Mental Health – Song in the Darkness

You wake up in the morning with an overwhelming sense of sadness. It’s like a heavy blanket of despair and darkness that threatens to smother you. Although you’ve just opened your eyes, fatigue and exhaustion make your body feel like it can hardly move. As you roll over, your whole being longs to blot out the day, to make it go away, to escape from the reality of having to live another day with yourself and with your constant companion… Depression.

You beg God to help you, to lift the burden, to heal you and take the pain away. But nothing happens.  You can’t seem to hear His voice or even concentrate on your own prayer and that just makes you feel even worse. You wonder where God is and the loneliness continues to haunt you through the day, and the next day, and the one after that… and the days become weeks with no respite from the flood of feelings of guilt, shame, and often, self-loathing.

Living with Mental Health Issues

This is a typical experience of someone who is battling with depression. I am no stranger to this experience. Depression has been something I have lived and struggled with over the years and, along with anxiety, is a condition that continues to rear its ugly head of darkness and affect every aspect of my life at times.

Mental health issues can affect anyone. Race, gender, age, nationality, religion and culture provides no boundary against sickness and suffering. Christians are not exempt from experiencing physical problems in life and neither are we exempt from experiencing mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, etc.

In my pastoral work in a church and now more recently as a counsellor, I have walked with many people who suffer with mental health challenges and I have been able to empathise on a deep level with those who feel like all happiness in their lives has been snuffed out.

As believers in Christ, depression and anxiety can be even more crippling as we grapple with the loss of joy and peace, knowing that joy should be both our experience and testimony. This serves to exacerbate feelings of guilt and shame as we now feel like a “bad Christian” and a spiritual failure. That three-letter word JOY and all it encapsulates, proves to be elusive in the pit of darkness.

Coping with Mental Health Issues

As I share a wholistic approach to dealing with mental health issues with you, my prayer is that you may gain better understanding and empathy for those who struggle. If you are a fellow sufferer, my prayer for you is that you will gain insight and that you may encounter small yet powerful golden nuggets of joy as you walk through your own unique valley of darkness with the Lord.

1. Facing Reality

  • Acceptance vs denial

If you are experiencing symptoms of a depressive or anxiety disorder, or any other mental health problem, denying the truth is not going to be at all helpful. Sometimes believers feel they should not admit to being depressed as they are concerned what others may think of them. They don’t want to be labelled as “unspiritual” or “lacking in faith” so they live in denial. They can even quote Scriptures when asked how they are doing. This is called spiritual bypassing and often traps the sufferer in their condition as they cannot be authentic with themselves, others and God.

God desires truth even in our inner parts (Psalm 51:6) – he wants us to face reality. Truth sets us free from pretence and acceptance is the first step towards healing.

  • Bringing darkness into the light

Although you may want to withdraw and isolate yourself, rather choose to reach out to your family, close friends, your life group leader or pastor, and those who care about you and who are mature enough to help you. As you share your life with those you trust, you should sense some relief now that your burden is shared. This is what God intends for his children (Gal 6:2), real community is experienced when we are vulnerable and confess our reality to others.  You may be surprised at how many others have struggled with a similar condition. When we bring what was in the darkness into the light, we often sense God’s comfort, love and acceptance to us through others. This can bring a golden nugget of joy and encouragement to our hearts.

2. Understanding the “Monster”

  • Research and know the symptoms of your condition.

Look at the facts and debunk the myths. Fact: Mental health disorders are illnesses that require specific treatment, just as every other illness does. However, unlike diabetes or high blood pressure, the sufferer may experience more emotional and mental anguish and not just physical pain. Myth: Depression is not “just feeling a bit down,” it is not a sign of weakness, punishment for being a bad person, a definite sign you “have a demon,” nor is it something to feel guilty about. Sometimes well-meaning and uninformed Christians do a lot of harm with these myths and add to the unnecessary stigma.

  • Acknowledge that the sickness/ disorder is not you.

It is not who you are. Your identity is separate from your condition, even though it feels like it has consumed you.

  • Be aware of the negative spiral of the thoughts and feelings.

Your “inner dialogue” is not necessarily reality. Thoughts and feelings pass. They are like waves in the ocean. Try not panic at the intensity of the emotions but acknowledge and be aware of them.

  • Be aware of the enemy’s lies.  We are more vulnerable to believing the lies of the evil one when we are in the pit. The theme of the deception is usually the same and opens the floodgates of guilt, shame and hopelessness. Some examples are:

“You’re a failure,” “You’re weak…a mess….worthless,” “You’re never going to get better, you’re always going to feel this way,” “ There’s no point to your life, you’re no good for anyone, you might as well end it.”

Combat lies with the truth of the God’s Word. Listen to worship music if you cannot read your Bible. For every lie the enemy brings, God has the truthful answer. You may not feel God’s love, but that doesn’t mean He doesn’t love you. He has engraved you on the palms of His hands. (Isaiah 49:16)

If you are at the point where you have no hope and you are considering taking your own life, please get help URGENTLY. Your life is precious and worth saving, THAT is the truth.

