One in four

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One in four

Recently I was having a conversation about mental health with someone in my family. I mentioned the fact that one in four people will be affected by mental health problems during their lifetime. A pause followed, in which they digested this statistic, and then they said, “In our family, it’s more than that, isn’t it? It’s like almost one hundred percent.”

I had to admit that this was true. I’ve struggled with depression, including severe post-natal depression. Other people in my family have had similar struggles, so many, in fact, that I’ve been guilty of the, “Oh no, not again,” or “Oh no, not another one” feeling when I hear about another crisis.

Statistics just show the average. Some families will have exactly one in four people affected by mental health problems. Other families will hardly be affected by mental illness whilst others will seem to be fighting it all the time.

Down to the fourth generation

Some of our susceptibility can probably be explained by environment and life events, but there is evidence that our genes also play a role. Recently I came across an article describing research carried out on the children and grandchildren of holocaust survivors. It showed that trauma experienced by one generation can actually alter the genes of their children, making them more susceptible to stress and mental health disorders.

I’ve always tried to own my own problems. When I was fighting post-natal depression, I hoped that what I was going through would mean that my children would have less mental health issues to face, not more.

Perhaps it doesn’t work like that. I think of the Bible verse about the sins of the fathers being visited on the children right down to the fourth generation. It seems like a raw deal if God punishes people for mistakes that their great grandparents have made.

Over time I have realised that this verse doesn’t mean that God vindictively causes children and grandchildren to suffer. It simply states a fact: if your life is in a mess then it’s going to have repercussions for the next generation.

Of course, that mess might not be caused by you. Maybe you might have suffered due to war or famine or a natural disaster. If a trauma experienced by the parents affects the genes of the children, does this explain the high levels of depression and alcohol abuse in the Highlands more than one hundred and fifty years after the Clearances?

For how long are the effects of current wars going to be seen in future generations? It is sad to think that those who are lucky enough to survive bombing and displacement and have enough hope left to start a family, might be passing on some of that trauma to their children, no matter how much they try not to.

St Therese and mental illness

I have a fondness for St Therese, perhaps her attitude was, ‘God, I can’t do it on my own. Over to you.’

Her autobiography, ‘Story of a soul’, describes a childhood illness which occurred after her big sister, Pauline, who’d been a sort of substitute mother to her, entered the closed Carmelite convent. Having lost her mother and then her big sister, Therese became ill with what sounds like a severe depression, although there was no such thing as a mental health diagnosis in the 19th century. It also had physical effects and her family feared that she was going to die. Therese herself couldn’t see any way out of the illness, but she prayed and was cured when she turned her head and saw a statue of ‘Our Lady’ smiling at her.

I was searching the web to try to find out more about St Therese and her childhood illness when I came across this beautiful leaflet on St Therese and mental illness. Not only did St. Therese suffer from depression in childhood, but she also bore the pain of seeing her father Louis Martin suffer from mental illness. He spent the last part of his life in a mental asylum. He still became a saint. This gives me hope that mental illness, like physical illness, is something which God allows to come into our lives.

Just as being overweight increases a risk of a heart attack, our choices may increase or decrease our risk of depression. However, there are also other factors outside our control, such as a stressful work environment or a susceptibility to depression which is written into our genes.

The leaflet on St Therese really moved me. It acknowledged the stigma around mental illness and how much of it is suffered in silence. When there is a mental health crisis, people don’t rally round and cook meals for the family the way they might if someone was suffering from a serious physical illness.

For sufferers and carers, mental illness can be lonely. All we can do is follow St Therese’s example, stretch out our arms and say God, ‘I am too little to do this alone. Please pick me up and help me.’

Silence and mental illness

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I’ve had to learn to be silent as a Catholic for many reasons. There is the Catholic culture of privacy as opposed to the evangelical culture of wearing your faith on your sleeve. There is my own timidity; converting to a new religion feels like being washed up on a foreign shore. In the area where I live, Catholics are in a small and perhaps not entirely accepted minority. Keeping quiet about my faith has seemed to be a matter of necessity. I’ve also felt, perhaps mistakenly, that other Christians see me as someone who is travelling in the second-class compartments as far as faith is concerned. This is another reason I don’t talk.

Apart from blogging, I don’t discuss faith much, partly by choice, partly by nature and partly because of circumstances.

Mental illness

Today I am thinking about another area of my life in which I have chosen silence, or had it forced upon me by circumstances, and that is mental health. For a lot of my adult life, I have struggled with depression, and at the same time many people close to me have fought their own battles with mental illnesses.

I’m by no means special or unique. In the UK, one in four people have been diagnosed with some form of mental illness.

I have learnt a lot from mental illness, just as I’ve learnt from physical illness (I suffered chronic ill health in my late teens and early twenties). However, it is so excruciatingly painful that I wouldn’t actively choose to go through it.

I was lucky enough to get treatment and although I still have the odd bad day or even bad week, my mental health is much better.

Those close to me have also suffered difficult and complex mental health problems. Statistics tell me that my circle of family and friends is not unique. However, apart from a few brave and honest friends, I seldom hear people talk about their struggles with mental health.

Supporting someone

Twenty years ago, when I was first supported someone with mental health problems, I was silent, partly because of a sense of shame. I wasn’t ashamed of the person I loved. I completely understood and accepted why life had been too much for them and that they had suffered a breakdown. However, I was ashamed of their condition. It was like trying to hide the fact that there was an infectious illness in the family. If people knew that someone close to me was struggling so much, would they not start to worry that I would get it too? Would this affect my ability to get and keep a job?  

There were a lot of taboos around mental health back then. Attitudes have improved since, partly because of campaigns such as the Scottish ‘See Me’ mental health campaign.

Reasons for silence

Many years later, and I am again supporting someone through a mental illness, and I am still silent. This time I’m not ashamed of my loved one. They are incredibly brave and dealing with inner pain which is sometimes overwhelming. If I am silent, it is to preserve their dignity and help them keep their slender hold on normality.

I want, as much as possible, for them to be able to keep going. I don’t want them to approach each encounter with the worry, “How much does this person know about my situation? Are they going to judge me or think I’m crazy? Have I really disappointed them by becoming ill?”

Silence comes at a cost. If a close friend or relative had a stroke or broke a leg or fell ill, I could talk to other people. I could share news of progress or setbacks or difficult things which had happened. I would get sympathy and encouragement and even prayers. People would understand why I’m low on energy or why I sometimes find it difficult just to do practical things like shopping and cleaning, never mind do any kind of work.

Because I am dealing with a mental and not a physical illness, I’ve taken the decision to be quiet and share no details. I’m writing this post, because I feel that I have to express my feelings in some way and maybe these thoughts will encourage someone else who is going through something similar.

I’ve been helping someone else pick up the shattered pieces of their emotions and I feel drained and broken myself. When I got to Mass, I have less than nothing to offer God. Right now I feel physically, emotionally and spiritually bankrupt. I have no answers and I can only try to trust

In the meantime, I try to remember to let go of my own pain and worry and enjoy little things. I take time to read a book in the sun, sit in the park and notice flowers, savour a cup of coffee and say hello to dogs (and their owners).