Mental Health + Mental Illness: Some Basics
“Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make healthy choices… Although the terms are often used interchangeably, poor mental health and mental illness are not the same things. A person can experience poor mental health and not be diagnosed with a mental illness. Likewise, a person diagnosed with a mental illness can experience periods of physical, mental, and social well-being. Mental illnesses are conditions that affect a person’s thinking, feeling, mood or behavior, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia. Such conditions may be occasional or long-lasting (chronic) and affect someone’s ability to relate to others and function each day” (https://www.cdc.gov/mentalhealth/learn/index.htm).
- More than 50% will be diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder at some point in their lifetime*
- 1 in 5 Americans will experience a mental illness in a given year*
- 1 in 25 Americans live with a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression*
* statistics from https://www.cdc.gov/mentalhealth/learn/index.htm
Sometimes it has a diagnosed label, sometimes it’s an undiagnosed but still legitimate label, sometimes it’s a season and sometimes it’s a longer-lasting or lifelong struggle. Sometimes there’s organic physical causes and sometimes it’s environmental or situational and sometimes it’s a combination of both. Both mental illness and mental health struggles are valid. Regardless of the root or reason why, healing is needed for all of it.
It’s important to talk about because there’s still a huge stigma and taboo around mental illness and mental health that breeds fear, silent suffering, shame and judgment. No one is exempt from struggling with their mental health or mental illness, and too many of us hide our mental struggles with a mask like I did for most of my life. We can smash the stigma by speaking up. We can encourage safe and supportive environments. We can be kind and compassionate. Everyone you meet is fighting their own battle. Some signs are visible, but mental illness and mental health struggles tend to be invisible. If you think someone around you is struggling, ask them how they really are and listen. Be there and just be present.
Mental illnesses have different symptoms and expressions that vary and manifest differently in different people. Sometimes mental illness has physiological symptoms along with psychological- especially involving the nervous or digestive system. There’s the DSM description and there’s the life experience of those living with them. There is such a wide variety of treatments that go beyond therapy and medication. If you or someone you know is struggling, reach out and seek support! Make an appointment with a doctor or counselor or other professional. Do the best you can with what you have right where you are. If resources are scarce, see if there are any reduced-cost mental health services available in your area. There are so many issues with our mental health system- access to resources widely varies and isn’t enough, our criminal justice system is often the main way someone struggling severely gets access to resources, and many are left struggling in the streets.
Mental health isn’t talked much about in the church, and there’s usually the stigma of it being associated with a weak faith when it is. Faith does not make us immune, and having a mental illness or mental health struggles isn’t a sin and does not make you or your faith weak. It makes you human. The more we believe otherwise, the more stigma and shame flourish and we are more hesitant to deal with it. Mental illness isn’t too messy for God- He invites us to walk with him through it. God does heal us, but he heals our hearts and minds and it doesn’t mean our mental health struggles and illnesses go away. Healing comes in many forms- sometimes in ways we can clearly see, and sometimes it looks much different. Some are healed by the Lord and that is truly a miracle while others, or maybe most, still struggle. God works through treatment and people, and faith and science can and indeed go together. Spiritual warfare plays a huge role because the enemy uses our weaknesses to mess with us, but mental illness and mental health struggles are more than that. We can know and live truth and live in the tension of our struggles at the same time and move forward with an ongoing issue.
We have the power to change the way we talk about it. Mental illness and mental health conversations are so surrounded with shame. We need to educate ourselves and cultivate kindness and empathy. A chain reaction of conversation and courage can turn things around for the better. It starts with one person courageously speaking out about their experience that encourages another person to start speaking up and seeking support, and then that person empowers someone in their close circle to start doing the same and it keeps going. It starts in our homes and workplaces and churches and most importantly, it starts with us in our relationships.
“Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.” – Brene Brown
My Story + Rewriting the Script
This is my experience and some things I’m learning along my journey with mental illness and mental health struggles. I’m not a professional or a doctor. I am only speaking from my own experience, and I speak up because the more I open up, the more I realize people around me struggle too. It’s more common than we think. My hope is to educate and empower those struggling and offer hope. Please, seek professional support if you are struggling.
My mental health affects my life, my marriage, and my relationships. I don’t know life without anxiety and depression- I’ve had symptoms for as long as I can remember. It’s hard to separate from my intractable chronic migraine but they are both very real struggles on their own. I’m not diagnosed with a label, but I’ve been treated for them by doctors with medication and I’ve gone to counseling. It has been a process to accept it as a part of my identity but just that- a part of the whole. I’ve tried the power of reclaiming and not claiming it in hopes it would disappear. I still struggle with negative thoughts and self-talk that I have to fight with truth. I’ve learned a lot and have a lot left to learn. It’s a part of my humanity and I love Jesus and I continue to wrestle with it.
I saw a court-appointed counselor regularly growing up- those sessions with Rhonda were a safe space for me to process, but it also gave me a slight aversion to going to see a counselor as an adult. I started seeing a counselor for a while when my husband and I were deep in marriage struggles. I really connected with her- she and I openly talked about everything: my marriage, faith, migraine, and my mental health struggles- it was so refreshing. I’m not currently seeing a counselor, but if I lived closer to that same counselor I probably would- it’s just too much to put on my plate right now. Looking at the roots and sources of my anxiety and depression and working through things on a deeper level makes it much easier to move forward in truth and learn new ways of thinking that help make living with mental illness and struggles a little better. Dealing with my childhood trauma and wounded parts has led me to seek out some more appropriate healing tools in my journey- I went through a couple months of prayer counseling and 6 months in a class called Women of Courage for further healing so I could grow and move forward. There’s no shame in therapy or counseling or seeking support- getting extra help is a good thing.
Some of my symptoms overlap with migraine but are still a huge struggle on their own. I have little to no motivation for things sometimes. My nausea flares when I get extremely anxious. I am mostly withdrawn from people. I have low energy and fatigue. I am moody and irritable sometimes. I have social anxiety and struggle to get words out sometimes. Sometime it’s an overall weariness or heaviness that I struggle to shake off. I struggle with control and trust. I try to focus on things I can control (myself) and trust God with the rest (everything else). I struggle with uncertainty and worry of the future. I am hypervigilant and get an overwhelming sense of fear when I get triggered and I take deep breaths to calm down and reinforce truth to my core. I have worked through a lot of things to minimize the negative impact my mental health struggles have had on me, but they’re still a part of my life that I couldn’t deny even if I wanted to. However, I am thankful for the growth and change in how I experience them. It used to be more like this on repeat: replaying failures and mistakes, destructive thoughts and tendencies, constantly criticizing myself, faking a smile and crying at night, numbness, apathy and emptiness, perfectionism and fear of failure, anxious about everything, negative thinking, loss of interest in life, and suicidal thoughts. I was held hostage by my own mind. To rise above the deepest waters of my depression and anxiety, I realized that God’s love was even deeper and could somehow sustain me through the waves.
My experience with depression and anxiety drastically changed when I started to move toward holistic healing. Finding my identity in Christ as redeemed has helped me rise from the ashes and walk firmly in who God created me to be. When you know with your heart that you are fully known and loved and you belong, you stop worrying about not measuring up and rejection from people no longer holds the same power that it did to hurt you. When I truly understood how loved and valued I was, I started to change the script. You have that power, too. It’s a process, but it’s worth every moment of it. My process looks like this: recognizing and challenging negative thoughts, lies I’ve believed, and destructive thought patterns and replacing and reframing them with truth because new thinking patterns can override old ones with enough time and intentionality. For example, just because I feel fear doesn’t mean I need to fear. I can’t always control how I feel, but I can control what I do with my feelings.
Some Things that Help Me Live Mentally Well
- Choosing to show up physically and mentally (way easier said than done).
