Hello! My name is Mel and I’ve been a Christian for 5 years! I’ve also lived 20 years of my life on this earth, during which I’ve interacted with a few mental health disorders. I’ve experienced depression firsthand for 4 years in the past, I’ve walked closely with a friend with an eating disorder, and for the past 2 years and counting I’ve been living with an anxiety disorder (a mix of PTSD, GAD and panic attacks). I want to tell you these things not because I want pity or sorrow, but to show you the perspective/experience I’m coming from as I write this post. I’m not a psychologist or a counsellor or an expert and I certainly don’t speak for all people with mental health disorders – I’m just a regular person. So let’s start – here are 10 lessons God has taught me through my mental health disorder.
1. They aren’t how stereotypes make them out to be
You don’t need to seem sad and reclusive all the time to have depression or constantly wash your hands and be obsessed with straight lines in order to have OCD. I hear often from people that “I never imagined someone like you to be the type to have anxiety.” And that’s exactly the point – mental health disorders don’t always look a particular way. Sometimes even I look at myself laughing and talking to people and I forget that I have anxiety because, funnily enough, I don’t look like I have anxiety. In fact, not many people do! Some people are so high-functioning or so afraid of the stigma associated with mental health issues that you never notice it until you look closely. Some people don’t talk about it publicly at all.
I am incredibly lucky in that a lot of people in my life somehow happen to love me and look up to me, which means that when I talk about things, people are willing to listen – and I want to start using that to share all the ways that God has taught and grown me in my mental health disorder. (Colossians 3:17) Oddly enough, the more I talk to people about mental health disorders, the more I randomly discover people in my life who have experienced it! Which brings me to point two:
2. They’re more common than we think
The WHO released a statement in 2001 stating that “One in four people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives.”1 Which means it’s not uncommon. And if we go over to Beyond Blue, they cite the ABS, stating that in Australia, “One in 5 Australians experience a mental health condition in a given year and almost one in 2 will experience a mental health condition at some point in their lifetime.”2 Which means it’s definitely not uncommon. And if you take a look around during your church congregation, there’re usually more than 4 people around you (unless you go to a really small church). So mental health disorders are A Thing. Someone in your life or in your church will definitely experience it in a lifetime. Which means it’s relevant and we should talk about it more!
Look around and realise that it could be anyone – it could be the happiest person you know. It could be a family member. It could be you. So let’s not assume that it’s the socially awkward person in your circle that no-one likes who has depression and let’s not avoid associating ourselves with them because mental health issues are ‘uncool’ (Mark 2:15-16).
3. Be kind to myself
One of the things that has led to my mental health disorder and that has resulted out of it is that I am not very good at loving or taking care of myself (although ironically pretty good at loving/taking care of others). Self-love and care is assumed to be true in the Bible (Ephesians 5:29) which means we love others as we love ourselves (Matthew 22:39), to the point of putting others before ourselves as Jesus did (Philippians 2:3-8).
Because I am a creation and child of God who is dearly beloved (Psalm 139:13-14, Colossians 3:12) God loves me through His Son, and wants me to love myself, which means Colossians 3:12-14 applies not just to how I love others, but how I love myself. I must learn to be compassionate, kind, gentle and patient with myself in my anxiety, which means letting myself rest when I need a break, letting myself eat when I’m hungry, letting myself sleep when I’m tired, and setting limits on how much I can and should do each day. It might sound very silly, but I didn’t realize that in not doing these things, I had neglected to treat myself with kindness.
4. To stop trying to fix what is ‘broken’
When I first realized I had anxiety, I prayed for God to fix what was broken. Every night I would pray – fix what is broken, fix what is broken – because I thought it was shameful. I saw it as a problem to be repaired – a broken door to rehinge so it would return to its proper function. This attitude led to me rushing through and forcing myself to ‘recover’ as quickly as possible so that I could resume a ‘normal’ life. But you know what – that’s not the attitude to be adopting to mental health issues. You don’t just ‘fix yourself’. You teach yourself ways to manage and live with it. And also, there’s nothing wrong with being ‘broken’.3 It’s a bit like Kintsugi – the Japanese art of repairing broken ceramics with gold. Sometimes the brokenness isn’t the shameful thing to hide, but the cracks through which God shines brightest. (Matthew 5:16)
Recently, I was at a youth camp where I got to run a workshop about mental health – and that was a time that my brokenness shone brighter than my own self. I wouldn’t have gotten to speak from the perspective I came from without experiencing the years of anxiety. Kids came up to me afterwards and told me it was really helpful. I wouldn’t have gotten to help those kids if I’d thought it was shameful and hidden it to myself.
