Monthly Archives: May 2015

4 Ways to Get Your Church Talking…

…About Mental Health

There is definitely a growing desire in churches to break the silence on mental health issues, so often they are desperate to engage, but have no idea how. So we’ve compiled 4 starter points to help your church join in the conversation on mental health.

1. Pray – Intercessory prayers are a vital part of the corporate church prayer life and so as well as including those you know in the congregation who are physically ill, ask those you know are struggling if they would like to be included in either intercessory prayers at church or through a prayer diary/newsletter.

2. Lament – Allow space in the church year for services of lament; look at the book of Lamentations of some of the Psalms to reflect on where God is when it hurts – both physically and mentally.

3. Preach – The Bible is full of characters who struggled with their emotions; we don’t need to diagnose them with our contemporary ailments, but we can clean wisdom and comfort by preaching from passages such as 1 Kings 19 where Elijah is desperate after fleeing from Ahab; or Matthew 26 as Jesus cries out to the Father the night of His arrest. You could even consider inviting a guest preacher to share their testimony as well.

4. Partner – Get in touch with local charities and voluntary groups who are involved in helping those with mental illnesses to see if you can fundraise or volunteer.

3 Stages of Dealing with Diagnosis – Guest Blog by Abbie Robson

However you look at it, receiving a diagnosis of a long term health condition is life changing. The words “You have…” can turn a world upside down.

And yet, when I was told I had bipolar disorder, my first emotion was relief. Finally, I had an answer for the questions I’d been asking myself for so long. I finally understood why the antidepressants I’d been taking on and off for years didn’t work, and made sense of why I was sometimes the complete opposite of depressed – filled with energy, hugely productive, and able to do more than my friends with no grasp of how on earth they could be tired. It was as if a breath I’d been holding for years could finally be let out.

That day set in motion a process that will probably be lifelong. Looking back I would say that there were three processes I went through.

Accepting

Despite the diagnosis being a relief it was still a shock, and accepting it didn’t happen overnight. In fact it’s a journey I’m still on. Bipolar disorder can be a serious illness, and every so often something comes along again that brings home the fact that, even when I’m well, I still have a condition that needs managing and careful observation of how I’m feeling.

Acceptance means fighting denial. For a long time I struggled to believe it. I couldn’t decide who was making too much fuss – me, or the doctors, friends and family who tried to persuade me. There have been times when I’ve stopped taking medication because I refused to believe it. Fortunately I’m past that stage now, but I still question it every so often, suddenly unconvinced – accepting is a process.

Adapting

After the earthquake of diagnosis and the aftershocks of denial came a period of adapting. The main plus side of being diagnosed was that, once I knew what it was, I knew what I was fighting and could start to put specific things in place to make it better – self-management is easier when you know what you’re managing.

Adapting happened in stages. At first it was forced – I had to set alarms to remind me to take my tablets, and get used to the side effects that come and go. I even set an alarm to go to sleep! I also had to get used to the fact that people who knew often saw me differently once they knew about the diagnosis, and adjust to losing friends who weren’t willing to understand.

Now most of those things come naturally. I make sure I get into the fresh air every day, even if it’s just a short walk. I try and eat better. I don’t drink alcohol other than the odd glass of wine. I go to bed at roughly the same time each night. When I’m well I can be a bit less rigid about it, but if I begin to feel down (or my friends tell me I’m ‘up’) I get strict with myself again.

Advancing

Having bipolar has changed from being an enormous battle to an ongoing walk beyond enemy lines. Accepting was a stationary phase, Adapting was a preparation phase and Advancing is just that – stepping forward into the unknown.

Despite being on medication that seems to work for me, I still have pop-up symptoms that need dealing with, and every change in mood brings fear that I’m heading back into a major episode.

But the only way to deal with those fears is to keep moving on, brandishing the weapons I have – an amazing husband, a few good, strong friends who tell me the truth, and a supportive doctor with an artillery of medications and a willingness to listen to my concerns. And actually, I’m always going forwards, it just that the hills are sometimes steeper than other times.

The outlook is clear – I know what I’m dealing with. I have a condition that will forever need managing, but I can live with it, as so many do. Diagnosis went from being a thing to be feared to my biggest weapon – I know its name, and a known enemy can be tamed.

Abbie Robson is the author of two books on self-harm, “Secret Scars” and “Insight Into Self-Harm”, she is also a Mum of two and blogs at https://pinkandbluemummyland.wordpress.com.

Present Tense

Over the past five years I’ve written many words on mental illness; its effects, the shadow it’s cast over the last decade of my life. I’ve written about my own years learning to breathe and struggling for air. And yet most of the time I have written in the past tense; I have written of past pain, relapses over and sanity restored. Today, for this Mental Health Awareness Week, I write in the present tense. It hurts; it’s the familiar pain that sits at the base of the neck. In the place where I sing and speak from; there is an ache. At times it feels cruel that the pain sits where my purpose feels fulfilled, but it serves as a reminder that this too shall pass and when it does; I have a job to do. These things are for another day, however. Today is heavy; with unspoken pain and impossibly high demands which argue that I should be better by now. These thoughts are my own; many before have told me that I’m my own worst enemy. Then there are the symptoms that are less voiced. The unwanted and unbidden images which flash through the mind, splitting the darkness like lightning. The overwhelming exhaustion which begs for bed within minutes of consciousness. An anxious foreboding which cannot be quietened. And the less dramatic expressions of brain-wiring gone wrong; the fact that deciding what to wear was a paralysing decision with anxieties crashing into one another in my head. It is not a day for cliched comfort, nor resolution. It’s a Psalm 88 day where “darkness is my closest friend”; a day to look to scarred palms and know that we have a God who weeps with us in our present; and yet cannot help but point to a tearless future.

