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« Crown Him With Many Crowns | Main | Behold Our God »
Thursday
Feb082018

Why we need kind, compassionate dialogue about mental illness

Recently, in conversation with some family members, I learned that there has been a history of depression on my father's side of the family. My mother's father suffered from depression, and was actually institutionalized at one point, and I was aware of that. The news about my father's family has been a recent discovery. And it is only recent because no one talked about it. It was a shameful thing to admit, so it was never addressed. But now that we are getting more information about mental illness, we can gain a little understanding into what some of our family members experienced.

Three years ago, I felt like I was losing control of myself. I told my husband one day that I felt like anxiety was coming from outside and attacking me. I knew something was wrong. I didn't tell very many people. Why? Because of the guilt associated with it. Especially as a Christian I was embarrassed. And I was aware of the attitudes of other Christians in the face of mental illness from having heard comments over the years: 

"Philippians commands us not to be anxious."

"They just need to trust God more."

"Don't they know that anxiety is a sin?"

"They're self-absorbed."

Today, I don't mind so much talking about it with others, but I'm careful, because frankly, there are just some people I know who will not be kind. And it is the people who have never struggled with it or have never known someone who has struggled with it who are the worst.

One of the things that helped me was knowing that I was not alone. My own father went through five years of clinical depression, and when he knew what I was going through, he called me and offered the kind, tender sympathy that only a fellow sufferer can offer. His attitude was not dismissive nor did he suggest things that would promise instant results. No, my father did not remind me to "Be anxious for nothing," but he patiently listened. 

We need people to talk about their mental health issues because those who came after us need to know; our children or our grandchildren. For some, the first signs of mental illness may frighten them. They may not understand why it's happening. They may need to know if there is a familial link. It can help them cope with it, and provide guidance to their doctor.

Not all people who are depressed or struggle with other kinds of mental illness are obvious about it. Some people are able to mask their suffering quite well with outgoing, gregarious behaviour. They may even make you laugh. But after the laughter has died down, their feelings return. I was able to teach a Bible study regularly while at the worst of my anxiety, and no one but those closest to me knew what was happening. My closest friend sat in on my studies and told me one day that she would never guess that I was overwhelmed. We find coping mechanisms. Simply because someone doesn't look like they are suffering doesn't mean they aren't.

It's lonely to struggle with anxiety and depression. I can testify to that. I was in God's word daily; sometimes hourly. There were nights when I couldn't sleep and I poured over the Psalms and the gospels. I credit that with keeping me from completely falling apart. But it didn't cure things instantly. And I am thankful that I know about our family history. As a mother, it has helped me to discuss things with my children, and to be observant and attentive. We need to talk about mental illness. But more than that, we need kindness and compassion. And we definitely don't need simplistic remedies that betray ignorance.

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