University, the time you have been waiting for, the place you have worked so hard to get to. Your chance to study that subject you actually care about, the freedom to move out of home and live by your own rules, the chance to make lots of new friends, to experiment with a new image and to enjoy the social life you have heard so much about.
On paper it all sounds wonderful, you should be having the time of your life, so why do you feel so unhappy? And why does it feel so hard just to cope with daily life let alone enjoy the college experience? Maybe you feel paralysed by anxiety at the thought of sitting in a lecture hall let alone sitting your exams? Perhaps life has been drained of all colour and joy as you struggle under the deadening weight of depression? Maybe you don’t know anyone else who battles these same feelings and you feel completely alone?
It could be that you know several people with mental health issues but you never thought it would happen to you as surely you are more “resilient” than this? Perhaps all your friends look like they are loving life and you are terrified to admit that you really aren’t okay? Trust me, you are not alone!
According to recent research into the mental health of students in Ireland almost 30% of university students are struggling with depression and 38% feel extremely anxious. Roughly a third have been formally diagnosed with a mental illness at some point in their life and 1 in 5 students say they have no–one to talk to when life feels difficult. These figures don’t surprise me, I’m a counsellor and a former doctor so I spend my working life being allowed to peer under the masks that people wear.
But, perhaps most importantly, I’m also someone who’s been there: the student too anxious to leave her bedroom let alone socialise; the Christian too depressed to go to church or CU; the medic, who is meant to cope with everything, unable to control my own tears or fend off a panic attack; and the Christian leader struggling to pray or even believe that God’s Word brings comfort and hope. I’ve been there but I am not there now. I am currently well and seeing life in colour again but if right now you feel trapped in the darkness then I want to share with you 3 simple lessons that God has taught me, and continues to teach me, along the way. Firstly:
People wear masks, all people, even Christians, or sometimes especially Christians. We all worry about what others will think if they saw inside our heads so we try to project an image we want others to see and just pray no–one will see through it. A lot of us don’t want to burden our friends and family with our problems so we try to hold the difficult feelings in and deal with them ourselves.
Some of us fear we would be considered weak if we had to take time out of university or give up our part–time job. A lot of Christians feel an added pressure to wear this mask as many fear that their depression or clinical anxiety is a sign of their failure to trust in God’s sovereignty or to rejoice in the Lord. Many worry that other Christians will view them as having “bad theology” or believe that their mental health issues are a punishment for personal sin or even demonic possession. No wonder so many Christians are scared to share how they really feel!
Aside from the plethora of medical evidence that mental health issues are physical illnesses which affect various chemicals and structures in the brain, when we look in the Bible we can see several examples of people in acute distress and despair. For instance, Psalm 102 is titled as “a prayer of one afflicted” and presents a vivid picture of mental anguish; Job laments “I loathe my life” and Elijah sits down under a broom tree and begs God to let him die! (Psalm 102, Job 7 v 16, 1 Kings 19 v 4). Hearing Elijah’s cries of hopelessness, God doesn’t get angry or condemn him, but instead shows him compassion by sending an angel to care for his physical needs and then revives his hope by meeting him personally.
In the same way, people in the depths of depression need compassion, practical support (which often includes professional help such as therapy and/or medication) and personal encounters with the God of all comfort. This brings me to the second lesson I want to share:
This might sound incredibly obvious, but for me it went against the grain. I was used to being the person who helped others, I was not used to asking for help and having to do so was a very humbling experience. I needed medical treatment from a doctor, I needed to see my counsellor every week, I needed support from my university to postpone my deadlines and eventually to defer my graduation and most of all I needed my friends and family. I needed my Christian friends to pray for me and sometimes with me. I needed them to gently point me to Jesus by reminding me of the truth of his Word. I needed them to encourage me to keep coming along to church even when I didn’t want to and yet to understand when that felt too overwhelming.
Sometimes, I needed them to be ‘the bad guy’: to not allow me to isolate myself and lie in bed all day when that’s exactly what I wanted to do, to drag me outside with them for a walk by refusing to take no for an answer, to convince me to get professional help when I was reluctant to admit I needed it and to challenge me when I stopped doing the basic things that would help my mood like getting enough sleep, eating regular meals and doing some exercise. I also needed them to help me challenge the lies my depressed brain was believing unquestionably, which leads me to the third lesson:
Depression lies. It tells you things about yourself, the world and God that simply are not true. However, your depressed brain is wired to believe them and therefore you need a powerful weapon to fight these lies: you need the truth of God’s Word. Now let me just clarify, you probably also need professional treatment such as medication and/or therapy and you definitely need the support of others, but these blessings do not take the place of God’s Word.
If depression is telling you that you are worthless and unloved, the weapon you need is the truth that you are God’s beloved child, made in his image and loved beyond measure. When tempted to believe that God has abandoned you, you need the truth that God never leaves you nor forsakes you and that he works all things together for your good. (Deuteronomy 31:6, Hebrews 13:5, Romans 8:28). If everything inside you screams that life is hopeless, you need to cling to the truth that you have been “born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” and you can trust your loving father who has promised you “a future and a hope” (1 Peter 1:3, Jeremiah 29:11).
This living hope that flows from the cross is the Christian’s reality, whether you feel it or not. However, these truths will not take hold of you unless you preach them to yourself over and over again, unless you read them, listen to them, pray them and soak in them until they drown out the lies and permeate the depths of your broken heart.
This indestructible hope you so desperately need cannot be found outside of Jesus nor can you believe in it by your own human strength. Therefore, let me finish by praying for you dear brother or sister whose heart is heavy, using the words of the apostle Paul:
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
Ashley Stewart is the Associate Head of Student Ministries at Christian Medical Fellowship (CMF). She practiced as a doctor in Northern Ireland before moving to London to study Theology and Counselling, where she now works as a counsellor alongside her role at CMF.
You can meet her at EQUIP festival this summer where she’ll be hosting a gathering for Christian healthcare/medical students. CMF exists to unite and equip Christian doctors, nurses and midwives to live and speak for Jesus. We are passionate about helping students to integrate faith and healthcare, learn how to handle tricky ethical issues and to get connected with other Christian medics and nurses for regular teaching and support.