This week across Australia is Mental Health Week, with the aim to open up conversations about mental health and break down the stigma surrounding it. It’s estimated that one in five Australians suffer from some form of mental illness each year.
My friend Amber is an expert on the subject, as she’s been a sufferer–and a survivor–of a complex mental illness for a number of years. She’s walked a journey I–perhaps many of us–can’t begin to imagine, and I’ve learned so much about mental illness because of her. I hope I’m a more compassionate person now because I know Amber. She has inspired me again and again through her courage, her bravery in the face of seemingly insurmountable battles, and through her willingness to open up and share her story. Here it is:
Hi my name is Amber Meredith and this is my story of how faith can sustain you through severe mental illness.
Although from a young age I was aware of spiritual things it Iwas not until 2001 that that awareness became commitment. At the time I was teaching English at a local Hobart high school and studying for a Masters degree in English Literature. Although on the outside I appeared successful, on the inside I was a mess. I trusted Jesus to clean up that mess but I was, I must say, surprised in the way he did it.
In late 2002 I was wrapping up a grade eight class when I felt something go majorly wrong with my brain. Everything went black and I started crying. This was hard for the children and even harder for me. It was the end of my teaching career.
From 2003 until early 2010 I was a regular at the Royal Hobart Hospital psychiatric ward. I was depressed, suicidal and delusional. My church, my family and my friends tried very hard to help me but I just kept getting worse. Their support and faith, however, probably kept me alive.
In 2010 I was given medication that worked. I was then able to start what people call a ‘recovery journey’. I worked very hard to get better and was able to see ‘the light at the end of the tunnel’. I haven’t been to hospital since although I still get ill sometimes.
I decided I wanted to help other people deal with severe mental health issues. I did this in various ways. I started a self-help group for people who hear distressing voices. I also became involved in advocacy work both by myself and with organizations.
I also got some formal qualifications. I completed a Certificate IV in Mental Health and a Certificate IV in Alcohol and Drugs at TasTafe just recently. As I get better I am able to take on more roles to help other people.
I have also been able to make many wonderful friends, have a better relationship with my family, serve my church more effectively and, last but not least, I just got engaged. I now have much to look forward to.
Apart from medication there were many things that helped me have hope and get better. I will start with the spiritual things. When I was acutely unwell it was difficult for me to pray eloquently as my thoughts were all jumbled up. Therefore, it helped me immensely when other people came and prayed for me. When they prayed I felt a huge feeling of comfort and peace.
Again when I was very ill I had trouble reading the Bible but I could read children’s books. People provided me with children’s Bibles. This helped me read my favourite stories without being strained. I also loved re-reading the Narnia series by CS Lewis. These much loved tales also felt familiar and reminded me of God’s love in a simple way.
Comforting music also helped. This ranged from favourite hymns, classical pieces and modern worship music. Even if the words seemed jumbled the tunes were so comforting.
As I got a little better I was able to read the Bible for myself. The Psalms were immensely comforting. I could really relate to them as they often deal with intense emotions. I would write out my favourite verses on cardboard and stick them up everywhere.
People were also immensely generous to me in so many ways. When I was unwell I struggled so much with cooking and cleaning. There were so many people who helped me do these things. I was so blessed to receive the lovely home-made meals from my friends and family.
Gifts also cheered me up. They weren’t usually big but it was so exciting to receive them. It showed me that people cared.
The other thing that helped was when people had a positive attitude to me and acknowledged my strengths. This would have been difficult to do due to my presentation so I really appreciated it. They told me I was intelligent and had good communication skills. I really liked hearing that.
And, finally, it helped me to have access to appropriate professional support.
Recovery is not just about medication. I had to reclaim my life. I had to unlearn unhelpful thinking and behavioural patterns. I had to, in essence, become a new person. This was a difficult journey and I am so grateful to all of the people who have been part of it.
What didn’t help:
Of course, in any story, there are unhelpful elements. I write here not to blame anyone but just to advise people of what not to do.
Firstly I will start with what was spiritually unhelpful. Although I have no doubt that Jesus can, and does, heal people spiritually this is not always the case. And we can’t know who is going to be healed in this way and who isn’t. I found it very unhelpful to be blamed for not being healed. Believe me I would have loved it if I was!! But it takes faith to persevere when you are not healed too.
In my case medication helped immensely, as did psychological treatment and rehabilitation services. I, therefore, can not believe that these treatments are unnecessary or somehow unspiritual.
In terms of people stuff I sometimes felt that people expected too much of me.
Although I realise that I was often difficult to deal with, this was only because my life was spiralling out of control. I think gentle assertiveness is more effective than just general assertiveness.
Medical professionals, too, lacked understanding. Some made their frustration so obvious, some basically wrote me off and still others treated me as if I was stupid.
Their worst mistake, however, was not to take my suicidal gestures seriously. I nearly lost my life because of this.
But that’s enough negativity for now.
What YOU can do to help someone:
Here are some tips for how to deal with someone who has a serious mental illness.
1) If you are a Christian assure them of God’s love and care for them
2) Pray for their healing but don’t put pressure on them to be healed
3) Look beyond appearances to the person underneath
4) Encourage them and acknowledge their strengths
5) Encourage them to get professional support, including medication
6) Give little gifts such as socks, writing paper, hair clips, tea towels etc
7) Don’t expect them to be able to concentrate well
8) Don’t take any strange behaviour personally
9) Ensure safety of yourself and your friend/family member if things get out of
10) Share jokes
11) Help them out with practical things such as cooking
12) And, finally, tell them you care. Over and over and over again.
Amber, thank you so much for sharing your story here. We pray that it encourages others who are walking through a similar journey, and gives others a greater insight into how to help.
If you, or someone you know, is suffering from a mental health crisis, please call Mental Health Services Helpline on 1800 332 388 OR Lifeline on 13 11 14. In an emergency call 000.