your doctor, they ask how are you. In most social interactions the response is usually “I’m good, ok, tired, busy” etc. To say out loud something else, is a hard hurdle to surmount, such as "I’m not coping, and I am sad that a bus didn’t kill me today". To share out loud with someone, even a doctor, what is taking place, the most painful parts of who you are, does not come easily. Then to share with friends and family and colleagues the darkest of your thoughts and struggles, is more challenging. Hard data bears out my own pastoral and personal experience that wishing to be dead is a very common experience of those with mental health struggles. Friends, no matter how well meaning, often cannot understand such struggles - and why would they? Some of that misunderstanding stems from a normal ignorance by those who have not endured poor mental health themselves. Some comes from a poor understanding of mental health itself, sometimes with assumptions that seem based more on movies and tv shows.
Then well-meaning pastoral colleagues, with their fair share of interactions with mental health, slipped into some assumptions about me. Some of those assumptions were helpful and necessary but some less so, and all were made from a place of love and care. No doubt my depression and situation warranted being alert to changes in my behaviour for my care. But they did not warrant some of the third hand sharing that came to me via others. Like I was a smouldering firework, waiting to see if it might explode - or not. Mental health can lead to a deep shame around not coping. It does not help to hear via others, instead of direct interaction with you for your care, that there is a caution about who you intrinsically are. Sharing about your mental health runs great risks, to not share however, runs far greater risks.
It is twenty years since my most major mental health breakdown. Back then I thought I was mostly alone in my suffering. But I have since had many friends, and colleagues join me in their own mental health struggles. One in four people in the UK will experience mental health problems in any given year. The stigma is lifting, as more well known people share openly their struggles with mental health. It is possible to be depressed and productive. It is possible to be anxious and lead well. A quick look at history reveals the greatest of leaders suffered the most awful mental health struggles.
I have been a Christian for over thirty years now and recall many times fears within the church and without of mental health. Things are better, but Christians have often had and still have an approach to mental health that is stigmatic. In western cognition based versions of Christian faith, the mind and thinking are the source of faith and belief. Bodies can ail and fail, but a person alive to Jesus should be full of faith, certitude and peaceful thoughts. After all doesn’t the bible say a peace beyond understanding is ours, and directs us to not be anxious? A failure of basic Christian experience and as a Christian leader can become a pejorative label for those with a mental health illness. As if something fundamentally wrong with the sufferer in toto.
Hope, help and understanding
I don’t know what your mental health journey is like, it might be recent, or long suffering. I err on the side of sharing some more of mine in the hope it helps you know you are not alone. And I hope what I share provides understanding of your own mental health. Or maybe you are reading this wanting to understand and better help someone else.
I will offer the advice I give to others that I have gleaned over twenty years, and have taken and still take for myself. The things that have helped me and my fellow sufferers find healing and hope. Lastly I will share some thoughts on a spirituality of mental health, how mental health can be and should be integrated within the Christian faith. For you can suffer mental health problems and be a wonderful Christian. You can live with depression, anxiety and a host of others afflictions and still have life full of meaning and purpose.
Barefoot in the snow and my pyjamas
Looking back I can see that I suffered greatly with anxiety from an early age, and also depression. It is no wonder given the volume and nature of abuse I had as a child (and my brothers). I lived on a knife edge of physical and emotional abuse having to be perpetually alert as a survival mechanism. Spotting the shifting moods of my mother allowed me to be prepared, head off and navigate the tsunami of what often came my way.
I can recall in intimate detail, hearing my mother leave our home, after an enormous argument with my father. I intuited the silence in the house and the stealth with which she left, as more dangerous than the violence she usually displayed. She would normally erupt and then flail around and rumble, until her anger dissipated like a subsiding volcano, able to hurt us for a considerable period of time. The silence and lack of the usual dissipation of her anger terrified me. I ran out into the snow, in my pyjamas, barefoot along the road and up to her car. I banged on the passenger window to make her stop, I pressed my hands and face up against the glass. And I noticed on the passenger seat all her insulin from the fridge and syringes. My mother was an insulin dependent diabetic. I instinctively knew that she meant to overdose, and I pleaded with her not to. “Mum please don’t do it, please don’t do it”. She promised me she would not do so and returned home, without saying another word to me about it. Yet a deliberate insulin overdose was how my mother would one day end her life. I wonder now how many years she rehearsed and nurtured that course of action as her means of escape.
