I was drawn to a particular post on Facebook recently. It was in a community group which, at first glance, looked like a traffic update. Reading some of the comments, though, made it clear that the traffic delay was due to a man committing suicide by throwing himself off a motorway bridge.
The comments were poignant and, in the main, respectful. The man had suffered with mental health issues for some time, and in despair had taken a step from which there was return. It is a truly tragic, yet staggeringly frequent story.
This tragic event has prompted me to share some thoughts around what, in church, can be a great unspoken - mental health issues.
A word to clarify meaning from the get-go... When some people hear the term mental health, they count themselves out. ‘That must be talking about people with diagnoses or who are on tablets’ we can tell ourselves. But ‘mental health’ is broader. It refers to the state of health – or otherwise – of our mental state; our mood, feelings, emotions.
To those who feel to have made it through the COVID lockdowns unscathed in terms of mental health, what I’m about to say may seem sensationalist or at least exaggerated for the purpose of a blog. Feel free to disagree, but here’s what I see: The lockdowns and the lack of contact people have had with others have negatively affected the mental health of many. More than we easily recognise. More than meet the eye.
This is some ‘out there’ problem. This is true within the church. People I speak to describe it, either specifically or in other discernible ways. It’s a real issue which, if we want to be a place of safety for people to run to, we need to start talking about.
Much has been done in recent years to address the stigma associated with mental health struggles, and I see there has been some progress in terms of people’s openness to talk about their own struggles and others’ receptiveness to hear those struggles. But we have a long way to go. People are struggling with this issue, so let’s be real.
What follows isn’t exhaustive, but could get the conversation moving. Here are some steps to consider if you’re feeling like you’re struggling.
Allow me to lead the way… we are rubbish at being honest! How many times are you asked ‘How are you doing?’ And what’s your standard answer, regardless of what’s going on and how you’re actually feeling? “Fine, thanks.” It’s almost instinctive. Second nature. But it’s singularly unhelpful on occasions. What occasions? Those when you use it to avoid telling someone the truth, allowing someone a ringside seat into how ‘not alright’ you actually are.
I get it, you don’t want to share your problems with the world. That’s understandable, and I’m not saying you should. But do answer honestly with someone. Whether it’s someone you know well, an elder in the church, or a complete stranger, the longer you continue pretending you’re fine, or will be if you just keep pushing through, the worse things will get. Remember Bob Hoskins’ words in the BT adverts? “It’s good to talk.”
We enable someone else to minister to us when we share our struggles with them.
Make the choice – be honest. You’ll be amazed at how much relief you’ll find just in taking the decision to share the real state of affairs with someone.
We enable someone else to minister to us when we share our struggles with them.
Put down what can be put down
Maybe you just don’t like the idea of letting someone down by not doing something you’ve committed to. You might have been raised to do what you’ve promised, whatever it costs. Allow me to spare you the suffering: it’s alright to put something down. It’s fine to back out of something you’ve agreed to in order to preserve your mental wellbeing. It’s not failure, and it’s not weakness.
There are no rules here. Sometimes, having meaningful things in the diary can create a sense of purpose and something to look forward to. If it’s helpful to keep your commitments, do that. But also be willing to step back for your health’s sake if that’s necessary.
There may be some things that are not easily put down or scaled back – work, family and the likes. But be prepared to be ruthless in assessing your commitments. If you find yourself giving, so depleting your emotional reserves further, it may be time to review what you do.
Warning – you might have to get over yourself! You might pride yourself on being the one who’s always there for others. Maybe you’re the person people seek out to talk about their problems with. Being that person may need to pause or recalibrate for a season. And that’s okay.
Continue spiritual disciples
Disciplines of prayer, meditation, worship and reading the Scriptures are key ways to nourish yourself – to take care of yourself – during periods of struggle. Yet they can feel strangely daunting and overwhelming. Unfamiliar, even. You might want to change how you do things. If reading for longer periods isn’t manageable right now, break the Scripture into smaller chunks to read. If quiet meditation is deafening, find praise music on YouTube to surround yourself with truth. You get the gist? What you’ve always done doesn’t need t be what you continue to do.
If things have changed for you, by all means change the way you do things. Guilt free.
Stay in fellowship
When your mood dips, so can your desire to be with people. Maybe you’ve experienced uncharacteristic thoughts of ‘I can’t be bothered’ or ‘I just want to be alone’ when it comes to meeting others. These thoughts are understandable but will likely lead to a sense of isolation and separation. Why not have someone come visit you rather than you go to them? Or meet as planned just for a shorter time?
Time with others can feel like hard work, but it’s rewarding in the long run. It’s not good for people to be alone.
Slow, imperceptible changes in your mental health over time can seem to confront you in a moment. Given that you feel the way you feel today due to something which may have been coming for some time, it’s not reasonable to expect to feel better in a day. A good night’s sleep may be healthy, but it won’t fix things. A journey towards better mental health may start with a decision but it will take time and effort to arrive at your destination. Don’t put pressure on yourself to ‘get your act together’. Take the time you need. God isn’t rushing you. He’s with you in the slow plod, the painful recognition that you’re not alright and he provides grace and strength for what’s needed at that moment.
Very practically, keep moving! There’s something uplifting about an increased blood flow, a surge of endorphins and the feel-good factor of having clocked up a few steps. I’m not suggesting you sign up for a marathon, but factor into your day a period of exercise. If it can be outdoors, then all the better. Don’t feel the need to compete with yourself, just get your heart rate up for thirty minutes or so.
Seek professional help
This is a big one for Christians, as there’s a wonky view in some circles that says it’s unspiritual to seek help from a GP or a counsellor. That’s nonsense. In His good grace, God has provided these people and these services; if you need them, use them. Might counselling unearth some ‘stuff’ you didn’t see coming that’s painful and inconvenient? Sure. But there’s wisdom in the words ‘better out than in.’
Your best friend and most trusted confidant may have nothing but good intentions towards you, but occasionally a professional insight could have a transformative impact on how you see things. Please don’t be backwards in coming forwards, just because you think it’s ‘not the done thing.’
So let me ask you ‘how are you doing?... how are you really doing?’
Are your mood, emotions and general mental wellbeing in good shape or do you notice changes in recent times? Lack of ‘spark’, little sense of excitement or delight, things that once brought joy no longer doing so. You know you better than I do. If things have changed, don’t suffer in silence.
It’s good to talk.
 Figures from between April and June 2020 show there were 1603 deaths by suicide – the equivalent of over 17 deaths every day by suicide in the UK. Read more at https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/deaths/articles/deathsfromsuicidethatoccurredinenglandandwales/aprilandjuly2020  I recommend a viewing of Roman Kemp’s documentary ‘Our Silent Emergency’, from which I have stolen the question. https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p098hsv6/roman-kemp-our-silent-emergency