Suzette Jones, diocesan health and wellbeing adviser
Mental illness is a common feature of everyday life; one in five people are mentally distressed at any one time, with over half of us experiencing an episode of depression in our lifetime.
Little surprise then that this topic is getting more and more news coverage, including Princes William and Harry speaking out this week about the effect their mother’s death had on them. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry are spearheading ‘Heads Together’, a campaign to end stigma around mental health - and the Virgin Money London Marathon 2017’s Charity of the Year.
Drawing on more than 30 years’ experience of working with and being alongside those who have mental illness, including their carers, I know that it feels pretty miserable, totally wearing and generally rotten to carry this load for whatever length of time. Overcoming mental illness is genuinely a marathon effort, not a sprint.
And, as a nurse, for me the first step is often a cup of tea and a chocolate biscuit. This may seem flippant, but when I am sat with patient, parent, friend or carer, nothing quite does it like a cup of tea. But of course it’s not the tea, it’s the being with, the being alongside. Sometimes we sit in silence; other times the person chatters on and I listen. It’s in the sharing of despair, frustration, anger that hope stirs.
"Nothing quite does it like a cup of tea. But of course it’s not the tea, it’s the being with, the being alongside."
Exercise appears to reduce harmful changes in the brain caused by stress and can prevent depression. Team games, running, cycling, walking, dancing, are all effective but the companionship and togetherness is just as important as the physical activity. It’s being part of something bigger, even for the lone jogger – it’s a race run together.
A recent study concluded that 80% of those asked what keeps them mentally well replied having someone to talk to, social interaction, someone to listen.
Which is why the psychotherapies, talking therapies (like counselling, behavioural, cognitive and dialectical), work for many people.And although art and creativity has played a big part in the recovery process in the many support groups I have worked with, the healing generally comes out of the connecting, the sharing.
What of spirituality? Spirituality involves experiences of a deep-seated sense of meaning and purpose in life, a sense of belonging, connection, acceptance, integration and wholeness. Prayer for many is where that connection, comfort and peace is found. For me a life-long Christian meditator, it is in the depth of meditation is where I feel at one with God, feel God’s presence, Gods love, hope.
I can’t speak of meditation without mentioning ‘mindfulness’. Mindfulness simply means paying attention to our experience in the present moment, on purpose and with an attitude of kindly acceptance. Prayer, meditation and mindfulness are often practiced in groups; here even in the stillness, the silence, there is a connection - again, being alongside brings hope. But even when practiced alone there is a connection, with life, with God.
For me the common denominator in all these approaches is the support, the love and the care we get from family, friends and professionals. It’s the human contact that’s important; but also important to know that God is with us, alongside us, holding us. The New Living Translation of 1 Corinthians 13:13 sums it up: ‘Three things will last forever – faith, hope, and love – and the greatest of these is love.’
"It’s the human contact that’s important; but also important to know that God is with us, alongside us, holding us."
Knowing that God loves each of us and is alongside us, in our darkest moments. Love that joins us together even in the most difficult situations. Love that changes everything and keeps us hanging in there. Love is the light, the hope and the healing of life.
So if you watch the marathon on Sunday, and see tens of thousands of runners punding the streets with one shared physical goal, remember it’s not just about the race, it’s about the connection, the belonging, being part of, without judgement.