That image of me as a 12-13 year old in the snow, wailing and begging my mother not to kill herself, was just one variant of many related traumatic moments in my childhood. All this left me with was a kind of 'spider sense’, able to easily read the emotions not just of my mother but of others. I could and still can interact with someone and know something is wrong and troubling them, at an unconscious register, like a reflex.
Then my emotionally absent and alcoholic Father abandoned us. When I was turning 16 and finishing high school, he told me he was leaving my mother and disappeared with his work in the Middle East. By then I had a new younger brother, a year old. My mother took to bed with depression, and I often took my baby brother out to care for him. Where I lived people assumed I was a young dad out with his new baby. I went from a grade A student to barely passing my exams, something I was deeply ashamed of at the time. My father reappeared about ten years ago, for no reason other than to secure some help he needed. I found out that he had been bigamously married to another woman and I had several other younger half brothers, who all had experienced their own nightmare of abuse at the hands of my father.
Finding Narnia: The telephone call that changed my life for ever
I became a Christian at 17, a miraculous intervention by God into my life. One of my aunts, Betty, who my mother seemed to despise for no other reason than she owned her own house and didn’t beat her children, intervened. Betty asked one of her friends, Brenda, the secretary of a Baptist church near me to contact my mother and offer support. And at the invitation of Brenda via a telephone call, my mother went to church, and I decided to go with her. I reasoned that things were bad enough with my father gone without a church making it worse. Apart from family weddings and funerals, I had never been to church. All the secular cliches and stereotypes of Christians being hypocrites were booted up in my mind as I travelled to the Sunday morning service, my guard raised high.
So I walked into a school hall, heard someone telling me that Jesus was alive and I could have a relationship with him. As I looked around the room I saw people who had this relationship, and I immediately wanted what they had, but did not know how to access it. I went back to the evening service on my own this time, for very different reasons than when I went in the morning. I was so struck by God’s presence, but did not know it was God’s presence. I had no words or experience to interpret what was happening to me. I didn't want to go home to all the pain and darkness that awaited, away from this place and this moment. A school hall full of the presence of God had become the most safe and beautiful location in my life. So I stayed in my seat by myself, as the room was cleared away. The youth pastor Andy came over, having realised something was going on with me. He asked if I knew what a Christian was, I said no. He tried to find a leaflet that explained Christianity, but couldn’t and said he’d have to explain it in his own words, and hoped that was ok. The words he used to explain Christianity were the ones I needed to hear that night.
He began telling me that my life might become harder if I became a Christian. There was no promise of come to Jesus and things will all be immediately better. I thought to myself you have no idea how bad things are but, I appreciate the honesty and heads up. Andy continued however, that if I became a Christian I would have something to live for, die for, meaning, adventure and purpose every day of my life. That moment with that promise, was the purest, most peaceful and beautiful I had ever experienced. Andy asked if I wanted to think about it. My reply welled up immediately, from the deepest part of who I was - I said no. I was ready to become a Christian. Why would I not swap what I currently had, for what was being offered to me?
I had never heard that Jesus was alive and wanting a relationship with me, but I already knew him in some way, thanks to C.S.Lewis and reading the Chronicles of Narnia many times. In the midst of some of the worst abuse at home, I had tried to escape to Narnia through my wardrobe. Now it was time to meet Aslan in person. I was ready to cross over into the Kingdom of God. So we prayed a prayer, I gave my life to Jesus and I went home. For the past few weeks, I had taken to having a strong drink to be able to get to sleep, as I entered the family tradition of alcohol abuse. But that night I didn’t need alcohol to get to sleep.
