On World Mental Health Day, Mind and Soul’s Dr Kate Middleton explains why having a mental illness diagnosed is important but we shouldn’t allow it to define us - as only God does that.
Today is World Mental Health Day and as awareness of mental health and wellbeing rises, one positive outcome has been the increase in discussion about the various different conditions that can affect emotional and mental health. This can be both illnesses, and aspects of personality or the mind which can influence how we understand and interact with the world. Linked to this better understanding, rates of diagnosis have also risen, particularly in groups where conditions may not have been well recognised before. And of course, outside of clinical settings, many people find themselves identifying with certain syndromes or illnesses - which may or may not be recognised by the clinical world.
Receiving or recognising a diagnosis often triggers mixed feelings. On the one hand, it can be comforting to identify a “cause” - especially if symptoms have gone on for a long time. Clinical diagnosis can then open the door to options for treatment or support which couldn’t otherwise be accessed. But a diagnosis can be tricky - especially if it is with a longterm or lifelong condition. Thinking about how this changes your life, your future, and even your understanding of who you are, is often difficult. The reactions of family and friends too can be unpredictable and add another aspect to the way it feels like life and expectations have changed.
So what should you do when you find yourself suddenly facing a possible diagnosis? What if someone you love becomes unwell and is told they have a condition that may be lifelong? How can you avoid a diagnosis doing more harm than good? Here are three things to remember if this where you find yourself - or someone you love.
Recognising a condition can help grow compassion
Our culture leads many people to judge themselves very harshly, striving for perfection in all things and pushing their minds and bodies very hard. We think about so many things in binary terms - good or bad, success or failure - well or ill. Truth is we’re all just human, navigating our way through life and all its ups and downs. It’s ok to have some struggles, weak points or limitations, without that being a sign everything is falling apart.
Compassionate self care is about allowing ourselves to have human needs like tiredness, hunger, pain and illness, and letting these guide how we look after ourselves well. Even Jesus experienced physical limits, for example falling asleep in unexpected places (Luke 8:23). He encouraged the disciples to find rest and quiet space when they had been so busy they hadn’t even had time to eat (Mark 6:31). And Paul knew the challenges of experiencing illness - and having to accept that it took a toll on his ministry (2 Corinthians 12:7). He also recognised the impact illness was having on others, advised them to take it seriously and to look after themselves well (1 Timothy 5:23).
The illness is not your identity
Having said all of that, there is a real challenge in the way our world understands illness - especially when it comes to mental health. The mind is so much of who we feel we are - when a diagnosis concerns our mind it can be particularly hard not to let that change our concept of ourselves, or damage our self-esteem. And we often see modelled an approach to diagnosis that places it at the centre of who we are, dictating what we can and cannot be. But limitations are not who we are, and neither is illness.
In 2 Cor 5 it says that we are “in Christ” - I love the way the Passion Translation puts it - you are “enfolded into Christ”. That is who you are, rooted and established in God’s unconditional love (2Ephesians 3:17). That identity holds firm, in health or illness; good times or bad; success or failure. Be anchored in the secure knowledge of who you really are (Hebrews 6:19) - and know that no matter how overwhelming or all consuming your illness may feel, it cannot change your core identity.
Diagnosis doesn’t define your future
Becoming diagnosed with a condition often triggers a lot of anxiety provoking questions about your future. What does this mean? Will this ever get better? How is my life going to change? It’s easy to feel like your future has been hijacked, and anxiety can be magnified by spaces and places people often may go to get support and information. Remember that many of these spaces are shaped by posts and questions from the people who are struggling the most and need support.
Those individual stories, often worst case scenarios, may - or may not - include things you or the person you love will encounter. Try not to see them as a road map for your own journey. The truth is, you do not know what the road ahead may bring. Follow Paul’s great advice in Philippians 4:8 and take time to intentionally focus your mind on things that are good and lift your mood - things you can celebrate. That doesn’t mean you can’t admit the things that you are struggling with - its just about balance and not letting them take over your mind and focus.
The tough stuff will grab your attention whether you want it to or not. Try to shift your focus to the things you DO know, CAN do and CAN rely on. Whatever happens God will always be with you. Find solace in the gifts God gives even in the midst of difficulty - like love, friendship, and moments of laughter or joy. Remember, that Jesus reminds us that what us impossible with man is possible with God. No matter what a diagnosis speaks over you, there is always hope in God.