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Sharing the journey with people who can’t put on the ‘Sunday face’

As a prelude to World Mental Health Day on October 10, we look at how churches can help struggling people

At age nine, Gillian was struggling to cope with life.

A year later, she was anorexic. By the time she reached 14, Gillian was suffering from extreme anxiety, panic attacks and deep depression.

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Then, in her 20s, she was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. Tragically, at 26 and after several attempts, Gillian took her own life by suicide.

It wasn’t until after her daughter’s death that Gillian’s mum Chris summoned the courage to reach out to her church community. Through all those years of suffering, this mother of four didn’t talk about their family’s struggles or seek support from her church.

Now, to coincide with World Mental Health Day on October 10, Chris has shared her story as part of a “10/10” video series produced by Anglican Deaconess Ministries’ Mental Health and Pastoral Care Institute (MHPCI) – part of Mary Andrews College in Sydney.

“When’s the last time mental health was mentioned in your church, either in a sermon, prayer or other context?” – Keith Condie

Chris reveals in the video why she chose to open up: “I just wanted [people] to know that this can happen to anyone. I used to think that being a Christian – you pray for your children and commit them to God when they’re born and you pray for them every day – [meant] that this wouldn’t be part of our story, but it was and it is.”

It’s a story that should resonate with many in churches across Australia. In fact, almost half of the Australian population will experience a diagnosable mental health condition within their lifetime.

“When’s the last time mental health was mentioned in your church, either in a sermon, prayer or other context?” asks Keith Condie, co-director of MHPCI along with his wife Sarah.

He continues, “I think some people still don’t want to talk about it and find it difficult to admit either they’re personally struggling or someone they know is struggling.”

Here’s where the church can play a key role in supporting those struggling with mental health issues, by breaking the silence and stigma around these problems.

“So much stigma is bound up in ignorance, so therefore to be putting it on the agenda and talking about it [in churches], and for the minister up the front to actually say ‘let’s talk about this’, is really powerful,” says Keith.

As Chris and Gillian’s story shows, it’s not just those living with mental illness who are affected but family and friends trying to support them ­– including church families. The Condies note that the aim of their new resources is to “help churches provide a bit more support and know how to respond”.

“The church has so much to offer those … struggling with mental health issues.” – Sarah Condie

The free 10/10 series includes ten downloadable video interviews with carers, those living with mental illness, ministers and health professionals. These are designed to be played in church services, with suggested introductions and announcements included in a resource pack to accompany the videos. The pack also features other resources for church services include talking points, prayers for those experiencing mental health difficulties and Bible readings, along with tips for supporting those struggling with mental health.

“The church has so much to offer those dealing with mental illnesses or struggling with mental health issues,” says Sarah, while admitting this hasn’t always been done well.

“That came across in some of our stories and it’s come across in other people I’ve talked to – that their church wasn’t necessarily that helpful or supportive.”

She gives a couple of reasons for this: “Sometimes people think ‘I don’t know what to say or I don’t want to say the wrong thing, so I won’t say anything.’

“Also, when you go to church, most of the time we’re offering joyful songs of rejoicing and if you don’t feel like that, it’s sometimes hard.”

Keith adds, “We’re not good at giving voice to negative difficult experiences in the Christian life.”

For this reason, the Bible readings in the 10/10 kit are all psalms of lament.

“If you’re going to talk about mental health, let’s acknowledge that this is part of the brokenness of our broken world. This is part of the experience of so many people – here’s an opportunity to give expression to that. Saying a psalm of lament is one way of doing that,” says Keith.

“It’s an act of faith; we’re bringing the difficult experiences of life, our reality, before God because he cares, he understands, he’s not removed from them – he’s there and present with us in that kind of struggle. It’s a great comfort.”

“It’s not like if you have appendicitis – that’s easy, churches know how to deal with that. But with long-term illnesses, it doesn’t go away.” – Sarah Condie

Another reason churches sometimes find it difficult to support people struggling with mental health issues, Sarah suggests, is the long-term nature of these illnesses.

“It’s not like if you have appendicitis – that’s easy, churches know how to deal with that. But with long-term illnesses, it doesn’t go away.”

This is coupled with a lack of understanding about the nature of mental illnesses.

“Anxiety and depression, people are much more attuned to those, but as soon as you get down the more severe end – so schizophrenia, bipolar, eating disorders – I’ve seen some information around that suggests it’s more problematic.”

Then there’s the pressure to keep up the “Sunday face” sometimes felt by people in church congregations.