Knowing the truth and facts of the disease and understanding that the monster of whatever mental illness you are battling with is not you, should bring a huge sense of relief to your heart and spirit.

3. Getting Help

There are many ways to find the help that you need. I believe that God leads us to the right people as we cry out to him and listen to the counsel of others. I always encourage a wholistic approach to finding healing.

  • Counselling/talking therapy: going to a reputable counsellor or psychologist is hugely valuable. It gives you an outlet, and helps you to gain perspective and coping skills
  • Medical intervention is sometimes necessary, a doctor or psychiatrist may prescribe medication that can help alleviate some of the symptoms and manage your condition. Taking medication does not mean you are not trusting God!
  • Look after yourself physically by exercising regularly, eating healthily and practising good sleeping habits, is essential for healing.
  • Re-evaluate and reflect on your life. Your condition may have been caused by circumstances, by a chemical imbalance, by burn-out or lifestyle.  Take the time to work through grief, loss, anger, bitterness, betrayal or abuse with a professional or mature Christian mentor you trust. Keep a “mood diary” to keep track of how you are doing and feedback to those involved in your journey.
  • Prayer and spiritual support is vital for your healing. I have had the privilege of faithful prayer warriors interceding for me and literally fighting the darkness away with their prayers and truth.
  • Practising mindfulness is a wonderful way to focus on the present moment, to be aware of your feelings and the physical sensations in your body, and on the breath as it enters and leaves your lungs. When you are anxious or depressed, your thoughts can either be fixed on dreading the future or reliving a painful memory in the past. God revealed Himself to Moses as “I AM” (Exodus 3:13-14). Mindfulness helps us to be aware of our scurrying, fearful thoughts and to bring them back to what is happening right now, to the anchoring breath of life in our lungs, and the sensations we are feeling in our bodies in the moment.
  • Gratitude is so hard when we are downcast as everything is coated with the same black brush of negativity, but we can practise being grateful by noticing even small things like a good cup of coffee, the unconditional greeting from a pet, or a hot shower. Keeping a gratitude diary forces us to think of good things in our life, however seemingly insignificant. In being grateful, we are worshipping our Creator who is the giver of all good gifts (James 1:17).
  • Be Kind to yourself. Where possible, alleviate stress and try to prioritise those things in your life that you enjoy whether it is being creative, reading, listening to music, meeting a friend, or walking on the beach. Treat yourself as you would a good friend if they were suffering.

4. Biblical Truths that usher in the light

“So where is God in all of this?” you may ask “and why is he letting me go through this?” The answer is “He is with you.” We do not know why he allows certain conditions that affect our lives, but we do know that nothing is wasted in his eternal plan for us (Rom 8:28).  He has a purpose even in these internal battles with darkness and He can be trusted.

The Bible is full of men and women who battled with terrible circumstances and within themselves – the darkness is not unique to this time. The theme that was common to all: God was with them and He proved Himself faithful. Think of Moses in the Wilderness, Joseph in prison, Daniel in the lion’s den, Daniel’s three friends in the fire ( there was a fourth man right there with them), Elijah wanting to die in the cave, Jonah wanting to end his life, Job wishing he’d never been born, Mary and Martha feeling betrayed by their Rabbi and close friend who didn’t make it in time to heal their brother Lazarus, and the list goes on and on and on..

But let’s not forget Jesus. Who for the joy set before him, endured the cross (Heb 12:2). He was a man well acquainted with sorrow and grief (Isaiah 53:3). Our God is not a God who watches us suffer and has never suffered himself. He bore the worst mental anguish anyone could possibly ever bare as he took on humanity’s sin and brokenness and was separated from His Father. Before that he had to deal with rejection, abuse, murderous threats, betrayal, loneliness, disbelief, humiliation, unjust accusations, torture and finally the death sentence through crucifixion.

So does God care – yes. Christ went through all that so we would not have to carry our brokenness alone.  We can pour out our hearts to the lord- all the muck. He is big enough to handle all emotion and He truly cares. The psalmist writes “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted    and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18).

Our weakness made perfect in His strength!

Where is God now as you may be are suffering with poor mental health? He is with you through His comforter, the Holy Spirit. He will never leave you. (Deut 31:6, Heb 13:5,6) That should bring more than a nugget of joy. This joy is not “an exuberant happiness.” It is a deep-seated and quiet assurance and confidence that He is working out His purpose in your life even through this valley of darkness called depression and anxiety.

One day all will be revealed. One day we will be completely healed. That One day is coming and until then we need to find that quiet joy in his salvation and trust that our weakness (yes even this!)  is made perfect in His strength.

Like King David, as he penned his lament thousands of years ago, we can still have a song in the darkness.

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
    and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
    How long will my enemy triumph over me?

 Look on me and answer, Lord my God.
    Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
    and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

 But I trust in your unfailing love;
    my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the Lord’s praise,
    for he has been good to me.    

Psalm 13

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Cheryl Stead

Cheryl Stead is a professional counsellor and qualified minister, with her speciality and experience in pastoral counselling. Her passion is helping women find emotional healing. She is married to Dr David Stead, they have 3 children and 2 dogs and live close to the beach in East London.