This month, we caught up with Helen Forsythe from Northern Ireland. She is one of the organisers of Breaking the Silence. This is an equipping event which is happening today (1 February) and aims to equip parents, churches and youth workers to help break through the taboos surrounding mental illness.
Helen, tell us a bit about yourself.
Well, I'm a 25-year-old Northern Irish girl! I am a bit of a history and archaeology geek, which is what I studied at university, but since graduating I have found myself getting more and more involved in youth activities and groups. I've spent a year working as an intern in the Presbyterian Church of Ireland (PCI) Youth & Children's office trying to research more about what life is like for young people and I am involved in steering a Presbyterian youth participation movement. In my community I volunteer as a Girl's Brigade leader, with my youth fellowship and with the children in my church. Personally, I also love to spend time crafting, reading, playing with my dog and horses. Lots of things to keep me busy!
You are involved in an event facilitated by the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) which is happening today [1st February]. What is ‘Breaking the Silence?’
Breaking the Silence is a project that aims to engage the church with mental health issues and we hope that the event on the 1st February is just the beginning! I'm passionate about mental health issues and together with another Helen (who is equally passionate!) through PCI's youth participation movement (known as SPUD) we were able to speak at the Presbyterian General Assembly in June 2013. We tried to share a little of our own experiences with our friends and youth groups to highlight the rise in mental health issues that teenagers and young adults are experiencing. As a result an emergency resolution was passed at the Assembly to work with the SPUD Youth Assembly to create the ‘Breaking the Silence’ partnership. Essentially ‘Breaking the Silence’ is a conversation starter - a call to equip people in churches to face up to the reality of mental health issues in society.
Mental illness is a word that is used a lot in the media. Can you define mental illness for us?
The 'Time to Change' campaign talks about mental health in the same terms as physical health. Just as the body can become sick, we can suffer from mental illness. Mental illness comes in many forms according to the symptoms, such as anxiety, depression and many more. Good mental health is described by the World Health Organisation as 'a state of well-being in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.'
There has been a stigma attached to mental illness in society. Why do you think this is? What are the stereotypes that need to be shattered?
It can be difficult to say where the stigma comes from. Perhaps a part of the problem is that there are a number of perceptions that are just not the reality. The problem is that these perceptions are having a huge effect on those who have a mental illness, especially in church. One prevalent stereotype that I have come across is the idea that 'I'm a Christian - I should have joy in Christ', as though, somehow, by suffering with depression it's a sign of a lack of faith. This can cause a great deal of guilt on the part of the sufferer. It is almost as though the Christian should be immune to mental health problems! This needs to be tackled so that the church can be welcoming for all - a place that points to God's healing, restoration and sovereignty.
It is great that PCI is organising a national event to equip leaders, but do you think local churches are safe places for people with mental illness. Are they breaking the silence? Why? Why not?
Obviously, I don't want to generalise about the church as a whole, but there are definite challenges to be overcome on the road to a mental illness friendly church. The event is called ‘Breaking the Silence’ primarily because this is an issue that isn't being talked about - and one which needs to be aired in the open so we can respond together in a Christ-like way. The problem is that a lot of us - I include myself - don't always know how to respond to mental illness and that can be a barrier. I hope that by equipping ourselves we can begin to build safe environments that are free from fear, stigma and perhaps the awkwardness that can come from mental illness.
At the end of January, Young Minds released a startling poll which suggested that one third of children and young people don’t know where to turn to get help when they feel depressed or anxious as a result of the toxic culture which surrounds them. For youth leaders and parents, what is the toxic culture like?
This kind of statistic is particularly worrying; as the hope is always that the information is out there and readily available. This 'toxic culture' can often be a bubble for young people with youth leaders and parents looking in from the outside. This is a difficult place to be in, to be able to see the consequences, the hurts and the damage, but unable to enter in and fully understand just what it is like. I am not so many years out from our current children and teenagers, but the current culture is already miles away from my experiecne and that gap is only widening with the passing of years. In a sense, therefore, I cannot tell you exactly what it is like. Of course, that is not to say that we shouldn't try to inform ourselves as best we can - we do need to be equipped in order to serve & support. We should not underestimate the destructiveness of this climate. It was thirteen years ago, pre-smart phones, pre-social networking, that psychiatrists warned, 'that children today are more anxious than psychiatric patients in the 1950s'. We are sitting on a mental illness time bomb, but as Sarah Brennan (Chief Executive of Young Minds) says, 'we will always struggle to support children and young people with mental health disorders until we know the true scale of the problems that they face.' We are looking forward to Dr Gavin Davidson sharing with us in his opening address, as he will paint a picture of what the current state of mental health with young people in Northern Ireland is actually like – we need to be better informed before we start, and he is going to help us with his ideas and thinking.
Raising awareness of mental illness is an issue that you’re passionate about as you have experienced it. Can you share a little of your story with us?
As with so many things, I think experiencing an issue either yourself or through friends and family has a way of changing you and the way you think about the issue. At least, I think that is what God has done in my life when it comes to mental health. When I was researching issues and stresses that are affecting young people I spent hours reading through responses and at times they became more and more difficult to read. But it wasn't until a very close friend of mine came to me and told me that she was living with anxiety that it really clicked with me. I began to see more clearly just what was happening, both in her life and in the lives of young people whose experiences I was reading. Obviously, the chances are this is also something that people reading this interview will encounter through volunteering or working with young people in their area. I think there were a number of reactions that I had; at times I was just confused and found it hard to understand and at others felt powerless to help. This was heartbreaking. In all this though, I do feel that God is faithful and these experiences and passions drive me to get equipped, to pray and hopefully make a difference.
What would be your advice to someone who is frightened to break the silence right now?
If you are suffering with mental illness I would really encourage you to seek help. Don't suffer in silence. Just as you wouldn't leave a leg broken without having it treated, neither will your mental illness get any better unless it is dealt with. Breaking the silence can be difficult but there are lots of options out there. If you are frightened to seek help, remember there are places you can go and keep your confidentiality: your own GP for instance will listen and can prescribe you anything you may need from therapy to medication. Charities such as Samaritans provide someone that you can talk to. You can find a friend who you can trust and have a chat: it sounds like a cliché but honestly being able to be open with someone can be such an important step. Staying silent, keeping it all inside can almost allow the illness to fester.
What has helped you?
One verse that inspires me, particularly with mental illness, is from Isaiah 61:1 where it says, 'The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners'. This verse has been on my heart for a number of years, both as an encouragement and as a challenge. It encourages me because it is a reminder of God's promise to heal and restore, that Jesus has come to bring light and freedom to those imprisoned in darkness. It is also a challenge to me, because I believe that we are called to live as Jesus lived. Jesus announced Himself as the fulfillment of this verse, as His followers we must point people to Him.
Thankfully there are lots of mental health resources out there, both Christian and secular. There are places to go for those who need help. Don't forget that the NHS is there and mental health is just as much a reality as physical health.