On Sunday we witnessed my niece’s baptism at a church in Mooroolbark. She shared with the congregation how God had kept her through challenging and distressing times.
She said that following the birth of her two children she experienced postnatal depression and was hospitalised for many months. She couldn’t imagine what her life would be like in the future. Her mind was often scrambled and her thoughts confused. The Lord’s Prayer provided comfort and consolation.
“Our Father…Deliver us from evil.”
My niece was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder and prescribed Lithium. The long-term side effects of taking this medication resulted in medically induced symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Again, her future is uncertain.
In her book ‘Grace Like Scarlett’ author Ariel Booker reminds us of the value of being open about our personal struggles. She says,
“Your pain is your pain and it deserves the dignity of recognition, for that is where healing begins.”
As I listened to my niece tell her story I realised afresh that hope is born in times of hardship and suffering and loss. You don’t need hope if life is free of pain and misfortune. You don’t need hope if you are prospering and life is good. Hope is for the battlers, the disadvantaged, the broken, and the lost. Hope is for anyone burdened by the future.
My niece is a survivor. She has fought on where others might have surrendered. She has found strength where others might have succumbed to their weakness. She has believed where others might have doubted. She has owned her struggle where others might have tried to conceal it through illicit drugs or alcohol.
My niece speaks of God being present. She experiences His love in the encouragement, understanding, and support of her church friends.
The church is uniquely placed to welcome all who are struggling with life. Its mission is to share one another’s burdens and sufferings – depression, terminal illness, bereavement, job loss, mental illness, or whatever.
But do we know what we are dealing with? Do we know what we are up against? Do we know how mental illness impacts a person’s life? Do we know why some people contemplate ending their life?
It is said, ‘Suicide is everyone’s business.’ It is certainly the business of the church. It is the church who believes ‘life is a gift.’ It is the church who teaches ‘life is precious, worthy of honour and respect.’ It is the church which must do more to promote life.
The prevalence of suicide poses a significant public health concern. There has been an upward trend in suicide statistics over the past ten years in Australia. In 2015 there were 3000 suicides. This figure equates to a suicide every three hours. Death by suicide exceeds homicides and road fatalities combined. And yet it struggles to find a place in our social consciousness.
Suicide is a complex phenomenon and rarely occurs as the result of a single event.
Among the many risk factors for suicide is mental illness, physical illness, previous suicide attempt, substance abuse, family history of suicide, impulsiveness, hopelessness, isolation and loss. The ‘loss’ might be the breakdown of a relationship, a change in social status, being made redundant at work or financial difficulties.
People with a mental illness such as schizophrenia and “mood disorders” – clinical depression and manic-depressive illness – are at an increased risk of suicide. They are particularly vulnerable during an exacerbation of their illness.
In general, the church tends to handle mental illness in one of three ways: ignore it, treat it only as a spiritual problem, or refer people to professionals and wash our hands of their trouble.
Like many in our community, people who attend church don’t understand mental illness particularly well. This is often reflected in what we say. There is a tendency to deny mental illness is real. We see the mental and emotional distress as indicative of a ‘spiritual deficiency’ rather than an illness. Our solutions take on a spiritual flavour – pray more, read the bible more, sacrifice more, think about others more. Or even worse: ‘Just get over it.’
Mental illness can cause changes in a person’s thinking, behaviour, emotions, as well as manifest into physical symptoms. These changes can, in turn, impact our ability to work and maintain healthy and positive relationships. These health problems or illnesses are of an emotional and psychological nature, and they can be complex and confronting.
Mental illness can be deep, traumatic, and life-changing. Ministering to those struggling with mental illness requires patience, courage and a long-term commitment. Discerning how to manage the disease can be a complex process and the medical professionals don’t always get it right. The road to healing can be long and winding with no guarantees. It may be the desired outcome will never be achieved.
The church must be a pillar of hope. More than anyone else, communities of faith have reason to hope. God is bigger than our circumstances and His perspective greater than we can take in. He knows our beginning and end. He knows our unique experience of life, with all its struggles and setbacks. He knows how suffering can shape our character making us sensitive to the needs of others.
The church has a message of hope which needs to be heard. Everyone needs hope. Everyone needs a reason to live. Everyone needs to know they are valued and have a future.
People with a lived experience of mental illness are well placed to provide insight and understanding into the nature of their private struggle. They are survivors who have crafted a robust narrative of hope. Their stories are important. They provide wisdom in understanding our frailty and brokenness. They provide insight into how we can hang on to God when our world is falling apart. They provide knowledge of what can sustain us when we feel under siege and fear for our sanity.
Stories of survival inspire hope.
Let me urge you to create your own ‘narrative of hope.’ Let me encourage you to share your story with anyone who experiences mental health issues. It is hope that gives life meaning.