Understanding Mental Illness

This article was written by Bess Brookes, a longtime supporter of Oasis Belgium. If you would like to contribute to the Oasis blog on a relevant topic, we would love to hear from you!

Mental health is an important topic for any charity or NGO, and particularly so for organizations like Oasis who work with isolated elderly people and migrants who are experiencing trauma, isolation, and discrimination. Depression, anxiety, and other mental health struggles permeate across barriers of age, nationality, and life experiences. Listening to the stories of others is an important first step in helping them take steps towards healing.

There can be times in life when you feel truly alone.  Even in a context of strong personal relationships, a vibrant social life, a nurturing Christian Church, a meaningful work life, you can still feel truly alone.

These alone moments can happen when you’re ill and need medical treatment; no one else, however much they love you, can volunteer to take your place.  You must take the appropriate medicine or have the painful operation!  It is your body and your experience.   Facing illness of any kind can be so lonely, particularly if you are in a strange country with an unfamiliar medical system.  Clinging on to your faith in the middle of such circumstances can seem almost impossible – especially if you feel isolated within your own Church community, pushed to one side because your illness is not quite “acceptable” in some way.

Perhaps that illness is clinical depression.  Someone suffering from this can experiences enormous social isolation – and, if a Christian, loneliness within their church community too.  This is partly due to the nature of the condition itself but also the potential withdrawal of others in the face of something they don’t understand.

My own journey with clinical depression began around 25 years ago.  There was a huge stigma associated with this illness in England then, even more so than today – people were frequently characterised as weak and unable to cope with normal life.  Doctors put vague descriptions such as “stress” or “exhaustion” on medical notes needed for work, because having something like “depression” on your personnel record could seriously hamper your career. 

In my case, the doctor prescribed some medication and said that he would refer me to a counsellor at the local Mental Health Unit for some talking-therapy.  I can’t describe the impact of those words Mental Health Unit………... The day came for the first appointment and I somehow drove myself to the correct address.  I vividly remember stopping in the car-park and staring at the sign on the side of the building, feeling that I was in some sort of awful film-version of my life – that none of it could be real…….

But, of course, I couldn’t get well by staying inside the car.  I had to get out and walk through the doors of the building and face whatever lay ahead (I still had vague Victorian-type pictures of mental asylums going round in my mind - of people sitting rocking in corners or handcuffed in chains screaming….).  As it turned out, I was treated with the utmost humanity and the waiting room was full of………..people like me!! 

However, outside the confines of a Mental Health Unit or similar, Christians can feel tremendously guilty about suffering from depression, given all the “hope” and “joy” that they are supposed to have.  Someone with clinical depression has to come to terms with a radical change to their self-image.  They no longer feel like the person they thought they were and it is difficult to convey this “loss of identity” to their fellow-believers. 

But surely depressed Christians receive a huge amount of support and encouragement from their local churches?  Unfortunately, I know that this often is not the case. One of the saddest things I have heard in the last few years is a missionary confiding to me that she couldn’t tell her fellow Christian workers that she was on antidepressants because it was “not the sort of medicine that Christians should need”.  Why are some medicines welcomed as part of God’s healing plan while others are shameful?  In my U.K. church all those years ago, my problem was either ignored completely or I received useless advice such as “the only way to deal with depression is to pray more”, without any understanding that depression can severely disrupt your ability to function normally in all areas of your life, including spiritually.

You might think this is a very strange thing to say.  Doesn’t everyone have direct access to God, whatever their state of health, through the life and work of Jesus?  Where exactly is the problem?  The root, I think, lies in some of the characteristics of clinical depression as an illness:  the way in which a sufferer is disabled, especially the innate sense of isolation, of being cut-off from your fellow human beings and often from God. Of course, there is no fundamental change in the relationship between you and the divine; the issue is one of perception and lack of any kind of energy – even the energy to actively rest in Him.  Many people report the feeling of a glass screen between them and the rest of the world – they are totally aware of reality but unable to interact with it normally.   Decision-making can be all but impossible.  Added to this, there are severe difficulties when coping in social situations (e.g Church services) and the fact that the activity of composing and producing speech is exhausting.  It follows that the most ardent believer might be incapable of praying spontaneously in their “normal verbal way”, yet lack the concentration needed to spend time in silent contemplation or be able to decide to do something else (or nothing!).  And all this without your fellow Christians understanding anything that is happening to you and so being able to share any part of the burden.  This works in both directions – a group of friends might be reaching out and genuinely trying to support you but you can’t “feel” or recognise this because of your illness – this can lead to frustrations on both sides and a huge amount of patience and grace is needed.

Given the complexities of different illnesses (unless we have personal experience or appropriate medical training) what kind of supportive community can we practically hope to be when faced with fellow Christians suffering from depression?  Although I can list many ways in which Church life can be difficult in this respect, it is the following which have given me encouragement over the years

·       People who take the time to listen and accept that clinical depression is an illness, even if one they don’t understand,

·       People who realise that “standard spiritual advice” is pretty useless if you are not well enough to follow it. 

·       People who give practical help with cooking, cleaning and child-minding, without which my family would not have got through some of the darkest times.

·       People who have courage to stand alongside in the darkness and continually whisper a message of hope

 We as a church community can help people enormously in their struggle to hold on to their faith in times of depression– by unconditional acceptance of people as they are and, by an understanding that at times such people may be completely dependent on our spiritual help.   In evangelical protestant circles, we are so accustomed to the idea of our own personal faith and an individual practice of prayer that we can fail to say the obvious: “Don’t worry if you can’t pray – just rest, and I’ll pray for you”.

Above all, I think, the Christian community is there to hold out a continuous message of hope both expounded in Sunday by Sunday teaching (even if someone isn’t well enough to grasp it at the time) and concretised in practical concern.   For me, the scarred resurrection body of Christ is a continually helpful symbol and takes away our need for pretence in our Christian lives.  We struggle through, and are scarred by, these experiences, whether sufferer or church community.  But, ultimately, there is resurrection and those of us who suffer from clinical depression need our church community to remind us of that.