5. Not everyone will understand
I don’t mean the ‘go away, no-one understands me’ that I yelled as a teenager – I mean it literally. It’s called a ‘disorder’ for a reason! Sometimes, other people with anxiety don’t understand me and I don’t understand them – because we experience it differently. Sometimes, even I don’t understand what’s going on, and I’m the person living with it daily. What I do know though, is that God is sovereign (Psalm 27:1, Job 12:10) God has my entire life in His hands (Psalm 139) – he has the entire earth in His hands. Nothing happens outside of His control, and my anxiety is not in the absence of God.
But there’s more – this leads to the questions of “why do we suffer?”, and “how can we understand suffering?” I can think of 3 reasons (there are more) that I’ll sum up quickly:
- We don’t know (and probably never will).
First of all, we live in a world ravaged by sin. Second of all, suffering produces perseverance, which produces character, which produces hope (Romans 5:3-4). We grow and are shaped through our suffering. Now third. There’s a nice book in the Old Testament called “Job” where the eponymous character experiences intense suffering. THERE’S SO MUCH MORE TO THE STORY, but I’ll leave you to go and read it. And when you do, you’ll see that Job never finds out why he suffers. I sure have no clue why God has let me live with an anxiety disorder. And maybe I won’t know for the rest of my life. After all, who am I, a small human with a limited mind, to demand an understanding of a huge complex world, made by a huge, complex Creator? (Job 38, Romans 9:20)
6. I will lose some friends and I will grow closer to some friends
Since my anxiety, I have lost friends – not because they’re horrible people, but because of other reasons that I won’t entirely know of. Maybe being friends with someone with a mental health disorder reminds them of bad memories from their past, is too overwhelming or too much work and they don’t want to have to deal with it all the time – I certainly wish I didn’t have to deal with it all the time (but I’m stuck in my own body so sucks to be me lol). I must learn not to blame them or myself when we fall away.
And there are some people who just won’t let mental health disorders get in the way of your friendship. They don’t care what the public thinks of them when they’re standing next to me panicking in broad daylight. They ask how they can encourage me, how I’m going every now and then, how they can understand more even when I don’t. Even more are the friends that help me live life with anxiety – pointing out all the positive outcomes that anxiety obscures and encouraging me to love myself and take breaks. It’s a huge deal to me when my friends love and treat me no differently, and I truly treasure these friends. Mental health disorders isolate you and convince you you’re a freak. Friends remind you how incredibly not alone you are, that they’re here to listen and talk and try to comprehend your disorder with you, and they point to a God who loves you, won’t leave you alone, and is here to listen to you.
They also point towards Jesus, who was not above experiencing human suffering, and who is no stranger to intense sadness, intense anxiety, or suffering. (Isaiah 53:3) I’ll let these two Adam4d comics speak for themselves:
7. To be patient
Being patient comes along with being kind to myself (which is point 3). Just like I wait patiently for Jesus to return, I wait patiently for myself to grow through my mental health disorder. If I am kind to myself, I will be patient in how I treat myself, approach my anxiety, and work on it. It reminds me that progress is not a competition and instead of setting ridiculously high expectations and berating myself when I don’t reach them, I should celebrate each step of progress I make whether fast or slow, and be kind with myself when I relapse.
Sometimes, people are unintentionally hurtful. Many times, I’ve had conversations with friends that will lead to them asking “So, why do you think you worry so much/are anxious so often”, and then sitting back and waiting for/prompting me to say something like “I have control issues”, or “I don’t trust God enough”. Which hurts, because it’s not simply a personality trait or choice – it’s an uncontrollable condition that interferes with how you live your daily life. To intentionally brush it off as an “if only you had more faith in God” is both undermining and insulting.
And it’s alright for me to feel hurt when people say these things, because they’re just telling me what they see, and they don’t see the full picture – sometimes they don’t intend to be hurtful. Not only must I learn patience with myself, I must learn patience with the people around me.
8. One day, it will be no more
The funny thing about living with a mental health disorder is that you get close and personal with your suffering. As I suffer and ask “How long, o Lord?” (Romans 8:22-23), I am reminded that in Christ I have an inheritance and eternity to look forward to. I’ll have a new spiritual body and be in a new creation with no sin – which means no suffering and hurting and sorrow (Revelation 21). Keen as a bean!