Better and Worse
Becoming a Christian brought immediate healing into my life. The Church was my new family, modelling caring and gracious ways for living. My faith was something by which my pain could be processed, and taken to the cross and transformed. I had moments of divine and powerful inner healing. Yet I had much I had to yet work through and I would need to over the years. My childhood sensitivity, my 'spider sense' meant I saw danger where there was none. I tried to rescue people, when I should not. And my deepest fear has been people abandoning me. Being a church planter and pastor where people threaten to leave and often do, has tapped deeply into that pain.
Some of my brothers have dealt with the pain by the use of drugs and medication. My medication of choice was work. For as long as I can remember I determined to not be work -shy like my parents and take responsibility for the things I saw them having complete disregard for. This work ethic, and my childhood oaths to myself were sufficient for a while. The determination to not be like my parents driving me. I was able to work my way through a degree, pay off student loans and buy a house. But I was never able to switch that work ethic off, a coping mechanism that would eventually harm me. Working more and longer was how I kept the anxiety and danger at bay. Until one day aged 30, on my first day as a full time pastor, I woke up in the middle of a nightmare about my own death, hearing an audible voice (the only time I have heard a disembodied audible voice), 'say goodbye to your wife you are about to die’. And I had my first panic attack. Shooting upright, unable to breath, shrieking and waking my wife. She had already had to face so much from my mental health and was about to face even more. Mental health is difficult for the sufferer, it is hard for those who love the one who suffers. The moods, reactions, responses, of the one suffering become the burden and experience of the ones closest to them. And knowing that makes the one suffering suffer more, and that in turn increases the burden on those they care for.
I had no idea what was happening to me. When I looked in the mirror I felt like I was looking at someone else. When I looked at my hands it was like they were someone else's. And the panic attacks escalated, until I had panic attacks worry about when the next panic attack would strike. I tried to mask and cover them up. But eventually was overcome completely. Most painful was the loss of the sense of God’s presence. My Christian life was with its ups and downs was one where God always seemed close to me, palpable and tangible. Now he seemed so far away, I feared I might never find him again. Yet I was to learn that my sense of His presence and His presence are not the same thing. I was eventually diagnosed with depression caused by anxiety, and of suffering depersonalisation and de-realisation. Little did I know then, that this was was the start of getting better in new and deeper ways. That my ways of coping were not what the Lord had for my future, and he wanted to bring them to an end and replace them.
Over the years I have taken steps forward, only to come back to bouts of immense depression and anxiety. The pressure of church leadership often catalysed such episodes. The legal battles for my youngest autistic daughter, were ongoing triggers. But I moved forwards, learning more, finding more healing. Then recently my psychiatrist was able to remove me from his patient list. He said he was able to say something to me that he rarely got to say to patients. That I was better, and that I was in remission from my main mental health illnesses and symptoms.
When I first became a Christian, I was asked to share my conversion story. I remember my peers, most who had grown up within the church, saying to me they envied my conversion experience. Of how God had met me and intervened in my life, whilst they had no such dramatic story. Yet I would reply to them that I would swap my conversion for the life they had, of growing up with parents who loved them, cared for them, and shared Jesus with them. I’m aware that for many my story is worse than anything they have faced, and I share it not to make others feel they have less as cause for their problems. And there are many, some I have pastored who make my background look like a walk in the park. The truth is mental health is no respecter of love, care and context. Some of the most loved and cared for people, have the most awful mental health challenges. I often tried to make light of my own struggles, comparing myself to others worse off than me. My friend Andy, my old youth pastor, has walked with me and still does through the most difficult times of my life. He reminded me that I could not cope by making light of my struggles, and that I need to face them for what they were, mine, and with what God had for me. We are all prone to on the one hand overstating our trials, or on the other living with a denial about them.
The Trinity of Mental Health Support
Proverbs 4:7: The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding
So in my own mental health journey, that I have shared with may others in my pastoral care of them, I have found three things to be vital for understanding, support and healing.
I put this one here as first. Not due to lack of faith, but for a belief in how God has equipped people trained to understand bodies and minds, to bring help and healing. If you get run over by a bus, it is not a lack of faith for your friends to call an ambulance to take you to hospital. Likewise the first and most challenging place to start is with an assessment by medical professionals. Mental health is like any other illness, it can be diagnosed, and treated. Yet accessing this support is often the hardest step to take. We refuse to, for fear of what we might find out, or of what our friends and family might say about us. Shame and denial will keep us and those we love from accessing the medical support we need. The simple diagnostic to move towards medical support is this, am I coping? Have the usual ups and downs of life become something I can no longer navigate healthy and are overcoming me and those around me?
