The reason why I’ve decided to share these accounts is not to discourage people from speaking up. You absolutely should speak up. For every time someone responded poorly to my battle with mental illness, three others responded positively.
I’m writing this because it’s important to know that sometimes people do respond badly – even the people that you trust the most. It doesn’t mean they don’t care about you. It just means that they either don’t have the capacity or they don’t have the skills to understand, accept, and support what you’re going through.
The first time I told someone I was having suicidal thoughts, I was essentially shot down. It prevented me from being more open. In a society where everyone is being encouraged to talk about their mental health and support each other, I wasn’t expecting to be received so badly. If I had known that it would happen, it might have equipped me better to handle it.
At their prompting, I met with a church leader and opened up about the fact that I was self-harming and having thoughts of suicide.
This leader responded that they believed the cause of this situation was unresolved sin in my life. They didn’t know what that sin might be, but the best way forward was to identify it, repent, and move on.
In fairness, I’m aware now that a friend who I had confided in about something (wrong) I had done may have passed this information on to this leader. And, in fairness, I don’t condemn a theology that holds room for connecting intentional and unresolved sin with physical (and so, physiological) consequences.
However, if you’re a Christian leader, I would strongly urge you to be extremely cautious about pursuing this line of ‘resolution’. Especially when you don’t know about that person’s past history, nor how long they’ve been suffering with mental illness.
The fact is, the wrong I had committed was indeed intentional, but short lived and quickly resolved. Furthermore, it was a mistake I had made in a state of mind effected by mental illness. Not to mention that my life and family history of trauma was probably more to blame than a sinful mistake. Furthermore, suicidal thoughts resulting from sin is not something that occurs very often, and if it is occurring, the first point of call is not to tell the person they’re suffering because they’re sinful. The first point of call is to make sure that person is equipped and supported in seeking the proper help, and making sure that they are safe.
People who are suicidal are usually already very, very aware of their own failures and sins. I know I was. On top of this, they’ve usually laid themselves bare before God and begged Him to forgive them and so spare them from this darkness.
Thank God that at the time of conversation, I was in a more stable state of mind, and was able to understand that this leader was wrong in having responded that way, but that they didn’t intend to hurt me – that they were sincerely trying to help me.
If I was in an unstable state of mind, it may have pushed me to a very dangerous response.
This conversation happened a bit more than 18 months after I had planned to kill myself. In that time, I had trialed a few different anti-depressants, which all had the side effect of debilitating fatigue, and was now off them for a few months. My GP was aware of this, and thought that I was probably stable enough to try to recover without medication.
In confiding to Christian mentor about my battle with suicide and mental illness, I was hoping simply to start being more open about it and making key people aware so that there would be support for me while I was still trying to overcome occasional bouts of anxiety, or depressive episodes.
Ironically, this person’s response was almost on the other extreme to the previous. They immediately told me that I need to be on medication again, and that I needed to be seeing a psychologist on a more regular basis.
While not an entirely wrong response (and, might I add, probably more insightful than the previous one), they had taken God completely out of the picture.
When I tried to explain that the medication didn’t actually do anything besides stabilize my mood (which didn’t really help my self-loathing), and that the consequences were debilitating fatigue that rendered me unable to work, study, or volunteer, they ignored my concerns entirely and continued to insist that I must be on medication.
When I tried to talk about the spiritual element of my mental illness that neither medication nor psychology addressed, I was completely sidelined. They, I’m assuming unintentionally, made me feel utterly irrational to believe that there was any supernatural element in the depression I was experiencing. I tried to tell them about my mum and my childhood, and about how immensely evil and relentless suicidal thoughts are (incurable and inexplicable by the medical profession), but was effectively silenced. The conclusion, in their mind, had been reached: get back on medication, and just live with the side effects (at least I’d be living).
If this wasn’t a Christian leader that I looked up to, I probably wouldn’t have been affected by this response. But it only reminded me how Christians are often so black and white about mental illness; about how they had been with my mother, and about how they often are now.
When I opened up to key people within an organisation about my mental health, it was an attempt to ask for support. I had been significantly better for months now, but the stress of recent events was taking a great toll on me. My performance in this organisation was sub-par, and I was struggling emotionally.
I want to be really fair in this – I don’t think I articulated well what I was hoping for in terms of support. They saw that I was struggling with work and being sociable, and that I was still recovering from some physical health problems on top of that. Their response was that I should leave for (at least) six months, and then consider whether it was right to come back.
These people were aware that leaving this organisation would mean a huge step backwards. I would essentially be left without a job, without study, without a perceivable purpose, and without any support. It would have meant undoing everything that I had been working toward over the previous eight months. To me, and to those I have spoken to about it since (professional and peer), their solution would have actually served to drastically worsen my mental health.
To their credit, this situation was resolved really well and really quickly once I let them know how it would effect me and asked (though, had to press) for them to reconsider.
It’s still hard for me to ascertain whether they actually thought they were doing the best thing for me, or whether they were trying to, essentially, rid themselves of dead-weight. My performance up until this point had been pretty respectable, and the people involved in this decision are people I believe trustworthy and kind, so I have to assume that their desire was in fact to help me. Still, it felt very much like they were saying, ‘We want you to get help and support, but we’re not going to give it to you.’
The other reason why I’m sharing this is so that people – and especially those in leadership and ministry – will think a bit harder about how to respond well and how to support those who are struggling to see the point of life. If someone opens up to you about having suicidal thoughts, take your time to really think about how your response might be felt by them, and whether it serves to support, strengthen, uplift, and help them; or whether it serves to drive them further into isolation and danger.
We are far past the point of using ignorance as an excuse for poor responses to mental illness. Christians leaders, who have sadly responded more negatively to my struggles than non-Christians, must be more equipped and more willing to love sacrificially (with wisdom) those who are suffering. If people cannot come to the church (and I mean church in the most liberal use of the word) to receive hope for life, we are not being Christ in this world.
If you are struggling with mental illness and want to open up to those around you, I strongly encourage you to do so. These instances are outliers, and most people have been so incredibly supportive and loving. If, however, you do open up to someone you trust and they don’t respond well, don’t take it to heart. Hear them out politely, and try to detach yourself from their words. Don’t completely ignore them – there may be a lesson in what they’ve said (even if it’s a lesson of how ignorant people are to mental illness!) that will help you in the future. But understand that they probably cannot comprehend what you’re going through, and so cannot comprehend how their words or actions may have hurt you. It doesn’t mean they don’t love you. In fact, that they’ve responded at all is a sign that they do! Just because their solution isn’t correct, it doesn’t mean they didn’t come up with it because they want you to be safe and journey back to health.
Keep opening up. Keep pushing on. Keep fighting this fight; your life is worth it.