By Nicole Murúa.

"Now Alex, the last time we spoke you said you were having some trouble with your eyes, how's that going for you?"

Alex looked down at her hands and squinted trying hard to make out the creases and lines of her palms. "Yes, well I think it's getting worse. Last time I came in it was only long distances I was struggling with, but now I'm finding it hard to see details up close."

"Right, well last time I suggested that you start working on your diet and exercise, have you been working on it?"

"Yes, I have but it doesn't seem to be making any difference."

"Are you sure you're doing enough? There's really no reason for you to be having these issues. No trauma or direct damage to the eyes, and no family history of any eye conditions.” The doctor began to scrawl on a piece of paper. "Can you read this?"

Alex squinted her eyes and tried to make out the letters on the page. "The... can, no... car... is blank? Sorry, black."

"Yes, well I can see a bit of a struggle but there's really no way of telling by looking at you.”

"Is there anything I can do?"

"I suppose you could try glasses."

Reading this I can only imagine you scratching your head wondering why this girl doesn’t just see an optometrist and get a set of prescription lenses. It seems obvious to us because we know better. I’ve talked to so many friends that have struggled with mental illness and the question I hear myself asking every time is, “Why isn’t this person seeing a professional about this?” The stigma behind mental illness is only just starting to fall away as more and more people become educated and awareness on the subject grows, but there is so much more to be done and the church can either reject or accept this. Among Christians, there is an unwritten rule about the taboo that is prescription medication for mental illness as well. But what’s the big deal? Why am I talking about this?

A uni friend approached me after class only just last week. He opened with, “Hey, you take medication, right?” The question took me by surprise as this isn’t really something really publicised about myself (until now!). I answered honestly, and told him that I did. He then followed up by sitting himself next to me and telling me what he had been struggling with, “I’ve only recently discovered that I have ADHD and I started taking medication for it and I feel so much better.” He couldn’t tell me enough about how much of a change his life has undergone after beginning taking this medication, “My head’s so much clearer, I can concentrate, and don’t get overwhelmed about small tasks as much. I feel… normal.” While I was really happy to hear his story of transformation I was still unsure as to why he was telling me all of this, then the truth came out. The real reason he was telling me this was to ask for advice. He was having a similar conversation with someone else, someone he regarded as a friend, and after telling him his story the supposed “friend” said, “if you have to take medication to function, you better check yourself.” For those of you who are slightly inept in the lingo department, what his “friend” was implying was that if someone has to take medication to function, then that person needs to reevaluate their situation because they are clearly doing something wrong.

I just about imploded. My friend was clearly feeling the same way. I just kind of looked at him in shock. It’s 2016. I thought the stigma was finally starting to fall away. I thought that young people, people my age, understood. Clearly, we have a long way to go.

“I just don’t understand how he could think that,” he continued. “If you couldn’t see, who would deny you glasses? If you were a diabetic, who would deny you of your insulin?”

This is the part where I here you say: Woah, woah, woah, Nicole. That’s a pretty strong analogy. Diabetes is a life threatening disease, you can’t compare it to mental illness!

If you don’t believe that mental illness is a killer, then I am going to have to apologize; you’re about to hear some very bad news.

• Every day, at least six Australians die from suicide and a further thirty people will attempt to take their own life. [1]
• Australians are more likely to die of suicide than skin cancer. [1]
• Suicide is the leading cause of death for young people aged 15-24. [1]
• Nearly half (45%) of the population will experience a mental disorder at some stage in their lives. [3]
• In 2011, 2,273 deaths by suicide were registered in Australia compared to 1,543 deaths by motor vehicle accident in the same year. [2]
• Suicide accounted for 27.8% of all deaths amongst young men aged 15-24 in 2011. [2]
• Women were more likely than men to use services for mental health problems. Approximately two-thirds of people with a mental illness do not receive treatment in a 12-month period. [3]
• Most people with mental illness recover well and are able to lead fulfilling lives in the community when they receive appropriate ongoing treatment and support. [3]

What disturbs me most at this point is how little we, as Christians, are doing about mental illness. We hardly talk about it aside from mentioning it in passing, there’s no specific scripture or commandment about mental illness that tells us what to do, and a lot of the time we just ignore it and hope it goes away, maybe thinking to ourselves that our relationship with Jesus isn’t strong enough. But, just like any other illness, disease, or physical injury, it’s not to be ignored. Now this is the part where I open up.

My mental illness journey started way before I was born, way before I was even a thought. Little did any of us know that for generations my family suffered from mental illness. Grandparents, uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters, the lot. It was only until recently that any of us really realised what was going on. I know for a fact that my parents blamed themselves for some of the things myself and my siblings were going through. They didn’t raise us right, they didn’t show us God’s love enough, they spoiled us too much: too much technology, and not enough Bible study. The last thing that they would’ve though was that we were sick and there was nothing they could have done differently raising us because they just had no idea. I won’t share the details of my other family members but I will happily put out there that I am an ongoing sufferer of anxiety and depression. It’s okay, I was diagnosed by real doctors and didn’t just look up a bunch symptoms on WebMD. I have been so blessed to have the support of a great doctor and very understanding network of family and close friends. I’m currently taking two different medications to counteract a chemical imbalance in my brain and often practice a number of calming and self reflective techniques to help prevent anxiety attacks or to help me when things in my head start to get bad.

What a lot of people don’t know about these diseases is that they often come in combinations (e.g. anxiety and depression), and that they are self-sabotaging, meaning that I could be perfectly content and happy all day and then stand on the balcony and wonder if I should just jump off. What a lot of Christians fail to see is that it has nothing to do with your relationship with Christ. Just as a person with coeliac disease will (probably) not be cured through prayer, discipleship, and a strong connection with their Heavenly Father, neither will someone suffering from ADHD or schizophrenia. Don’t get me wrong, without God I may have had a completely different journey with my illness(es), in fact I know for sure that “God is our refuge and strength” (Psalm 46:1) because He has always been my rock when I’ve hit rock bottom.

So, what’s next? It’s true what they say, in knowledge there is power. Education and understanding is key. Knowing that mental illness affects such a large percentage of the population, regardless of faith, is an important step to helping our brothers and sisters in and outside the church. I would also add that taking medication doesn’t make me any inferior or weaker in the same way that glasses or insulin would.

I am not a doctor, nor have I been trained as a psychologist or psychiatrist and you probably aren’t either. I would never want someone to take my counsel in replacement of a professional and this is not what I’m advocating. What I would like to prescribe, however, is an open heart, an open mind, and a loving soul to listen and understand someone who is struggling; to help someone take steps towards bettering their health and their future, and; to know that there is nothing wrong with someone suffering from illness. For me, all I know is that without the support my family I may not be here today. Without my care and understanding of friends, I may not be here today. And I know for a fact that without God, I would not be here today.

___________

Reference list:
1. http://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/docs/Factsandfiguresaboutmentalhealthandmooddisorders.pdf
2. http://www.livingisforeveryone.com.au/uploads/LIFE_fact_sheet_3_final.pdf
3. https://www.sane.org/mental-health-and-illness/facts-and-guides/facts-figures

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