Shalom, My Friend

Do you remember that song? It went like this:

Shalom, my friends,
Shalom, my friends,
Shalom, shalom.
Till we meet again,
Till we meet again,
Shalom, shalom

It was a staple of my primary school’s assemblies alongside “All things Bright and Beautiful”. I loved the word so much that I actually named one of my teddy bears “Shalom” (but then again, I also had a teddy called “mm mm squeak” so perhaps we shouldn’t delve too deeply!

The thing is, shalom is something that crops up again and again in the Bible and more often that not we tend to think of it as “peace”. It seems to be something soft and fluffy, something like Miss World’s wish for World Peace. The reality is, though, it is so much more than that.

Shalom is a massive concept – and much like everything when it is God-given it’s completely outside of our comprehension. The good thing is, though, is that shalom is intensely practical. John Wilkinson defines it in the following way:

“The root meaning of the word shalom is wholeness, completeness and wellbeing… It does, however have several second meanings encompassing health, security, friendship, prosperity, justice, righteousness and salvation, all of which are necessary if wholeness, completeness and wellbeing are to come about.”

“Mental health” is not specifically mentioned anywhere in the Bible – and that can cause us some problems when we are trying to communicate its’ importance. And yet reading the definition of shalom, I can’t help but think that it’s describing the ingredients for good mental health. Security, friendship, justice, wholeness.

When in the midst of mental illness, it can feel like shalom or mental health are completely unreachable. And I as I was writing I remembered a time when I was fifteen. I’d spent a long time crying, and fighting and wondering who this God I’d professed my life to a decade before really was when he was watching me hurt so much and not zapping his magic wand to make me all better again. Mental wellbeing felt like something that other people got. (Not that I ever really thought about it in those terms – but you know what I mean)

My youth leader at the time was a great guy, and I think I was one of his trickiest customers – I wasn’t a rebel or mouthy – I just cried.

The first time we properly chatted about how I was feeling, he gave me the following verse from 2 Timothy 1v7.

“For God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of power and of love, and of a sound mind.”

For me, it was reminder that the life I was living wasn’t part of the original plan. I wasn’t been cosmically punished for being a terrible person. I was loved and strengthened by a God who gave me life. Power, love and a sound mind seem to me to be the three main elements of shalom. They enable wholeness and completeness – and it is impossible for us to experience shalom and be mentally whole – without them.

*Adapted from a talk given by Rachael at Youthwork the Conference 2013

Watching

I’ve been reflecting on the problem of pain, recently. It’s a question I return to time and again because there is no satisfactory answer. Theodicy just about makes sense. I can nearly reconcile the all powerful and all loving God who sees more than we can ever imagine weaving a more beautiful tapestry with our darkness and His light. I’ve spent much of my working life thinking and reflecting on the problem of pain and evil. It’s formed parts of dissertations and essays, blog posts and articles.

Academically speaking, I get it.

And yet: Greater than academic theories of theodicy which argue an all-powerful and yet self-limiting God; an idea that the pain is part of our soul-making journey heavenwards.

Greater than the pain which permeates every pore and Greater than the questions which shake the firmest foundation of faith.

Greater than the most robust academic argument is the person of Jesus. It is the picture of a weeping and broken Jesus that allows me to trust in an invisible God in the face of life’s pain.

When I can feel the blankness steal over my gaze and the lump lodge itself in my throat – it is not the academic that comforts; but the truth of God made flesh who was scarred and slaughtered for our sake. It is the tears of Jesus as he weeps for his friend which enable me to trust when my understanding has reached its human limit. My trust in God must be greater than my understanding because there are still so many questions and so much I cannot comprehend. Whilst part of me knows that I will never be able to understand until we’ve reached heaven – I still cannot help but wonder: How can God watch? It is this thought which buzzes in my brain like an incarcerated wasp – how can He watch the agony of the starving, the acts of cruelty, the needless deaths and lives ravaged by mental illness? Nicholas Wolterstorff voices beautifully some of this questioning in his memoir “Lament for a Son”:

“How is faith to endure, O God, when you allow all this scraping and tearing on us? You have allowed rivers of blood to flow, mountains of suffering to pile up, sobs to become humanity’s song–all without lifting a finger that we could see. You have allowed bonds of love beyond number to be painfully snapped. If you have not abandoned us, explain yourself.”

All too often it seems, humanity’s song is a sob, a wrenching cry that asks “Why?” in the face of loss. And yet. In the questions and the crying and the regrets; there is something more. Something which cannot be adequately explained and something which would surely not satisfy logic. Wolterstorff continues;

“We strain to hear. But instead of hearing an answer we catch sight of God himself scraped and torn. Through our tears we see the tears of God.”

The tears of God, are the tears of Jesus and they are illustrated in CS Lewis’ “Magicians Nephew” as Aslan’s fall in the face of Digory’s grief. They are the tears cried by Jesus when he is confronted with the death of his friend and his own private agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. I cannot find an answer which satisfies my desire to know how God can watch the pain. I cannot rationalise the suffering – but I can see the tears. And I have to believe that it is enough. It is enough to know that God cannot bear to watch our pain; but He does watch and He weeps with us; arms open wide with nail-scarred hands. I do not know how God can watch. I can know that God does care enough to watch.