When I meet with anyone to review their mental health struggles, after listening, the first question I ask is, how are you coping? I tell them they can tell me the worst of what they have been feeling, thinking and doing. That I will think no less of them for revealing who they are in this place they are struggling with. It is a privilege every time someone opens up to the darkest and most painful things they are thinking and feeling. And to tell them they are not alone. As I turn to advice I will then ask, have you been to see your doctor? If you or your loved one is too scared to go to a doctor, offer to go with them. Many times I have sat with others with their doctors, or helped people find someone they trust to go with them. To help them get there and help them when the doctor asks how they are, to be able to share what they are really not coping with. No-one went to their doctor too soon, or if they did no harm comes from that. Yet too often we wait too late to access help, when accessing it sooner and proactively saves us more some suffering later.
There are amazing medications to help brains that are impaired due to mental illness. There are pathways to see psychiatrists, medics trained in the whole body and the mind, to help you understand what is happening to you. And accessing a doctor is a confidential step. Your context might be one where it is not safe, or you do not feel it is safe for others to know your need for medical help. But you can access this without the world having to know you are. In the long run, you will need others to know what you are facing, and you will be surprised at who and where God has someone to support you as you journey in this.
When we struggle with mental health our ability to understand what is happening to us is often greatly impaired, such is the nature of mental health. Instead of struggling and living with the costs of poor mental health, the cost to access help is a better price to pay, be that time, overcoming shame, fears, and financial barriers. In 1 John 1:6 we are exhorted to walk in the light. Mental health is often a place of great darkness. The enemy, the father of lies, will tell you that there is no way out, that you should be able to cope. He will do anything to keep you in the dark and make that darkness worse. Seeing a doctor, is a step into the light.
Pastors often face the most stigma around mental health. They labour under the beliefs that their minds should be paragons of perfect health, and fear that if their congregation knows they are struggling they will be deemed to be failures. I remember that fear myself, twenty years ago as I met with the key members of our church plant, for whom I had left my well paying job in the city of London and now feared I had failed. I needed to and wanted to tell them my struggles, and the steps I was taking. And I feared they might reject me and my life might become even worse.
Yet as I took that step and shared, in my front lounge, one of those present, Alison, said this to me. “It’s ok, Jason. You have always told us it’s ok for us to not be well, including our mental health. It’s just your turn now.” So my church made it safe for me to get the help and support I needed. In that season, for about 6 months I managed to get out of bed in the morning, open the post, sleep most of the day, and then get up again so I was present when my kids returned home,. And I managed to teach and lead on Sundays. Despite the sense of shame that I was not able to do more, our church grew.
I know my story is one of acceptance and grace, and seeing God work. I know many friends who have similarly feared rejection if they let their church know their struggles, to then find similar grace and support. And I know of some whose fears were partly realised, or some cases fully, as people unable to understand, did reject them. Yet what came next for them, was better than what they were suffering. Stepping into the light, is the only way for us to see where the Lord will direct us.
For many, it is their partner and spouse, who they most fear will reject them. My wife jokes about it now, but it is a joke tinged with truth, that she went from having three children to four. And she was amazing. How she supported, lived with and moved through all I suffered is a story of her character and her commitment to our wedding vows, for better or for worse, in sickness and health. The most tragic mental health situations I have seen is where the person ill, determines wrongly that it is their spouse making them so. No spouse can care and at the same time become the scapegoat for the one suffering. Then I have seen spouses shut down, and back away, and withdraw, unable to care or know how to. Indeed as a pastor I have had many spouses tell me, ‘I didn’t sign up for this’, as they face the poor mental health of their partner. The interplay of mental health in marriages often so complex, and it points to the next level of support that is needed, for one suffering and those struggling to care for them.
Proverbs 26: 11 As a dog returns to its vomit, so fools repeat their folly.
