Friday, August 19, 2011

Mental illness and faith

If talking about mental illness is to some degree a taboo topic in our culture, I think matters of faith are even moreso. Combine the two and you have one very uncomfortable cocktail.

It is precisely this intersection of mental illness and faith where I feel I can talk with some authority. At the same time I have not until recently turned my thoughts into words on this topic but realise that there is a lot there to be tapped into if I apply myself to the task.

Of course as with any weighty and complex matter the first issue is where to begin the discussion. Perhaps a good place to start is for me to be clear about the role that faith played in both the negative and positive aspects of my own life story (you can read a condensed account of my story by clicking here).

Firstly, my beliefs were a key aspect of my mental breakdown. My conceptions - and indeed misconceptions - about the Christian God were central to why I got sick with depression (I should add at this point that I am still a Christian today). I mention in my story that the bookends of my mental breakdown were the September 11 attacks and living on a farm in extreme drought conditions.

Essentially on each occassion the world appeared to me to be upside down and I could not handle what was happening before my eyes either in New York City in September 2001 or on the moonscape that was our family farm in 2004.

Prior to these events I had (like many others in their late teens) begun to struggle with my understanding of who God was and big questions about eternity and the meaning of life. This struggle was a very powerful one given I professed belief in a God who according to the bible has plenty to say about these matters. To cut a long story short, I struggled greatly with the idea of hell and so my fragile state was completely vulnerable to distressing events like 9/11 and drought which I could not help but interpret through the lens of eternity and hell. You might say no wonder I got so sick as to become psychotic and require a few months in a psychiatric hospital.

I want to continue this discussion with a more upbeat note because that is where my own story has led on matters of faith and life experience.

It is nearly seven years since my stay in hospital and I am happy to report that the process of recovery and ongoing management of my condition (bipolar disorder) has had at its core a belief in Jesus Christ. This may seem counter-intuitive given how unwell I became due in part to religious beliefs, so I want to talk through my journey a little bit.

Essentially the problem was not the faith/beliefs I held but rather the way that my undetected mental illness caused me to interpret things. The weeks leading up to my admission to hospital involved me experiencing psychosis (also referred to as a psychotic episode). Psychosis is essentially a mental state where the person affected loses touch with reality which can involve either sensory hallucinations (e.g. seeing or hearing things that aren't really there) or delusions (e.g. believing oneself to be subhuman or an extra terrestrial creature). As I have previously explained using the analogy of A Beautiful Mind (the film), I experienced powerful delusions where the real and the imagined were indistinguishable.

The day I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder happened about a week into my stay in hospital. I still think of it as one of the best days of my life. This is because for the first time since I had become unwell I was able to begin identifying delusions I had assumed were simply reality (when those delusions told me I was heading for a fate worse than death you can understand my relief). I was able to begin to recover my senses and my health.

The concepts that had caused me so much trouble basically melted away once I understood my health situation. I was filled in those weeks in hospital (post-diagnosis) with an overwhelmingly calm and assured sense of the goodness of God.

I hope some who have gone or are going through similar experiences can take heart from my account.

Here is a song by John Mayer called "3 by 5" which in many ways encapsulates my experience of becoming well and seeing things in new ways.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

On being a student

Anyone going through mental strife has it tough, but perhaps none more so than a student. As if getting good grades aren't enough pressure, a lot of high school and tertiary students can find themselves with stresses coming at them from all sides. Some examples I found from my own experience as a student included:
  • a desire to be a high achiever
  • wanting to be liked by those around me
  • processing big questions about God, the meaning of life
  • dealing with unexpected changes in life circumstances
  • deciding what my next steps are once I complete high school or university

    The list of pressures can be long and perplexing. Add to it mental troubles and life can be seriously difficult.

    For those who have been diagnosed with a condition such as depression, bipolar disorder or anxiety, one fear can be what others will think. While it is up to the individual as to who they want knowing about it, my experience has been overwhelmingly that other students respected me when I did happen to share with them something about my condition. The stigma surrounding mental illness is steadily being eroded and this erosion in my view is assisted by sufferers (for want of a better word) being open about their difficulties.

    Of course it helps to be wise about how much information I share and with whom. For example until I recently decided to be completely public about having bipolar disorder, I would tell people I didn't know well that I had (or was going through) "a rough patch with depression", and kept the identifying of my condition of bipolar to more trusted friends and family.

    It is important for any student to know they are not alone with their mental trouble. Most students have people in their life who are trustworthy and would love to listen and help. Of course getting professional help in the form of a counsellor or a doctor may well be necessary to address the presenting problem/s, but like I have said previously, talking things through with someone you trust is a positive way of thinking through the best course of action.

    Here is a trailer to "The Hurricane", a movie that inspires me greatly starring Denzel Washington

  • Wednesday, August 3, 2011

    Spotlight on depression

    Today I want to provide a bite-sized description of what depression looks like in the hope that it fills in some gaps for people. While there is no replacement for expert medical advice on this subject, my aim here is to assist those who would like to have a firmer grasp of how depression looks and feels.

    The first thing to say is that depression is a mood disorder. In other words, it is a condition that messes with how one feels: it puts one's feelings into disorder.

    We all feel sad and down from time to time. For most people these feelings resolve naturally in the space of a few hours or days following a setback. For the depressed person, feelings of sadness negatively affect his or her ability to cope with setbacks, maintain a healthy level of self-esteem, and/or handle the relationships in his or her life.

    When I was unwell with depression my ability to concentrate diminished and I could not study or work to the level I had become used to. I became withdrawn from friends that I was usually in touch with. My sense of self-worth also suffered. Some common elements of my experience included:
    • a lack of "colour" in life
    • no energy
    • no laughter, no sensations of excitement
    • an absence of feelings of hope about the future
    • strong feelings of isolation even (or indeed especially when) in a crowded room
    When I trained to teach high school students about mental health through a program run by the Black Dog Institute, our recommendation to students was that if they noticed some of the signs like the ones I mentioned above over a stretch of two weeks or longer, it is important they raise this with someone they trust.

    I have no doubt the same two week rule is a good one for adults too. Being in this situation does not necessarily mean you are experiencing depression, but there is no downside to having an honest conversation with someone who cares about you. As the saying goes, "two heads are better than one". It has been my experience that this is especially true when it comes to mental health issues.

    Continuing with my theme of having a video accompaniment, here is one for anyone who likes acoustic guitar music