Mental Health: Letting Go of the Stigma By Patrick Regan
“You’ve got a migraine? Surely, it’s mind over matter. Think happy thoughts and you’ll be fine.” “Broken your leg? It’s all in your head. Stop thinking so much and just shake it off!” “Cancer? Could be worse – chin up.”
We would never talk to someone with a physical ailment like this, and yet anyone who has suffered with a mental health issue is likely to have been told it’s all in their head, or that they should be able to “get over it”. Depression and anxiety aren’t things we can pull ourselves together over. It’s not a person’s fault, and it’s not something they can control.
As a society we’re more comfortable talking about and looking after our physical health than our mental health, but we haven’t always known so much about caring for our bodies. Years ago, people didn’t know that brushing your teeth keeps them from going rotten and falling out, or that washing daily is a good idea (the Anglo-Saxons thought the Vikings spent far too much time bathing because they did it once a week!).
We have learned a lot over time about physical health, in terms of prevention, treatment and cure. But in the area of mental health, we’ve still got a long way to go. While most of us know what to do if we get a headache or a minor cut, and it’s usually fairly obvious when we need to call an ambulance, few of us seem to know how to take care of the emotional and mental needs of ourselves and others. Perhaps if we spent as much time caring for our mental health as our physical health, we would be much happier as a society.
When my anxiety started to get out of control, it was easiest for me to point to my upcoming surgery as the sole source of my problems. However, the truth was the anxiety was about much more than just one thing. From the outside, you might have missed it altogether. Things were really thriving at XLP, the charity I founded to work with young people in London. We were at a very exciting time, with two visits from the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in just one year. They listened to some of the amazing young people who have come through the XLP arts programme sing, and then afterwards hosted a reception for business leaders.
As you can imagine, a lot of work goes on to make sure everything runs smoothly for a 90-minute royal visit. While William and Catherine are actually very easy to be around and very good at putting others at ease, the media circus that surrounds them is not. We stepped outside the doors of the church and were greeted by a wall of photographers and cameras flashing constantly. Photos of the XLP team and young people with the royal couple went everywhere, flooding social media. Numerous newspaper articles were written, and the BBC featured the visit on the six o’clock news. To anyone watching, XLP was doing really well. And while a royal visit is an exciting occasion and well worth celebrating, it’s also just part of the highlights reel – it doesn’t indicate what’s going on behind the scenes. I looked perfectly fine and confident on the outside but inside, I was a very frightened individual struggling with anxiety. It wasn’t meeting royalty that made me nervous, nor was it the media. I couldn’t shake my fears over the uncertainty around my health and my future.
I knew we needed to maximise the opportunities that the royal visit brought to XLP. Having such high-profile interest is incredibly helpful when you’re trying to raise money for a charity and, like lots of similar organisations, XLP really needed the money. I threw myself into the task full-throttle, knowing my operation was coming up and that I didn’t have any time to waste. I worked long days and late nights to maximise funding opportunities.
I was exhausted and there was a lot going with my family too. We had recently moved to the countryside where Diane and I both grew up, from London, where we’d live 23 years. The cultural shift was huge, and I was struggling to get my head around our new life. Our teenage daughter was finding the transition difficult and was particularly struggling with friendships. Diane and I knew this was the right move for us as a family, but we still felt guilty when we saw Keziah having such a hard time. I was overtired, anxious, not coping with change, and finding the uncertainly around Abigail’s health and behaviour difficult to cope with.
The Black Dog of depression
Diane urged me to go on antidepressants and get medical help for my anxiety. It was an odd thing: even though I had advised many people over the years to seek medical help in such situations and not to feel ashamed of it, I somehow felt that I should soldier on and get through it. There can be a fine line between anxiety and depression, and I honestly couldn’t tell if I was depressed, anxious, or both. Some days I felt a bit brighter, and then for no fathomable reason I would wake up the next morning feeling like I had been consumed by a dark cloud. A familiar feeling of falling would come over me. My mind would be flooded with the shoulds, the musts, the oughts that told me I was failing.
“I should be able to cope – what’s wrong with me?”
“I’ve got a family to look after, a team to lead and a job I’m passionate about – I must pull myself together or I’ll let everyone down.”
“I know that God loves me and is in control, despite how things feel – I ought to be stronger, get a grip and spend more time praying. I am obviously not leaning on God enough.”