If talking to a doctor is difficult, speaking with a therapist can be an even harder next step. When I had a breakdown, I knew enough to know that a therapist might be in order. But what I talked about and what I needed to talk about were not the same thing. I was several sessions into therapy, when I found myself saying to my wife, the therapist keeps wanting to talk about my mother, I don’t know why! From what I have shared with you, it should be obvious I needed to talk about my mother. But at that time I was so entrenched in protecting my mother, that I was unable to admit the abuse she perpetuated upon me. I was also unable to but needed to get to the place of being able to admit to myself, that she had, and continued to make, my mental health worse.
If medication gives us support to cope better, therapy helps untangle what and how we have gotten to where we are. Mental health is a matter of the mind, of thoughts and feelings, fused, and jumbled up, that need sorting, in order to change and transform them. There are many kinds of therapies, but the one that helped me the most was CBT, cognitive behavioural therapy. It provided me with some level of analysis, and understanding about how things had occurred. But most of all it focused on how I was responding, no matter what had happened to me in the past. It was very empowering, as it placed front and centre, that no matter what had happened, and what I felt, what could I do in this moment, that was better for me that what I had been doing.
Therapists talk about coping mechanisms, ways we survive, that serve us for a while then become harmful. Some drink to take the edge off of life and their pain, until they find they cannot get through life without drinking heavily. Their alcoholism as a way of coping ceases to work, as it affects their job, and relationships, and ultimately as a way of coping destroys their lives. I have mentioned that my drug of choice was work. It was more socially respectable, especially in our work obsessed Western world. I can remember feeling ‘high’ on days when I worked 16 hours, for several days at a time. One thing I learned in therapy was that my gauges to measure life were off, broken. I would never feel I had done enough. The time to stop working was when I started to feel I had not done enough! For when I felt lazy, that was the moment when I had done more than most, and was pressing into work for the wrong reasons.
And I have had many coping mechanisms to unravel since then. And sadly many I have returned to, only to have to let them go again in the same ways, or with new understanding. My deepest childhood wound, is being abandoned. So I have for too long over-cared for people, thinking that if I anticipate their needs, care more for them, they will not leave me. Yet they do leave no matter how much I reach out. I have had to learn that my problem is not caring too little, it is often of caring overly so. Now some have the opposite problem, they have protected themselves by not caring and need to learn to care. At the root of the symptoms of poor mental health, are ways of coping, that we need to unlearn and can do with support.
There might be all sorts of reasons for our poor mental health, circumstances that included abuse and lack of care. Genetics and biological components are reasons too, as well as spiritual roots. My psychiatrist on going through my family tree, observed the trend of alcohol and substance abuse, and saw that as a likely predisposition for me to have inherited. That was part of how I realised my workaholism had been my addiction.
But there is a component to mental health, where we can take action, we can talk, we can move forwards with the pain. We are more than the sum of our past, and biology. And I say this as a long term sufferer from poor mental health. Often there are things we need to grow up over, and make decisions to change. Some are locked into severe conditions where any conscious response is often impossible. But many of us suffer in part due to our choices and actions, and we are invited, through the understanding gained with medics and therapist, to take what we learn about ourselves and behave differently.
For example, I realised that when anxious, I became impatient with my wife. Indeed I would bully her verbally into talking and arguing. Often the arguments we had might have started around something genuine, including something my wife should have done differently or not done. But the ensuing forcing of her into arguments, stemmed not from what she had done or not, but from my anxiety. One day in the midst of a heated argument, my wife in tears, said to me ‘why would you talk to me like this, you are the love of my life?’ That cut through me like a knife. No matter how right my initiating the conversation, I had let the worst of me overcome me and was acting it out. Why indeed would I speak to my wife, also the love of my life, like this? There was no reason at all. I had learned by then, that to withdraw into a pity party, and to listen to the enemy tell me here is proof you deserve to suffer, was a step into the darkness. So Instead I could and did choose to step into the light. I apologised, I said out loud that I needed to do better, and would. And I took this new understanding as something to continue to take action over, and to become better about.
