Embracing weirdness as a disciple of the Way

We’ve come a long way in understanding mental illness; and active spirituality, whether attached to religion or not, is now recognised as part of positive growth in mental health.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), almost half of Australians have experienced a mental disorder at some point in their lives. Mental illness can range from lifelong disorders, to periods of   depression brought on by situations such as a relationship break down or the death of a loved one. Treatments can vary from medication to mindfulness.

Associate Professor Kellie Bennett is a psychologist at the University of Western Australia. Part of her job is to train young medical doctors to understand why it is important to talk to patients about mental   wellbeing and spirituality, so they can care for the whole patient and refer them to specialists, such as a psychologist or chaplain, if needed.

She said that causes of mental illness, just as the illnesses themselves, are extremely broad. Understanding these causes is still unclear in some cases, but there is evidence that some circumstances, such as  isolation, can make people more vulnerable.

“There’s a variety of issues. I’m not sure that anyone could definitely tell you ‘this is what causes it’, because we just don’t know,” Kellie said.

Paul Montague, Uniting Church WA candidate for the ministry of the Word, comedian, actor, and one half of the comedy duo Pirate Church, has been pretty open with his experience of living with a mental illness. Paul was diagnosed with Type 1 Bipolar Disorder eight years ago while in his 30s, but looking back can see it had been affecting him for most of his life, even as a young child.

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Bipolar, previously known as Manic Depression, affects Paul’s mood in quite serious ways.

“The challenge is oscillating between severe depression at one end of the scale and hypomania, or fullblown mania, at the other,” he said. “I experience it as physiological; I usually feel a shift in my body first. When it’s really bad, suicidal ideation and urge is the number one danger.

“Around 43% of people with Bipolar 1 choose to end their lives prematurely.”

Paul grew up in rural WA and became a member of the Anglican Church in his 20s. He’s now found a home in the Uniting Church, and explained that his faith has held him throughout the ups and downs of his   journey with mental illness.

“I wouldn’t be alive today if not for my faith – and I might not have faith at all if I wasn’t at least slightly crazy,” Paul said. “I had a transformative spiritual experience as a 16-year-old, then a full blown ecstatic   vision of Jesus in my early twenties. That testimony alone might make me a weirdo, but these moments of what was possibly insanity led me to relationship with Christ and ultimately salvation and purpose.

“My life since as an imperfect, but earnest disciple of the Way, has been a journey of grace, love, joy, suffering, death, resurrection, and more grace, love and joy.”

Throughout his exploration of the Biblical stories, Paul finds examples of mental illness, which he can relate to his own journey.

“Prophets, saints, mystics, martyrs reformers, holy fools… where do you draw a line between passionate or inspired or ecstatic or artistic or eccentric and just plain ‘mental’?” Paul asked. “I reckon if the teachings of  Jesus and the imminent reality of God’s Kingdom coming hasn’t led you to behave in any way that’s made you a fool in the eyes of the world, you may want to read up on the Gospels again.”

There are many more benefits the church can have for people living with mental illness, such as being part of an active community. While the church needs to recognise its limits, and when someone needs referral  to professional care, there is space for a faith community to be supportive to people with mental illness.

“The one factor I always come back to is social support,” Kellie said. “It’s something your church or organisation could work towards filling a gap; that is a reality.”

As a member of Spearwood Uniting Church, Paul’s community of faith is a source of strength and comfort.

“My extended family of faith in the church has grounded me, celebrated my gifts, and shown me God’s love,” he said.

For Paul, medical diagnosis and treatment from a psychiatrist has been his key to keeping healthy, and he encourages others going through mental illness to be confident in seeking help.

“I say talk. Be open, and talk to everybody about your challenges, especially when you’re feeling well,” he said. “I also say see a psychiatrist. Knowledge is power.

“Most importantly, embrace and love your   weirdness. It’s beautiful, and so are you.”

Looking after wellbeing

It’s important for people with health concerns to seek out help from a medical practitioner. If you feel like things are starting to weigh you down, visit your GP and try some of Kellie’s positive psychology techniques.

  • At the end of each day, write down three positive things which happened that day – no matter how small. This technique trains your brain to be on the lookout for good things around you.
  • Express gratitude. Research suggests that expressing and receiving gratitude has multiple benefits for all people involved. The expresser notices the positive things in life, and the receiver feels appreciated.
  • Mindfulness is a form of mediation which helps you to focus on the present. While it can sound daunting, just a few minutes a day can have multiple benefits for people living with depression and anxiety.
  • Exercise is important for mental wellbeing, specifically with aiding anxiety. While not a ‘fix all’ solution, even just a short walk can help calm down nerves.
  • The link between sleep deprivation and mental wellbeing is a strong one. People often underestimate the effects that lack of sleep can have on your mind and physical body, so try to get an early night full of   sleep.
  • There is also a link between positive wellbeing and living a life which is meaningful and aligned with your values – whether that be through religion or not. While we tend to think that achieving goals will   make us happy, often that is not the case. Try to think of the things in life you value and decide how you might be able to achieve reflecting those values in your life.

While some of these things sound really simple, Kellie explained there is sound research which suggests they do indeed work.

It can be hard, however, to do any of these things when you just don’t have it in you. So it’s also important to be kind to yourself and recognise achievements wherever they arise.

If you or someone you know would like urgent mental health support try these numbers and websites:

  • Mental Health Emergency Response Line, metro callers 1300 555 788
  • Rural Link, rural and remote areas 1800 552 002
  • Beyond Blue 1300 224 636. Visit https://www.beyondblue.org.au to access online chatting
  • Crisis Care, metro callers 9223 1111. Country free call 1800 199 008
  • Headspace 1800 650 890 or visit https://eheadspace.org.au to access online chatting
  • Lifeline 13 11 14

For more links and services, visit http://www.mentalhealth.wa.gov.au/getting_help/Emergency_help.aspx

Heather Dowling

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