- Growing things- plants and gardening are therapy for me.
- Taking care of myself with nourishing foods, regular hydration, a good sleep routine, and regular showers and hygiene routines. Looking at what I’m feeding and nourishing my mind and body with. Sometimes a face mask or bath if I’m feelin’ fancy.
- Consistent flexible rhythms and routines help me not get stuck in a single day.
- Mindfulness and being present helps me live more fully.
- Simplifying things in my life gives me less to worry about so I can put more energy towards what matters most.
- Choosing joy and focusing on the good even when it’s hard.
- Reading and writing scripture and making it visible helps it go to my heart.
- Learning to deal with anger and negative emotions in a healthy way.
- Putting on some good music to lift my mood.
- Regular nature time outdoors is essential.
- Having boundaries to protect my heart.
- Sometimes doing good things that I don’t feel like doing help.
- Continually handing things over to God because I tend to pick things back up again.
- Learning to manage stress in a healthy way, minimizing what stress I can and deal with the rest regularly with a healthy outlet.
- Regular movement like walking and yoga is a mood lifter for me.
- My cat and other animals are therapy for me.
- I take vitamin D and magnesium supplements which helps relax me and balance my mood.
- I use cannabis for my migraine and I know it helps with my anxiety and depression (and many others too-especially CBD based), but I’m not here to make that argument. However, medication used appropriately as a part of a whole healthy lifestyle to manage mental illness and mental health issues is definitely not a bad thing.
- Dreary dark days get me down so I try to get some sun whenever I can.
- Journaling helps me process things.
- Overcoming barriers and connecting with others. I’m not very good at this but connection is crucial so it’s something I’m working on.
- Dwelling in truth and focusing on the good.
- Naturally increasing serotonin levels.
- Laughing, learning to play and having some fun.
Mental Health + Migraine
“Research has repeatedly demonstrated Migraine and mental health conditions to be comorbid, which means that we have them at the same time, but neither causes the other. Migraineurs are from 2.2 to 4.0 times more likely to have major depressive disorder…Migraine and anxiety disorders have also been shown to be comorbid” (https://migraine.com/migraine-and-mental-health)
Managing migraine (especially chronic migraine) and all that comes with it has some seriously negative effects on our mental health- trying and failing treatments, keeping hope and faith that things will get better when they don’t seem like it, the struggle to function like we think we should, the anxiety of attacks and symptoms, the struggle to maintain relationships, the stigma and shame, being misunderstood, and much more baggage that comes with this disabling disease.
Suicide: Don’t Stay Silent
“Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death and is one of just three leading causes that are on the rise. Suicide is rarely caused by a single factor. Although suicide prevention efforts largely focus on identifying and providing treatment for people with mental health conditions, there are many additional opportunities for prevention” (https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2018/p0607-suicide-prevention.html)
Suicide is the deepest darkness of thinking your life isn’t worth living. If you’re in that dark place, reach out to friends or family or someone safe in your life. There was a time when those thoughts were familiar in my mind, and at one point I almost convinced myself it was a choice I wanted to make. I’m so glad that I didn’t, but I’d be lying if I said that I never had to fight off dark thoughts anymore- they come up from time to time and I have to shake it off with truth. Stay strong and steadfast and know that you are so wildly loved. You have purpose and a life worth living, and there is hope whether or not you’re holding onto it. When you feel like you have nothing left in you to keep fighting and you want to give up, please don’t. Joy comes in the morning. Even the darkest nights end and the morning comes. This life, even with all of its darkness and difficulties and devastations, is worth living. If you see someone exhibiting warning signs of being at risk, reach out and check in with them- you just might save a life. The suicide hotline is available for 24/7 free and confidential help at 800-273-8255.
“We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” – 2 Corinthians 10:5
“An anxious heart weighs a man down, but a kind word cheers him up” – Proverbs 12:25
“For God did not give us a spirit of fear but of power and love and self-control.” – 2 Timothy 1:7
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” – Philippians 4:8