Now the feelings I had during all this were awful. But something else I have had to learn, is that my feeling are not who I am. A good therapist will help you learn that you are not your thoughts and you are not your feelings. And much of how we respond within mental health is where are have become fused to thoughts and feelings. It is possible to feel badly and think poor things, yet choose actions that do not stem from that. Indeed we do that at some level all the time to get through life. We often don’t want to go to work but we do! Therapy, talking, can deepen our understanding of the places we have collapsed who we are into what we think and feel.
When I journal it is usually during low points in life, when I am facing the worst of who I am and the inner struggles of that. And every time I come to write about how I am struggling and what I need to face up to, I go through a learned way of processing these ongoing struggles. Yes, my circumstances might give rise to this, but how am I responding to what this is? And from what I know about myself what is causing me to respond the way I am? Is there some new understanding I am finding for me to learn new things about how I respond? And in the midst of these revelations about myself, revelations made in the light not in the dark, I remind myself this - it does not diminish me to consider this. And then I consider what is the better way for me to respond to what I am facing, before God my creator and sustainer.
For me the greatest battle of mental health is the ongoing fear that I am somehow less, by considering how I can be better. And within this is the deepest truth of all, that I have been learning and pressing into too. That the problems I have are often from thinking too much or too little about myself. The way to health is being freed up to think less often about myself, and for who I am to be established not by others, not even my wife, and as a church planter not the size of my church. But by my Heavenly Father.
With the understanding from medical professionals, and insights from therapy we can enter into the light of prayer. The transforming presence of God, on our own, and with others.
At the heart of spiritual formation, in Christianity, is an understanding that life is not just lived with God through our circumstances. God cares about those for sure, and intervenes in them, but if our prayers are only ever for things around us, we have not progressed in any significant way who we are in Christ. The next level is how we respond to the events and context of life. That is several layers down from our circumstance, around who we are, and who we becoming. But there is a level at the bottom, even further underneath this, and it is about who we are. For who we are determines how we respond and how we respond shapes our circumstances.
You see, I and others can pray for my situation to change, my circumstances. And that is what I might need. But then prayer can be made for how I am responding to what I face. But the deepest prayer of all is for who I am, with where and how I am. Andy, my old youth pastor once told me that pain was too painful to waste. I need to take the pain I am in contact with and to take it to the cross, to be transformed in my inner being. Everything God has for me flows from there.
I once sat in a psychiatric hospital with the eldest of my younger brothers, Matthew. He was admitted with his alcoholism overtaking his life. Exposed like a raw nerve to the air, he sobbed and rocked back and forwards, and asked me ‘what do you do with the pain?’ I told him how I take it to Jesus. A few years ago Matthew took his pain to the cross and began his own journey with Jesus. He has become a different person, as the Gospel came to life in him. He has gone from being someone I could not trust to someone I trust my life with. Some of his healing was instant, some has taken and is taking place over time. He is a new creation, still being wonderfully recreated by Jesus.
Understanding from being in the light, allows for prayer to take place at the root causes of who we are. The abuse I faced is never going to be changed. The lack from my parents will remain in my life. But who I am is not the sum of that experience and lack. I am a child of God. That often trite sounding statement, is the deepest truth of all to discover. It is not a sop in exchange for pain, it is life itself. So when friends and peers ask me for what they can pray, I offer them the developing understandings I have of who I am, how and how I am responding to the events of life. And those prayers become more focused, and powerful, as they attend to the deepest truths of who the Lord wants me to be.
This place of prayer, is where I read books, take part in retreats, have spiritual direction, receive the laying on of hands. This is the reason my psychiatrist was able to say something he never normally got to say, that I was better, that I was in remission. In those words I saw a medical professional attesting to the work of God in my life over twenty years. Indeed the longer I get to lead, the more I realise that Christian leadership itself, becomes more about attending to who we are to direct the things we do (our context) and how we respond (the behaviours we choose).
Spirituality and Practice of Mental Health
Much of what I have written is already an implicit spirituality of mental health, for how we might understand, embrace, practice and be formed in our Christian faith, in the midst of mental health challenges. I want to conclude by making those textures more explicit and map them against many of the things you might be facing or those you love and care for, for practical help.
