Mental health – literally, the health of your mind – is something that we have been talking a lot more about in recent years; and it’s about time too. In the same way that physical health isn’t just limited to the times that you’re not feeling so great, mental health is a constant thing: it is, simply, your health, mentally. Physically, we learn to eat the right food and do the right thing to keep everything working in the best way; we go to the doctor when something is up and we do what the doctor tells us to do to get better – and yet we don’t seem to talk in the same way about how we can maintain our mental health, and access support when it isn’t so good.
So let’s do something about it, shall we? 16 million people in the UK are currently diagnosed with a mental illness; and a larger number than that would be struggling without a diagnosis. 75% of mental difficulties start before the 18th birthday, and 50% of mental health difficulties in adult life (excluding dementia) took root before the age of 15. Suicide is the biggest cause of death of young people aged 20-35 in the UK, and the number is getting bigger each year. In 2015, 1660 young people in the UK took their own lives. There are strong links between mental illness and isolation and loneliness, and it’s been recorded that more than half of young people feel embarrassed about talking about mental health, leading to a rise in suicide rates every year.
Basically: let’s talk about mental health.
Things that I would tell my eighteen year old self, from a twenty-five year old Heather (who is only a tiny bit wiser than she was):
Your mental health does not have anything to do with whether or not you believe in Jesus, or whether or not you have enough faith.
“If only you trusted God a bit more…”
Mental health difficulties are one of the most isolating experiences you can go through. Your mind is fooled into believing things that are not true, there is a dark cloud that hovers around you constantly, and the world stops making sense. People develop mental illness and difficulties due to all kinds of reasons: sometimes trauma, sometimes circumstance; sometimes just a cause of the chemicals in their brain – and when you are going through this stuff, your mind tells you that you’re in it on your own.
Of course, that is not the truth: the truth is that we have a God who walks with us, and is not shaken by the state of our mental health. He is a God whose love for us is not determined by the amount of love we are capable to feel for him. He has promised to never leave us nor forsake us, and that is not limited to the sunny days. When we are going through mental health difficulties, our mind tells us that no-one else has been through what you are going through; and that either makes you a terrible person, or an alien.
So telling somebody in that situation that their mental health is causing – or is due to – a lack of faith, and a disconnection with God, is one of the most damaging things. That is not the truth. It’s not the truth that if they only prayed a bit harder, God would take away the pain. It’s not the truth that they are intentionally choosing to look away from God and into the darkness. When they are in that place, God is not further away from them than he ever has been, and grace is not suddenly removed: why, in this particular area, would it be the case that they can work hard to get themselves out of the situation?
God does heal, and has healed, and will heal, mental health difficulties in the same way that He has the power to totally remove physical illness. But it is not our lack of faith that is the cause of a continued struggle with mental health.
Nobody is watching their clock and waiting for the moment that you can be yourself again.
In the times when I have struggled with my mental health as a Christian, I have felt an immense amount of shame and guilt: I am the fun, bubbly, faith-filled I Am Project Heather – and when I can’t live up to that, there must be something wrong with me or my faith. People only want to be friends with this version of Heather, right?! I wouldn’t want to be friends with sad Heather, personally – she was a bit of a downer – why would anyone else?
A friend took me out for a coffee by the river, right in the middle of the latest sad-Heather-era, and effectively told me to get over myself, which is exactly what I needed, it turns out. “No-one’s watching the clock, waiting for you to sort your life out” she said; “I’d much rather you were sad and real, than putting on a face for me – we love you because you’re you, not because you’ve got everything sorted”.
If you’re in the middle of one of those moments, remember this, friend: you are loved because you are you; not because you’ve got it all sorted. Your worth doesn’t go when you don’t feel like you’ve got it all together.
In your brokenness, you are not broken.
When I was in a time of not feeling like I could get it all together, I felt like I had totally failed as a Christian: I couldn’t even find the strength to get myself through the day – how could I help others do the same. There were times when I did some truly stupid things and looked in some really stupid places to find a bit of strength and a bit of acceptance – what kind of example was I?!
There’s a passage in Romans that speaks straight into that feeling:
“There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God…” Romans 3:23
It’s a verse that I was very familiar with, that I had heard spoken a lot over the years. It’s true – we are all sinners, none of us are good enough to live up to God’s standards. And if you stop it there, that is what it says: we are all rubbish, we are all broken, none of us can live up to God’s expectations. But it doesn’t stop there:
“…and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came through Christ Jesus”. Romans 3:24
We are all just as broken – but in the same breath, we are all just as whole and just as redeemed in Christ. We have been made holy – and that is just as true on the sunny days and the rainy days. Take the pressure off yourself; it’s all on Him, not you.
We’ll be hearing some incredible stories from friends around mental health in the coming weeks – let’s get the conversation going! Drop us a comment or a message – I’d love to know what you think. Much love <3