This week is Mental Health Awareness Week. I think it is one of the most important weeks in the calendar year. When you think about it, we have gyms everywhere to help us get physically fit, while there is so much emphasis on social media and in our magazines on being fit and healthy, eating the right foods, having a proper diet, having the right body size and so on. And a lot of this is good and right. We do need to look after our physical health.
But when it comes to mental health, things get a bit more hazy. While we are able to have lengthy conversations with our mates about our physical health and what we are doing to get fit or lose weight, we don’t seem to be able to talk about mental health in the same way. It feels more private, more personal, awkward, even embarrassing…not something you would talk to your friends about over a meal or during a night out.
Make no mistake, we have come a long way. There was a time when having a mental illness used to be shameful or seen as a stigma in society but it has now become somewhat more accepted. We are talking about it more and that is a good thing. But I say “somewhat” – more still needs to be done.
People still feel the need to cover up any issues they are experiencing in regard to their mental health. Sometimes they try to cover it up by getting physically fit and, then, by looking good they feel good. And there is no doubt that looking good does make you feel good! However, when looking good is used to cover up not feeling good, the relief we get is only short lived. This is quite common within the celebrity culture which you see on your social media – you will see lots of photos of some celebs looking incredible, showing off their recent weight loss, dressed in the best designer clothes and sparkling jewellery but these celebs’ private lives can often turnnout to be chaotic due to their struggle with mental health issues. How many times have we said, “Well, you would never have thought they had that!” when these celebrities have admitted their addiction or their struggle with depression.
Forget celebrities, it can be someone we personally know. The very person we thought “had it all”, whose lives seemed to be blissful, who seemed so “together” or so “normal,” sometimes turns out to be someone who has been struggling with their mental health. When we hear of relatives or friends who are suffering from, say, depression, suddenly it is hard to know what to say. Do you say anything? Nothing? Should you mention it to them? Wait for them to bring it up in conversation?
We find it hard to know what to do with what we can’t see. If we have a sickness bug or we have broken a leg, we can see the effects of the illness or the injury. There is evidence that proves there is something wrong with us. And usually it can be seen to get better – time in bed or long term physiotherapy for example. But we can often struggle to admit we have a problem when we are burnt-out from too much work, when we wake up every morning and wish that we could sleep and sleep as we can’t bear to face the day or when we can’t find any joy or happiness in everyday things anymore. We might catch ourselves thinking “I just need to pull myself together” or “Why am I crying again!” or “People will think I am just looking for attention.” So we can suffer in silence.
So why is there still a stigma? Why is there still shame attached to our struggles with mental health? Why the silence? I think there are many reasons but I am going to focus on what I think is the reason: it is seen as weakness. We, as a society, struggle with what we can’t see; we find it hard to understand and deal with the emotions and feelings from experiences of grief, loss, depression, anxiety, self-harm, suicidal thoughts. And the reason we struggle with it is because there is no easy fix. No straightforward healing. No clear way of seeing things changing. It is easier to deal with our body than our minds. And there is always the lurking fear that people will think we are pretending, looking for attention or that others will think we are not strong enough.
What has our Christian faith got to say to all this? Quite a lot actually and, once again, there is not enough space here to go into it. There have been quite a number of studies done to show how religion and spirituality can positively affect our mental health. But I want to just focus on something St. Paul said in his letter to the Corinthians (see it here: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=2+Corinthians+12%3A7-10&version=NIV)
Paul speaks of a thorn in the flesh. We still don’t know what he means by this. But we think that it was something that he was suffering with for a long time. It seemed a constant problem for him. He had asked God to take it away three times but God had instead said to him that grace is all he needed because God’s power is made perfect in weakness. Now I am not suggesting for one minute that God is happy for someone to have a mental illness so that God can show off great power. No, there is something deeper here. It’s the last line – for when I am weak, then I am strong.
God is effectively saying to Paul; I know that you see this as a weakness and I know you wish you didn’t have it, but my grace will bring you through this. When you admit your weakness, your inability to overcome this, then my power will shine through. And then will things change.
And I have seen this truth again and again throughout my life. When a student has come into my office in tears because they were desperate and wanted help, it was then that changes started to happen. When an addict in the prison admitted they were powerless over their past and their addiction, then the healing began. When the depressed young university student admitted he had suicidal thoughts, then his life was saved.
What we need to recognise is that when people admit they have a problem, when they say they are at rock bottom, when they tell someone they can’t go on any more, this is a great strength. They are being truly strong because they have the courage to admit it. Their weakness has become their strength.
But there is something more. St Paul talks about boasting about his weaknesses. He says “I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” He is not ashamed of his weaknesses, any more, the mistakes he has made, they way he is mocked and ridiculed. Instead he will boast about them. Why? Because he is able to say that despite all these things, he is stronger than ever before. They have not overcome him. They have not overwhelmed him.
Why not? Because of his faith in Jesus. In a Jesus who died as the ultimate weak person – as a common criminal nailed to the cross. He didn’t speak up for himself. He didn’t defend himself. He didn’t try to stop others insulting him or beating him. Someone had to carry the cross for him. He forgave his killers, which was the weakest thing you could possibly do in that culture. And his life ended as a naked and beaten criminal hanging on a cross. For the people back then, there was no greater sign of failure and weakness. But that was not the end. The resurrection signalled a new hope – out of despair, depression, grief, sin and even death, could come new life.
And this gives believers today incredible hope and helps them to say with St Paul – when I am weak then I am strong. These words have inspired so many songs and poems, so many films, so many quotes, so many self-help books, so many memes and social media posts. It has led so many people to be bold enough to speak openly about their mental illness because so many others have gained strength from hearing about their “weakness.”
Meditation, yoga, self-help books, crystals, tai-chi or mindfulness are often recommended as ways of helping to improve our mental health. And there is no doubt these have impacted greatly on people’s lives. But St Paul is talking, not about a “what” here, but a who.
He is saying that a person, Jesus, has radically changed his life and how he deals with this thorn in his side. There is now no more shame, no more stigma, no more pretence. He is who he is. When he admits he can’t, he is saying God can. He realises that the moment he admits he can’t do it himself, that is when he allows God to take over. It is not surprising that this notion is key to people taking part in AA meetings – to admit they are powerless over their addiction and to trust in a higher power to help them overcome it. Many people who have struggled with the symptoms of a mental illness have found great freedom in admitting they can’t go it alone, that they too need help and not just from people.
So if you struggle with issues around your mental health, know that you can be a powerful sign of hope for others. Please know that when you admit you need help, you have never been stronger in your life than at that moment. Yes, do everything you can to get the help you need – tell someone whom you trust, contact your GP, keep taking the medication you have been prescribed, whatever it is – but don’t forget you can turn to the Lord in prayer, saying again and again if you have to, “I can’t, you can.” Then you will invite into your life a powerful companion, who will give you the strength and hope that will bring you through each day and who will remind you that he is greater than what your mind could ever tell you.
Loving God, we pray today for those who are confronted by the sadness, ambiguity and confusion of mental illness, and for those upon whom they depend for attention and compassionate care.
Look with mercy on all whose illness brings them weakness, distress, confusion or isolation.
Provide for them homes of dignity and peace; give to them understanding helpers and the willingness to accept help.
We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.