Who is really me?
You are more than your illness and diagnosis. No matter how helpful a diagnosis, it is not who you are. Just as a broken arm, or pneumonia is not the sum totality of your life and identity. Mental health is more complicated due to the nature of how it affects us, being harder to stand apart from our thoughts and feelings. I remember often wondering if a depressed me was the real me, and times when I felt better was that the real me? Was the real me the one on medication or the one without? But I came to realise that they were all aspects of me. Everyone has ups and downs, mood changes and fluctuating thoughts, and they are some of those things as they are not those things. Mental health is just a more intense experience of that spectrum of thoughts and feelings. Many people don’t have a mental health illness and have little sense of who they are. Working through your mental health struggles can be a time to discover more of who you are in Christ, your true identity. One time when sharing many years ago, someone asked me if I was better, I said almost 90%. They said they’d pray for the other 10%. Then the Lord spoke to me, after that interaction, he said he was not going to be returning me to what I was but transforming into something better. I went back to that person and apologised and told them what the Lord has said to me, and asked them to pray for the transformation the Lord wanted to continue in me.
Can God use me if I have a mental health illness?
The answer is yes! God has used and continues to use broken vessels through history and will continue to do so. Sometimes your mental illness is like other illnesses, you won’t be able to work. But for most of the time even with chronic long term struggles you can continue to engage with God, life and ministry and leadership. Don’t believe anything the enemy or your fears tell you to the contrary. Tell your friends struggling that God has plans to continue His work in them.
Don’t drop out or opt out or run away
The place of pain is often the place for your healing. If you are taken to hospital for emergency surgery, it requires more pain before you can get better. We often need to stay in the place of our suffering, because it is allowing the things that we need healing from to manifest. With mental health we can often hide away or run away. Those are responses people have to struggles in life most of the time anyway. With mental health those response are exacerbated. Like Jacob we have to return to Bethel to face our fears and struggles with God. Remember, pain is too painful to waste, take it to the cross, and let others take you to the cross. We do that by not running away or hiding, and continuing to engage in our lives with all we face. Psalm 73, my strength and my heart may fail but God is my strength and my portion for ever.
Is it just me, I feel so alone?
We are all broken, and all on a spectrum of mental health, some better than others, but none perfectly healed. That healing can be experienced in part now but its fullness comes in eternity, when Jesus returns. You are not alone, you are not a failure, you are not abnormal, you are wonderfully made by your heavenly Father. Remember your sense of God’s presence and His presence are not the same thing. God is with you even if you cannot see how or why at the moment. Back in 1999, when I had panic attacks ever day, I found I could not even read the bible. I used to go to bed with the Bible clutched to my chest. I prayed,” Lord, this is so important to me, but I don’t know how to read it any more, but I cling to it and I trust that holding this as have panic attacks and go to sleep, is enough for you”. It was of course enough, in fact it was probably the most honest prayer I have ever prayed that God responded to.
Do the next right thing
It often takes a long time to stabilise when mental health hits and then process and find healing. Just doing the next right things no matter how you feel, instead of wanting to feel better before doing the right things, is vital. When my depression was the worst, I had a process as I woke, measuring how bad I felt on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the worst. After measuring that, I then told myself to get into the shower, I knew that was the next right thing. Then I had my shower. Then I measured myself again, sometimes it was better sometimes the same. Then I did the next step and the next into my day, one step at time. The feelings of anxiety and depression were often unrelenting, but there were some fleeting and less intense moments. Then those moments turned into an hour, and then part of a day. But I determined that no matter how I felt I would do the next right thing. Here my therapy was most helpful, being able to diffuse from my crushing feelings, knowing I was more than them. I was able to examine my darkest thoughts and feelings and notice them but choose to act differently around what I valued the most. And when I couldn’t I was kind to myself, and observed the litany of accusations my thoughts threw at me. My aim was not to feel better, that would come on its own over time. My goal was to move forward into my values and purpose no matter how bad I felt. Chasing feeling better always made me feel worse.