Sadly, I’m still on earth today, stuck in my physical body and living with anxiety. But I’m still in Christ! Which means that because of Jesus, the heaven I’ve described is the heaven that I can live my life today looking forward to. My anxiety is a daily reminder of how much earthly life sucks and how much heavenly life won’t. Every panic attack I experience is a slice of what I imagine life would be like in hell. But after every panic attack, I remind myself that there will be a time where I won’t experience panic attacks any more. Every tear I shed today is a reminder of the tears that I won’t shed in eternity.
9. It doesn’t stop you from being a Christian or partaking in ministry
Living as a Christian with a mental health disorder is like wearing mud-caked glasses. You put them on, and your vision is obscured. But there’s nothing wrong with your glasses or the object you’re looking at, it’s just mud on your glasses blocking view. There’s nothing wrong with your faith or Christ whom your faith is in, you just have muddy mental health disorders that cloud your vision and make it hard to see.
Sometimes, there are some adjustments you can make that can really help – for example, I attend an evening service if I’ve had a lot of trouble sleeping the night before and can’t make it to my usual 9am service at church. I sit in the back row, because sitting in the front is sometimes too overwhelming. I step out if the content discussed makes me uncomfortable or if I feel panicked. During overnight conferences, I ask to sleep in a room with fewer people and ask those people to not disturb me at night. None of these things make me any less Christian.
I haven’t stopped participating in both youth ministry and music ministry since my diagnosis. But when I was diagnosed, I wanted to drop out – because I thought “who wants to have a nervous wreck lead a Bible Study for high schoolers?” “Who wants a kid with panic attacks to drum for church?” My youth ministry co-leader convinced me otherwise, and as I stayed, I realized that I was still able to serve and lead well regardless of my anxiety. As above, some adjustments had to be made – I was always paired with a leader confident in leading Bible study alone in the off chance a wild panic attack appeared (and sometimes, they did). I’m rostered less at church and I have my music team leader’s number to contact if I’m having problems and can’t make it. But my anxiety doesn’t stop me from serving in Ministry.
10. Not because of who I am or what I’ve done
Sometimes it’s easy to feel like you’re just not a good enough Christian. You know Jesus has died for your sins, you know that the fact that God has loved you and saved you and given you an inheritance in His kingdom is amazing – why aren’t you happy? Why are you depressed and anxious even though you know this good news that you hear again and again every Sunday? Why are you filled with hope some days and have no hope other days?
Here’s the good news: your hope is in Jesus. Jesus has paid it all. It doesn’t matter if on some days you see your hope clearly and on some days your mental health issues obscure that hope, it’s still there. God doesn’t love you any more or less when your hope is greater or when your hope is lesser. God doesn’t love you any more or less whether you progress or relapse in recovery, whether you make it to church every Sunday or whether life overwhelms you so much you can’t make it for a month, whether you’ve regurgitated every meal or whether you’ve successfully eaten dinner with no issues. God doesn’t love you any more or less when you can’t stop panicking or when you’ve had a day where you finally feel happy and normal – God loves you because of what Jesus has done for you. And if Jesus is what your hope is in, then that’s the best thing to hear when you’re a Christian that lives with anxiety.
“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
~ Romans 8:38-39
Not because of who I am, but because of what You’ve done.
Not because of what I’ve done, but because of who You are.
I constantly fall into this trap when people ask “How can I help you with your anxiety” where I just give them the “How you can help me in the middle of a panic attack” rundown. It’s not the wrong answer, but it’s not the right answer either. If you want to encourage me in the long term, repeat this truth to me whenever I’m having a hard time. Repeat that truth to your Christian friends with mental health disorders.
Living with a mental health disorder is hard. It’s so hard. Every day my brain and emotions run wild and go all over the place, clouding my perception to try and pull me away from God – and that’s all on top of the daily struggle against sin’s lies. There are days that we can see and set our eyes and minds on things above, but there are also days when we really struggle, and really need to be reminded of these truths amidst out clouded vision – days where we’ll be very encouraged by it 🙂
Like today! I’ve been terrified of writing this post for months because I care so much about human judgement and stigma – please send me a message, ask a question, or find me in person if you found this helpful 😀
- The world health report 2001 – Mental Health: New Understanding, New Hope. Retrieved from (http://www.who.int/whr/2001/media_centre/press_release/en/) ↩
- Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2008). National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing: Summary of Results, 2007 (4326.0). Canberra: Australian Bureau of Statistics. Retrieved from Beyond Blue: Statistics and References (https://www.beyondblue.org.au/about-us/research-projects/statistics-and-references?sec=sec-dep) ↩
- When I say there’s nothing wrong with being broken I don’t mean there’s nothing wrong with being sinful – sin is wrong and we should learn to hate it. ↩