I sometimes wonder who is setting the standards we think we need to live by.
As hard as I tried, I couldn’t seem to control how I was feeling. I tried some of the things that usually help when you’re feeling a little bit low: I forced myself to walk the dog, go to the gym and list some of the things I was grateful for, but nothing changed. It wasn’t just a bad day that I’d soon get over, it was something much worse.
Depression is often likened to a dark cloud that hangs over you, or a ‘black dog’ that follows you around. I saw a video online, produced by the World Health Organization, which describes the visits of the ‘black dog’. There is no reason why he visits, but when he’s there, he colours everything else in the world. I could relate to so much of what the video said: how things that used to bring me pleasure no longer did, that my appetite was ruined and my ability to concentrate was shot. The black dog stole my confidence, left me worried that I would be judged, and made me irritable and difficult to be around.
There’s an ocean of difference between having a day where you feel down and having depression. It’s not even about being sad – depression can leave you completely devoid of feeling, and totally isolated. On my worst days, I thought everyone would be better off if I wasn’t here. I told myself they would miss me but they would get over it in time... but then I would feel overwhelmed with guilt. I knew it wasn’t true, but the thoughts really scared me.
I’m a self-starter, so I’d read all the self-help books. The real challenge was actually asking for help. I like talking about the bigger issues of injustice and inequality in the world and seeking out solutions, so all this taking about my personal feelings felt really self-indulgent. Over the years, I have come across people suffering through some of the hardest circumstances imaginable and I thought, if they didn’t get depressed with all they’d faced, then I had no right to. Of course, that thinking doesn’t help. It’s like telling yourself you’ve got no right to have a stomach pain – it doesn’t make it go away.
Church can be a lonely place if you suffer from depression or another mental health condition. People often think that knowing Jesus should mean we’re never depressed, but it doesn’t work that way. Research by the mental health charity Mind shows that one in four people in the UK suffer from a mental health problem each year and one in six report experiencing something like anxiety and depression each week. That means each of us is likely to know someone who has it now, and multiple people who will. Sadly, being a Christian isn’t an inoculation. Making Christians feel as though they should have some kind of immunity to depression only adds to the feeling of shame.
The most common thing I hear from people who are depressed – and something I struggled with too – is thinking, It’s my own fault. The thought replays over and over and over again, and when we feel ashamed, it’s that much harder to seek help or confide in anyone.
Jesus, stigma and oppression
Jesus always challenged stigma and oppression, but in a way that people didn’t expect. Some of my favourite verses in the whole of the Bible are when Jesus stood up in his home synagogue, opened the scroll at Isaiah 61 and read this:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.
(Luke 4:18-19, NIV)
Oppression can be defined as the feeling of being heavily burdened, mentally or physically, by some kind of trouble or adversity. Jesus made it his mission to set the oppressed free, and he always seemed to be drawn to those who felt stigmatised, the downtrodden, and those who felt worthless. He showed great mercy and compassion to those who didn’t believe they were worthy of love or acceptance from anyone, let alone God.
In Jesus’ day, different people were stigmatised – ‘traitors’ like Zacchaeus, outcasts like the woman at the well, and those who were ‘unclean’, like the woman with chronic bleeding, and those with leprosy. One of the most prevalent types of social stigma today is around mental health challenges. We need to get to a place where people feel no more ashamed for having depression, anxiety or any other mental health concern, than they do having a cold or a broken leg.
The depression Hall of Fame
I find it helpful that Cantopher also mentions a long list of people who have suffered at the hands of depression including Oliver Cromwell, Abraham Lincoln, Isaac Newton, Vincent van Gogh and Winston Churchill. After nearly every When Faith Gets Shaken talk, at least one person comes to ask for the above list – sometimes for themselves, but often to show family members to help them explain that their mental health issues aren’t a sign of weakness.
God doesn’t condemn us for how we feel. He wants what’s best for us, so if that means taking medication, then we should be free to do that. That said, medication isn’t always the answer to everything. Sometimes there are underlying issues to depression that would really benefit from counselling and additional support; sometimes we need to think about lifestyle factors. Once we are able to let go of the stigma and accept it’s OK not to be OK, we can concentrate on what might help us on our journey dealing with the issues we face.