So...Let's Talk Mental Health
Let’s start with a couple of caveats of what I’m about to share. To begin, let me be clear that I am not a mental health professional. I do have my bachelor of science in psychology but I never pursued it as a vocation, so I am not a psychologist or therapist or psychiatrist. The perspective I offer simply comes from lived experience. When I was eight years old my mom was diagnosed with manic depression which we now call bipolar. Because of this psychiatrists, mental illness, medication, and hospitals have been part of my world for as long as I can remember. For the last 10 years or so I have in many ways been her primary support through that journey, with the incredible help of my siblings. In addition, I have several other loved ones in my life who struggle with a variety of mental health challenges and I have been part of those journeys as well. Finally, with my fourth child, I experienced postpartum depression and I stepped into the ring with my own mental health struggles. I feel it is important and that you understand and that I am clear on the perspective that I bring. I also want to acknowledge that every experience of a mental health challenge or mental illness is different and as I share remember that this is what I believe, what I’ve learned, what my experience has been. I am in no way suggesting I know your experience or suggesting it should be the same. I think that’s part of the reason why Mental Health is such a difficult topic, because we want a checklist of what someone might experience with each diagnosis, but that’s not actually the way that this works. How bipolar might manifest in my mom very well may look incredibly different than someone you know. How depression in one person manifests will be different for somebody else, and we have to allow room for that and learn that is okay. I am not telling you how you should feel or what you should do I am just going to share a bit about what I have gone through what I have learned and trust that God will speak some encouragement through it.
THE DIAGNOSIS I really believe that a diagnosis is a beginning, not an end. Often people struggle not wanting to be diagnosed as they don’t want to be labelled, and if we are honest, society has taught us to fear being lumped in with “them”. I think that this speaks to a concerning reality that still exists – that is the us/them mentality. The idea that there are people who are mentally well and people who are mentally ill and everyone fits into one or the other. That however is not reality and I strongly believe it results in a lack of understanding and feeds into many of the biases and stigmas surrounding mental illness.
My belief is that we are all on a spectrum of mental wellness and throughout our lives, we slide up and down that spectrum. Some of us will spend most of our lives on the ‘well’ end and occasionally for different seasons may slide down, which is very much my story. I spent most of my life feeling well, but in seasons, like when I was postpartum and when I carried my mom through a season where her illness was not well controlled, I fell down into a more challenging place. Some people linger in the middle and others rest in a place where things are a challenge for them most of the time. Sometimes that is triggered but life circumstance and for others their physical brain is not functioning in the way that it is supposed to and there is a chemical imbalance. However, even in those cases, there are moments, days and seasons where they slide up into a more positive place on the spectrum.
We need to be very cautious in thinking of it as an us/them mentality when you get a diagnosis, but rather consider is it as resting at a new place on the spectrum. With support the hope is you can get yourself moving back towards a healthier space. Also remember that often a diagnosis comes because there has been a season of crisis and if that is the case, whether you get the diagnosis or not doesn’t mean that you don’t need help. I do agree that it can be extremely challenging to get a diagnosis and more so a correct diagnosis, but when you do – it becomes the foundation for building a healthier life, for finding coping skills and mechanisms and understanding. So, don’t fear a diagnosis and don’t necessarily take one blindly. Consider it, question it, read about it, educate yourselves but don’t fear it, as it can help you on your journey. Finally, to further the argument against us that mentality the current statistic is that one in five Canadians* will experience a mental health concern in their lifetime – that is 20% of our population – you are not alone. If any of you are struggling with a family member, friend or within themselves and feel like they are the only one who can’t manage the only one who struggles the only one who can’t carry the weight that they have – that is a lie. Facts show that a significant percentage of our population struggle for a season, or a lifetime so there is no us and them instead we are all just people on a spectrum trying to be well.