Integrate mental health habits with your spiritual formation habits
What you learn from medical support, and therapy can be integrated with spiritual formation habits. I continue to read books about resilience and mental stability. I combine those with Christian books related to this, and further combine those with my prayer practices and habits. I have ‘mindfulness’ practices, that are part centering prayer and part therapy practices. I journal, I pray, I see a spiritual director, I go on retreats. I refuse to let my mental health be in a compartment on its own, it is part of all I am and my deepest formations.
Because you are depressed you don’t have to depress others
Most of what happens in my inner world, others would not be aware of. There are times and places when I open up, safely with people who can care for me and nurture me with what I am facing. The temptation is to pretend we are ok, or on the other to make sure everyone knows we are not. Both those are miserable for us and others. I try not to dump my struggles on others. It does not diminish me to be present for others, and smile and care for them even though my flesh and heart might be failing. As long as there are people I can tell how I am doing, everyone does not need to know the worst of how feel. This practice has helped me continue moving forwards.
When you have made others life miserable through your suffering, take it to the cross, and apologise. The worst thing is to take that into the dark, to resent that others have been upset by us, or to pretend we are ok and shut down inside. It is painful to see our hurt hurt others. There is light, and life and resurrection in moving towards that and taking responsibility for the affects of us on others.
There are some times when I have had to ask others to meet with people who have complaints. My present sufferings meaning I will not be able to hear their complaint well. They deserve me to be in a better place than have me comparing what they are facing with what I am facing.
Pastoral life is often loaded with extra conflicts, loss and suffering. It is the privilege of Christian leadership, to engage with people at the intersection of what ails them the most. Yet the volume of that can become a burden we take personally. Too many pastors cope by carrying the pains of others they cannot bear, or by becoming professional and distanced. There is place to be where we can enter into, and go to the cross, but also let others carry their own crosses, in the journey the Lord has for them. People will leave you no matter how good a leader you are. People will disagree with you, complain about you, turn their struggles in their faith into something you have failed them in. This is perhaps the greatest cause of mental health distress pastors face. Learning to differentiate, to know what is yours to bear and not is vital.
Will I ever feel better?
Healing will come by the Holy Spirit, healing prayer, rest, retreat, deliverance, repentance. Healing will come by the rewiring of your mind, through therapy, prayer, talking, and understanding. Healing will come by growing up, confessing sin, and facing the worst of who we are with the best of who God calls into being.
I can’t face this: Yes you can
Panic, fear, anxiety, depression. We might know the weigh of that, for us. The overwhelm of that that seems more than we can bear. Know this, and the weight of every mental illness of everyone who ever lived and ever will, was taken up by Jesus. In the garden when he prayed, his anxiety was yours as he sweated blood, and when he declared he was abandoned by his Father cros, he bore your abandonments and that of everyone. He died for all you are facing, in order to bring you life.
Recommendations & Resources
There are so many resources to help you and others, but I want to finish with the ones that have helped me the most, and that I recommend pastorally to others.
Failure of Nerve, Edwin Friedman
This book more than any other helped me understand the dynamics of anxiety, and the negative interactions of that with others, organisations and leadership. There is a differentiation that is required for my own well being and that of those I lead.
The Happiness Trap, Russ Harris
The book by a medical doctor and therapist, has helped me with the most difficult feelings and thoughts within my mental health. A book that bring insights and with practices to align your mental health journey with your values and purpose.
Crash the Chatterbox: Hearing God's Voice Above All Others, Steven Furtick
A book that explores so powerfully how the thoughts in our head are not the voice of God. While a great book for any Christian, this book pairs well for those doing work about their thought process within their mental health.
The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness, Timothy Keller
A short but profound Bible study on how the apostle Paul rested in a core identity available to us all. With mental health we can think too much or too little of ourselves. Here we can discover how to think less often about ourselves and discover what God thinks of us.
Rising Strong, Brené Brown
Making progress and finding healing requires vulnerability, which is hard at the best of times. The pain we experience with mental health and the effects on others, can cause us to withdraw or self protect. This book, again about life for everyone, is very pertinent for those suffering mental health issues. How to be brave, how to get back up, and how to keeping moving forwards.
Do share your experiences, journey and resources about mental health in the comments below.