When you hear the words mental illness what do you think? Does mental illness have a particular “face”? Do you think of someone who expresses abnormal behaviors? Do you think of someone who looks out of sorts? Do the words “strange” or “odd” come to mind? Many of us believe mental illness has a “look.” We then gauge our wellness based on what we deem normal versus abnormal. Mental illness doesn’t have a particular image. In fact, it can look like you or me.
I, too, used to feel the same way that many of you do. I never considered the face of mental illness could look like mine. I didn’t think it could be the church leader who was encouraging others to be strong in the Lord while battling anxiety. I didn’t know it could be a strong leader who is privately fighting with depression. I didn’t think it could be a musical genius who is struggling with suicidal ideation.
Many of us, especially in the church, have created an ideal image of what the world around us should resemble. In our world, people are either good or evil. We categorize people based on our definitions and then isolate those that don’t meet our criteria. We have already seen the plethora of interpretations around us that are inaccurate about others.
Recently, I had the opportunity to share my story in Focus Magazine about addressing my pain beyond the pews. From what most people know of me, I am a natural problem-solver who also cares for others deeply. In times of crisis, people usually resonate with my calming voice of assurance. However, a few years ago I found myself in a battle with mild anxiety. I continued to carry out my usual duties publicly, but I was internally distraught. I avoided seeking support due to the stigmas attached to it. I accepted that mental illness existed, but I didn’t agree that it could happen to me.
My healing came from a very nurturing friend who noticed my incessant requests for prayer were attached to anxious feelings. Most people would have welcomed the repetitive requests! Prayer is invaluable; however, it’s not an excuse to avoid seeking the tangible support we need. I’m no different than anyone else who has tried to avoid having the tough conversations about their mental health.
Some of my most common excuses were:
I am a leader. Who will find out I struggle with anxiety? How will they perceive me? It’s best to keep it to myself.
Talking about it won’t change anything. Why bother?
I don’t need counseling. I’m being tested, and this too shall pass.
I spiritualized my mental health when it needed to be addressed. I’m so grateful for my friend who was brave enough to see that I needed support and she wasn’t afraid to suggest it. I have learned what we choose to avoid can cripple us. Mental illness is a very private, personal journey. However, there are times when the most courageous thing we can do is extend our hand out and ask for help. With a healthy support system including my husband, family, and friends I experienced the courage to admit that I wasn’t okay. This was the beginning of my journey to realize that therapy is a part of the healing process.
Through counseling, I’ve learned strategies to overcome anxious moments. You can’t eliminate all anxiety, but you can learn ways to overcome it without allowing your brain to go into overdrive. To help with coping with anxiety, I have plans to help me manage those moments better. My plans include plenty of journaling, prayer, relaxation, and reading. Also, self-talk helps because I can make “mountains out of molehills.” What others used to categorize as “overreacting” was a cry for help.
I choose to share my journey with others because it’s a way to humanize mental illness. There are those who avoid a formal diagnosis because they feel they are damaged goods. In the church setting, we can also demonize people by making people think that if they “prayed more” or “read their Bibles” they wouldn’t struggle. This isn’t the truth. It is because we don’t have a knowledge base for this topic that we judge versus provide support and a framework that includes therapy as a part of the healing process. Let’s be honest. Many of us would experience greater freedom if we weren’t afraid to have conversations about what has been hurting us from our past. Others of us would benefit from talking about our stressors and allowing a therapist to provide wise counsel.
Maybe you or someone you love struggles with mental illness. One of the most loving things you can do is acknowledge that it’s okay to admit when you aren’t okay. The second is to remove fear from having the tough conversations around mental illness. It is a delicate topic so the discussion should be held with wisdom. My friend didn’t label me as anxious but offered me a resource to start the healing journey. She also didn’t force me into seeking support, which is a topic for another conversation. Did I get frustrated when my friends suggested counseling? Yes. Did I deny that I had a problem because I was a leader? Yes. However, it’s been one of the best things that could have ever happened to me. I still love God and see a therapist. God doesn’t cringe that I am seeking support. He smiles when His children accept that His healing and help is available in many forms.
To answer today’s question, mental illness doesn’t have a face. There are different spectrums of mental illness, but it’s more common than we like to discuss. Instead of avoiding that mental illness exists, we should educate ourselves on the subject and become familiar with supportive resources in our community. It could save someone’s life