USING YOUR VOICE If you think we don’t talk about mental health today, we certainly didn’t talk about it 30 something years ago and so I grew up in a world where secrets only served to protect. What I mean by that is nobody knew when my mom was diagnosed, nobody knew what was going on at home, nobody knew that my mom who was always home and always cared for us was now in the hospital for six weeks every day trying to get diagnosed. Nobody saw the late-night hospital trips, nobody saw the challenging moments before you had to walk out the door and be the best for the world, no one saw any of it. (many of you will read that list from my perspective but I encourage you to think of it from my mom’s…how incredibly difficult and lonely it would have been) We weren’t to talk about it, even those closest to us knew very little. I believed that people wouldn’t understand and if they did understand then it would actually change their opinion about us or mom, and the response could be negative rather than helpful. I have gone to a number of different self-defence courses and what is interesting is that every time I go they always teach us that our first line of defence to protect our physical self is our voice. To speak loud, to speak clearly and to let people know you need help. That is our first line of defence. Well, I believe the same to be true about our mental health. I am not suggesting that you need to go out and air your dirty laundry or tell everybody all of your business as it is a very difficult and sensitive subject. However, I strongly encourage you to find some safe places and some trusted sources where you’re able to start having those conversations. Help people who may benefit by knowing to understand better and become educated about what you’re going through. It is so important to even one person who you can message and say ”I’m having a bad day.” and they know exactly what that means. Or, that person you can invite to go with you somewhere when you don’t think that you’re going to be able to (an appointment, a crowded place, a job interview, or the emergency), so you do not have to walk through the door alone. For me when I experienced postpartum depression I needed someone who could get me out of bed when I couldn’t do it myself. That is what I mean when I say use your voice – talk about it, honestly until your are comfortable and so are those around you. I have to acknowledge however that the sad reality is you may choose to open up to somebody who is family or a friend and they may not respond in the way that you would hope. They may not respond in kindness or in love. They may diminish it or shrug it off, and you may left feel like feeling hurt. That is a product of our society’s ignorance and lack of understanding about mental illness and mental health. Please do not let that be any reason that you give up finding someone. I believe you will find someone who cares, someone who even if they don’t understand is willing to try and find that person is worth potentially a rejection or two along the way. If you read nothing else please read this: If at some point YOU are that person and someone in your life someone comes to you and shares what they’re going through and they open up to you, there will potentially be a very human and raw moment where you may feel fear or concern that it will be a burden. You may be concerned because you don’t know what that looks like and you’ll start to wonder about risks and your inability to help. That is all human nature. The fear that you won’t know what to say or that you’ll say the wrong thing is okay. However, I want you to understand that there is not a person I know who has struggled with their mental health in any way that finds that an easy task. I want you to understand that that is a privilege. You have been invited into their most personal space, into their secret place, the part they are most nervous about and that is full of fear that you’re going to reject them. They are literally bearing their soul to you and so I ask that you PLEASE handle that with the care and the respect that it deserves. It is a privilege. I’m not saying it will always be easy, it may in fact have seasons where it is really, really difficult or emotionally heavy – but there will also be seasons when you laugh until it hurts! I’m not saying that you will understand it I’m not saying that but I believe that if God has called you to that place He will equip you with what you need to support and love that friend or family member. THE MIRACLE AND THE MANNA I have read endless stories of God’s redeeming power. Stories of God rescuing people, of them pulled out of a pit, their lives turned around and beautifully restored. I love those messages, think they are so important and am thankful for the many brave people willing to share them with the world. We need stories like that and God is truly a God that can rescue, redeem and restore – He is a God of miracles. However, no matter how many times I consider these stories and love them, I have never felt like I fully connected with them – because that is not my story. Long before I knew Jesus my mom was bipolar, and long after she still is and it is hard for me to see her carry that still. You see some people have stories of being rescued of being pulled out of darkness, having their lives completely turned around and changed and being saved from their circumstances, but my circumstance and hers didn’t change. And I prayed for that – I prayed for the miracle. When I first met Christ I knew I followed a God who heard prayer, who answered prayer and who healed people. So I prayed He would heal her – and He didn’t – and I prayed more – and He didn’t. And for a long time, I was frustrated until I realized I was so focused on what I was expecting God to do that I was missing who He was being in my life. My story is not as much about Him saving me from something but rather about Him walking through it with me. My story is less about being rescued and more about Him sustaining me through it – about the manna in the desert. And I wonder if some of you have a story like mine. You know the thing is about the Manna is: it’s wasn’t pretty, it was repetitive and unexciting… Exodus 16:35″And the children of Israel did eat manna forty years until they came to a land inhabited; they did eat manna, until they came unto the borders of the land of Canaan.” Imagine eating the same thing for forty years??? Manna is not what we would choose, but it is faithful provision that causes us to rely on God in a way we would never choose for ourselves. God not answering my prayer all those years ago did just that. From the very early years, I was a Christ-follower God helped me rely on Him in a way I would never have chosen for myself that has been so invaluable to who I am in Him. God in the hard moments and really my whole life has shown me faithful provision, shown me compassion and grace, He’s given me peace that surpasses understanding, He’s taught me to lean on Him and draw close to Him. He has built up in me resilience, adaptability, strength and perseverance. He showed up to me daily and ministered to me in the moments where I needed him and for that, and I am so thankful. Now I want to be clear, I never doubt for a moment that God is capable – more than able of healing mom. I still pray and ask Him to. I still hope for the miracle- that is what we have in Christ – hope. But my expectation is that whether the miracle comes or not God will be who He says He will be in each moment of my life. Maybe you are wondering where God is in your circumstance today – maybe you are facing your own mental health concern? When Jesus came into my life my circumstances didn’t change, but my understanding and perspective did. You see every morning when I got up and was faced with that reality, I knew that God was there. That He would walk with me, that He would give me all I need to get through the day, and the day after that and the day after that. As I face each moment, each challenge, each hardship, I am not alone, and in those times where I wonder if I can make it, if I can even keep going when I am SO tired… I KNOW that I can ‘not by strength, nor by power, but by the spirit of the living God who is in me and with me”. Whether in the form of a mental health crisis or not, when this world comes at you – and it will, mercilessly…and understand the closer you draw to God the harder it will come for you…, and when it is pressing on you and you are not even sure how you will breathe let alone begin to move forward know that not only do we have a God of miracles, but we have one who stands beside us and give us all that we need to get through each moment, each day, each year or however long that we need Him and He never leaves us. Be encouraged today that we have a God who brings both the miracle and the manna. I don’t know if what you are going through is similar to mine, but regardless know that God has everything – everything you need to be equipped and sustained through it. There is no fear God is not stronger than, no darkness He not brighter than and no monster you will face that He is not bigger than!
*statistic taken from CAMH Mental Illness and Addiction:Facts and Statistics (www.camh.ca/en/driving-change/the-crisis-is-real/mental-health-statistics