Community, Mental Health

Christianity & Mental Health Part 3

Mental Health First Aid

Mental health has, quite rightly, taken more of a centre stage in the public’s awareness in recent times and some companies and organisations are taking it seriously now, although by no means the majority.

The Church must surely be at the forefront of taking mental health seriously and loving and caring for those who are struggling with mental health issues. This shouldn’t be just a nominal nod in the direction of a trendy social cause. We are in the business of people – of mind, body and spirit. 25% of the population will at some time suffer from a mental health issue;  that means at any point in time, in a church of our size, many of our brothers and sisters are suffering in this way.

Some of these companies and organisations now have what they call ‘Mental Health First-aid Kits’ and I thought it would be useful for us to have some understandable explanations of common mental health conditions and some straightforward pointers about how we can support the people amongst us who are suffering from them.

As you read the information it is very important to bear in mind that a person who is suffering from a mental health condition is not defined by it anymore than someone who has a broken leg is defined by the broken leg. We don’t think ‘here comes a broken leg’ when we see someone hobbling towards us on crutches do we? So let’s not think ‘here comes a schizophrenic, or an ASD, or an anorexic etc’. It is a health issue. And if you are someone who is suffering from a mental health problem you are not defined by it – you are a child of God living in a fallen world where disease, sickness and decay affect us but do not define us and, in the long run, will not defeat us. It is a health issue.

The best explanations of mental health conditions that I have seen are written by Ali Hogger Gadsby in a booklet produced by ‘Keeping Health in Mind’, so with the author’s kind permission, I’m going to reproduce or paraphrase some of them in this and following blogs.

Depression

This seems to be the common cold of mental health problems, the one that many of us will have experienced either first hand or in a friend or family member. Being clinically depressed is not the same as being sad or having a low mood. All of us will experience low mood at one time or another, and do not need to seek professional help as usually our mood will lift again. It is if this low mood persists and is accompanied by other symptoms that help needs to be sought, or if there seems to be no clear reason why we feel so down.

Depression may be triggered in response to difficult life events or circumstances, or it may be that some individuals are more prone than others to experiencing low mood. It should not be confused with normal, healthy grief responses after bereavement, though. It is common to feel sad and demotivated, or confused and helpless without that being a sign of becoming unwell. If it is influencing usual living over a period of weeks then it is wise to seek help.

Treatment

The most common treatment for depression is anti-depressant medication. There are various types, some of which you may have heard of such as Prozac, but all act to raise mood and increase motivation. Anti-depressants can sometimes have side-effects including a dry mouth, blurred vision, changes in appetite and constipation. They will normally settle down after a couple of weeks, but if they don’t medical advice should be sought, as a different medicine might be more appropriate.

Anti-depressants will usually take a couple of weeks to begin to take effect and they tend to be most effective when prescribed for between 3 and 6 months, before gradually reducing them under medical supervision (which can cause some temporary mood swings) and monitoring one’s mood without them again.

Anti-depressants are not a ‘cure’ for depression. They help to reduce the symptoms of depression, particularly those which reduce motivation, in order that some healing or recovery can take place. For some people this recovery occurs after just one episode of depression. For others there may be repeated episodes.

Alongside this a talking treatment, such as counselling or cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) may also be recommended. Counselling involves some regular sessions of a fixed length during which the counsellor helps a person to think about their life situation by encouraging them to explore their past, present and potential future. Counsellors don’t to offer any solutions to problems, rather a space to explore them. Many people who offer this sort of support may call themselves counsellors, but those registered with the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) or Association of Christian Counsellors (ACC) have nationally recognised training and professional accountability.

CBT is a talking therapy usually carried out by trained nurses or psychologists which aims to help a person to explore the relationship between their thoughts, their feelings and their behaviours. Small changes are then suggested or skills taught to try to bring about change in the other areas. It is widely available via GP surgeries.

Sometimes people are admitted to hospital either because they are unable to care for themselves, or because they are feeling so bad they begin to express an intention to escape by killing themselves. Rarely, people with very severe depression in hospitals are treated with electro-convulsive therapy (ECT) which helps to lift the mood but can cause some short-term memory loss.

Post Natal Depression

Some women may experience low mood following the birth of a baby. This is more common in women who have previously experienced depression, but can happen to anyone. It is thought to be due to hormonal changes, but can also be made worse by being at home with a baby and not having the same level of interaction that the mother may have had before the baby was born, for example, through being at work. It is very common for new mothers to experience low mood as they adjust to their changed circumstances and their new identity. Having a routine which includes getting out of the house and meeting other mums in the same position can be all it takes for someone’s mood to lift. However, if the symptoms of depression described above are present, and caring for the baby is a struggle, it is wise to seek professional help. Being at home with a newborn baby is a demanding and draining task, and midwives, health visitors and GPs are all available to support women through the challenges they face.

Helping

It can be very difficult to be depressed as a Christian, as there may be a false perception amongst others that if we are relying on God there is no need for us to feel low. This is not the case; we are made to experience highs and lows, to be emotional people, and depression is not a failing amongst the people of God. When we are unwell, we need the support of our Christian family. If we are supporting someone who is depressed, good listening and patience is key. Letting then know that you are there if they want to talk, dropping in on them, encouraging them to make small steps, can all be incredibly helpful. Being depressed is not the same as being a little low in mood, or sad. Diagnosed depression is very painful and deep rooted, and can take many weeks, months or longer to recover from.

Watch out for upcoming blogs on various mental health problems and how to help!

Steve Atkinson

Steve is Jubilee Church’s Pastoral Co-ordinator. This is the third in a series of Mental Health blogs that he has written for this site; here are the links to parts one and two.

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