Hope Virgo asserts that parents suffering from mental ill-health really need the Church to step up and provide support
I sat down to write this article with a plan in my head. I wanted to talk to you about mental illness, to discuss the stigma that so many face. The images that come to mind when we think about mental illness. The fact that even though more people are speaking up, there is still a huge amount of stigma. But then I got stuck, thinking how surface level this all was sounding. How it wasn’t touching on the reality. I thought about my own experience outside of the eating disorder. Yes I had faced stigma within that, with people not getting it, and saying the most ridiculous things like: “You aren’t thin enough to have an eating disorder” or: “Surely people with eating disorders don’t eat anything.” But while this stigma needs to be challenged, the more sinister stigma that so many of us face is the stigma that comes alongside the shame that stops us reaching out. This is something I have faced over the last two years going through a pregnancy and having a baby.
Suicide is the leading cause of death six weeks to a year after the end of pregnancy
The shame that I felt when I wanted to end my life convinced me that my baby would be better off without me. That incessant chat in my head that tells me I am a failure because I don’t 100 per cent know how to feed myself, so how could I possibly feed a baby? It’s stigma that stops so many parents from reaching out for support and instead leaves us feeling intense loneliness. On top of that is guilt that we should be blissfully happy all the time because everyone else on Instagram with kids is, and if we aren’t then we are selfish because we should be grateful that we have a kid.
Pregnancy and mental illness
In the UK, suicide is the leading cause of death six weeks to a year after the end of pregnancy. And in 2020, women were three times more likely to die by suicide during or up to six weeks after the end of pregnancy compared with 2017–2019. These suicidal feelings and the accompanying mental illness don’t just stop after the six weeks or only impact women; they can impact all parents. Of course, the impact on the wider families can be devastating too.
Dr Chi-Chi Obuaya explains: “There are specific perinatal conditions such as postnatal depression and postpartum psychosis. These are often made worse by the steep learning curve, sleep deprivation, changes in spousal or partner relationship that cause significant stress.”
Sally, 33, has been a Christian since she was five and lived with mental illness since she was 14, with some periods of inpatient treatment and involvement with the community mental health team. She told me: “When I was pregnant and for my son’s first year my mental health was great. But when my son was about two, I began to really struggle again. I’ve not faced external stigmas as a mum but I’ve put a huge amount of pressure on myself and often felt like a bad mum – especially when I’ve had to spend time away from home to get treatment.”
I could massively relate to what she said. Perhaps for some, it is the shame that we put onto ourselves, and the narrative we tell ourselves, that stops us from reaching out?
Sally’s church was really supportive of her: “The church I’m part of has been amazing – organising a monthly meal rota to lighten the load longer term, supporting my husband and helping out with childcare. I’ve often not been well enough to go to church but have been really encouraged by messages from people and offers of help. They’ve been an incredible village.”
Karen, 39 is a mum of two who first struggled with anorexia as a teenager; after her children were born she found she had similar struggles. Her church has been a vital support through her illness, both through prayer and comfort. She told me that: “I have made huge progress in my recovery by focusing on my faith, and on the truths of our loving God who never fails.”
“I remember standing in church many months ago feeling like I was free. At the time many physical symptoms of my anorexia were improving, and I was living joyfully through the battle, knowing that Jesus had given absolutely everything for me when he died on the cross. I stood and testified of his healing in my situation and my faith that this would continue, because God can do all things. At that point, I genuinely felt I was free and healed and had such faith that I was on the path towards a better life. Fast-forward a few months and I was in a hospital bed, on multiple drips and being told my heart was struggling to cope. A relapse had hit hard and, although I still had hope and faith, I felt lost once more.
“My church friends and leaders were so gracious in their understanding that this was all part of the illness. While I felt like I’d let everyone (including God) down they could see this was part of the story, and were inspired by my resolve to keep pressing in to my faith and walk this journey alongside God. They never made me feel shame for the continuation of the battle, and I think that is so important. Mental health journeys aren’t linear: it is so important that the Church understands that as it is key to breaking the stigma, and ensuring that sufferers are confident in asking for prayerful support wherever they are in their journey.”
Sadly not everyone feels able to speak up, or indeed seek that support through Church.
What can the Church do for parents?
One of the biggest challenges I faced as a new mum in church was being able to engage in services while I was trying to get my little one to sleep. In more recent months I have had the same challenge, but for a very different reason as he has grown and now charges round the building! When visiting another church I was thrilled to discover that they had a baby room with a green screen so that parents could watch the service, be involved, but not be far away. This really helps build connection but also helps parents to feel like valid members.
It is really important that churches highlight the struggles that parents may be going through, and for the leadership to share honestly. Karen emphasised this further: “Friends in church have educated themselves about eating disorders in order to be able to best support me. I think the most important thing churches can do to avoid any stigma is to support the sufferer and understand that an eating disorder is a complex illness that isn’t chosen, and that also has so many ups and downs.’
Dr Chi-Chi Obuaya suggests that we must “ensure mums aren’t socially isolated by connecting expectant or new mums with others. Additionally, home group members could help with meals in the early days to take pressure off parents.”
Other practical ways churches can help new parents include: offering to get food shops and reaching out during the week if you don’t see a new parent at church to make sure they are OK. Finally, it is important that the church calendar includes activities at a variety of times because some people can’t do evenings.
The stigma of mental illness as a parent is hard to sit with, but the Church can play a huge role in tackling it.