“It’s like on social media,” says Keith. “Most of us want to present a good image of ourselves because other people are doing that. If we’re feeling bad about ourselves, which is what accompanies many mental health problems, you don’t want to acknowledge that.

“People think critically enough of themselves without thinking that others are thinking critically of them too.”

Yet, on the flip side, there is much that the church is already doing well, and can build on in the future, to support those affected by mental illness personally or relationally.

“Isolation is a killer and we’re a place where we get people together … Being in a small group or being in a ministry, like serving morning tea or in music, it’s going to help [someone struggling with their mental health].”

Here, Keith notes that studies have shown volunteering is good for your mental health.

“Just going to church is a good thing to do because you’re reminded about God and then you have an opportunity to engage with people after the service,” says Sarah.

She stresses the importance of linking people into a small group or Bible study. “Helping someone with a mental health issue, particularly if it’s serious, requires more than one person. If they’re in a small group, that group can walk with that person and so, together, you’re looking after them. You might not think you’re doing very much, but even just sending a text or saying Í’m praying – if everyone does that collaboratively, it helps.”

“The wonder of the Christian gospel is that God loves us as we are. It’s deeply helpful for our overall wellbeing to recognise this truth.” – Keith Condie

Sarah and Keith Condie

Sarah and Keith Condie

Drawing attention to the 10/10 resources again, the Condies note that churches don’t have to use them only during National Mental Health Month this October or on World Mental Health Day (October 10) – although these present a good opportunity to do so.

“Even if churches don’t do it in October, maybe they could plan times in next year’s church calendar to talk about mental health,” Sarah suggests.

“Whether we like it or not, we’re affected by our society. The wonder of the Christian gospel is that God loves us as we are. It’s deeply helpful for our overall wellbeing to recognise this truth, and this is where Christian faith offers something really significant for people who do struggle with their mental health,” says Keith.

“It doesn’t mean they’re fixed, but there’s spiritual resources in the Christian gospel that provide sustenance and enable people to persevere, even when it’s really hard. And then when we can be a supportive community for each other, that again is profoundly helpful.”

You can find and download the 10/10 videos and resource pack at mentalhealthinstitute.org.au/1010-videos.

For more information about World Mental Health Day, visit 1010.org.au.

Find out more about National Mental Health month (1-31 October), with the theme “Share the Journey”, at mentalhealthmonth.wayahead.org.au.

10 tips to support someone struggling with their mental health

This is an edited version of the tips created by the Mental Health and Pastoral Care Institute. The full version can be found at mentalhealthinstitute.org.au.   

1. Ask how they are feeling

Often when people are experiencing difficulty, others know about it but say nothing. This simple question communicates care.

2. Listen to what they say

Put your phone away and focus completely upon the other person. Don’t start talking about yourself but try to reflect back what they are saying in different words to let them know you are tuned in. When interacting with those struggling with mental health, listening can be a first step in moving forward.

3. Be a safe person for them

It’s okay to say, “Tell me more,” but don’t push them to share more than they want. Let them go at their own pace.

4. Check that they are safe

You do no harm by asking, “Are you thinking about taking your life?” Asking this question shows you care and will decrease their risk.

5. Seek professional help if needed

Ask them if they have seen their GP. If they haven’t, encourage them to do this and offer to help them. If you feel out of your depth, ask for help.

6. Ask if you can read God’s word and pray

They need hope and to be reminded that they have a God who is sovereign, all loving, all caring, all seeing and knowing, and that he can hear their silent groans. Ask if you can read a couple of verses from the Bible with them – share something that has recently encouraged you as a start, or a few verses from Psalms, and then ask if you can pray. Focus on who God is, how much he loves them and what he has graciously done for them. They need God’s word of comfort and consolation.

7. Encourage wise behaviour

Good habits of exercise, diet and sleep promote wellbeing. Another good habit is thankfulness. Give them a nice blank book and suggest they think of three things every day they are thankful to God for and to write them down. Encourage them to connect with others – at church or in their local community – and to do things they enjoy.

8. Follow them up

Offer to meet up for a coffee or for a walk in a park to find out how they are getting along.

9. Put appropriate boundaries in place

Good boundaries enable us to love others better. Appropriate boundaries will involve thinking carefully about how often we respond to texts or meet up, or the type and amount of practical assistance we provide. It is not loving to enable selfish, irresponsible or overly dependent behaviour. These are matters that require wisdom, which is worth praying for (James 1:5).

10. Take care of yourself

Caring for another carries a physical and emotional cost. You care for your own wellbeing not to be selfish but to enable you to continue to love others.

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