Written By Eudora Chuah, Singapore
Clare* sat up in bed, half an hour past her bedtime. “What’s wrong?” her mother asked, as the 10-year-old proceeded to dash out of her room.
“I don’t know. I think I need to check my school bag again. What if I forget to bring something to school tomorrow?” she wailed, evidently distressed. Despite her mother’s attempts to reassure her, Clare’s panic did not fade. “I know I checked—but what if I missed something out?”
Fast forward to the present. Clare is now a teacher in her 20s. These days, she finds herself re-reading her lesson plan submissions over and over again to ensure they are impeccable. Despite that, she is hardly ever satisfied with the finished product. It’s the same when it comes to how she conducts herself. After any parent-teacher meeting, she would wonder, “What if I didn’t conduct myself professionally enough?” Other times, she finds herself questioning, “What if I didn’t give that parent a satisfactory reply to her email?”
But unlike the past, Clare knows exactly why she’s behaving this way. A couple of years ago, she was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. This involves the constant fear of the worst possible scenario happening, even when the fear is irrational.
Initially, the diagnosis was difficult for Clare, a second-generation Christian, to accept. It caused her to question her faith. Christians aren’t worrywarts, she often thought to herself. So was her constant worrying due to her lack of faith?
Well-meaning friends whom Clare confided in about her struggles occasionally quoted Jeremiah 29:11 to assure her of God’s providence and the resulting peace that comes from knowing God is in control. While she tried to take comfort in those words, she couldn’t help but feel that the one-liner “solution” for anxiety was too simplistic. This was especially because God’s peace often felt elusive to her.
It was only on closer reading of the full chapter that Clare realized her initial understanding of the verse was inaccurate. The promise to “prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” had been given to the Israelites who were in exile. They had to experience 70 years of exile and wandering before God delivered them from their enemies (Jeremiah 29:10). That put an entirely new spin on the passage for Clare. Clare recognized that God wanted her to cling on to hope of His ultimate deliverance in the midst of her struggle and press on in her walk with Him, just as the wandering Israelites did.
Later on, Clare also read and was encouraged by the stories of men of faith who were used mightily by God despite their struggles with mental health issues. William Cowper, a poet and hymn writer, experienced four episodes of paralyzing depression throughout his life. Yet, his perseverance in the faith despite his anguished circumstances is captured in one of his best known hymns, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way”.
Knowing Clare’s story and journeying with her has got me thinking about how we, as a community of believers, should respond to the topic of mental health issues. And here are some helpful ways I’ve thought of:
1. Be open to talk about mental health issues within the Christian community.
If the church does not act as a safe space for people to express themselves regarding mental health struggles, it creates the impression that depression and anxiety are bad or wrong. In turn, this could lead the believer with mental health struggles to perceive that something is wrong with his or her faith.
2. Accept “secular help” where necessary.
God intervenes through human agents. These could be doctors and therapists with necessary expertise to assist depressed or anxious people back to mental wellness. Medicine and therapy can, and should, be an integral part of recovery, as deemed appropriate by the medical team.
3. Accompany a loved one or friend to their first appointment.
Clare was very appreciative of her cell group leader who accompanied her to her first appointment. Though it may have been a small gesture, it spoke volumes because it validated the struggle she faced, which could strike anyone.
4. Invite Christian speakers to share about mental health issues within the church.
Clare attended a talk about depression last year, and saw how it helped the audience have a better understanding of how depression impacts the sufferer and his or her loved ones.
5. Be empathetic towards those who struggle.
This could be as simple as inviting friends who struggle with such disorders to church activities—and to be understanding, should the individual decline the invitation or decide to leave halfway through the event.
Let’s be a community that provides both spiritual and practical support to those among us who are facing these problems!
*not her real name