Faith in the Fog: On Losing Beliefs and Finding God

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This is Part 5 of my ‘Faith In The Fog’ series on my experiences with doubt, skepticism, mental health and forging a different kind of faith.

Part 4: Love as our Compass


There are certain ways Christians talk about God that turn me into an atheist.

I can’t help it. As much as I try to ignore it, my inner skeptic is constantly on the lookout for holes in the God theory. It will find a loose thread and keep tugging until the whole thing unravels. Before I know it, my cherished beliefs in a loving God have disintegrated and I’ve unwittingly written off the entire Christian faith as superstitious nonsense.

Any troubling question or rogue thought can trigger this unravelling process. But few things give my inner skeptic a firmer foothold than Christians making statements of apparent certainty regarding their beliefs.

We are certain that God will prevent this bad thing from happening.

This is definitely what will happen when we die.

This is the one correct interpretation of this two-and-a-half-thousand-year-old passage of Hebrew scripture.

Really?

Sometimes I feel like being a Christian requires me to switch off my brain altogether.

Now, this confidence and assuredness seems to work for a lot of people. But for me, an assertion like that is all it takes for the fog to descend. Questions and doubts start spinning around my overzealous monkey brain, rapidly eroding any hope I had that this Christianity thing might be true.

You see, I was brought up to believe that Christianity was mainly about believing in certain doctrines. The main function of the church seemed to be to help me understand these doctrines, and to convince me of just how correct they were. If I was ever to lose my faith in said doctrines, well, let’s just say my fire insurance policy would be null and void.

The lingering effect of this particular introduction to Christianity is that I still have an underlying, often subconscious assumption that correct beliefs are the point of it all. So when doubt sets in and my beliefs begin to evaporate before my eyes, it’s no surprise that my gut response is usually to panic.


A different kind of knowing

I strongly suspect that whenever any of us get too caught up in the specifics of belief – whether we are confidently asserting faith in a particular doctrine or being thrown into blind panic by our doubt – we are missing the point.

The thing about a subject like God is that it is, by definition, beyond our understanding. So when we use language to describe God, our words are never going to accurately represent the reality we are describing.

The writers of the Bible use metaphors, symbolism and poetic language to describe their experiences of God, simply because this is the closest we humans can get to conveying a reality so far beyond ourselves. These poems and metaphors can be true in the deepest sense without being scientifically provable.

We Christians tend to cling to our beliefs because they provide a reassuring framework in which everything is categorised and understood. But in doing so we risk losing the very heart of Jesus himself, who insisted upon disrupting our ideological constructs, defying our expectations and merging our categories.

This does not sit well with us. We modern, post-enlightenment folk like to have control; to have things neatly encapsulated within our understanding. If something is true, surely we must be able to nail it down and explain how it works. We like to think we can know about God in the same way we can know about the mechanics of a car or the anatomy of an insect. But seeking objective knowledge about God is like chasing the wind. A subject like God requires a different kind of knowing.


So when the questions start to whirl and the and the panic of unwilling atheism sets in (which it does on a fairly regular basis), I have to remind myself that my beliefs about God are not the foundation of my faith.

I will not find God by thinking harder, by using the power of reason to convince myself intellectually that a particular set of beliefs are true.

But if I instead focus my energy on walking in the way of Jesus – loving my neighbour, practising forgiveness, standing against injustice and speaking out for those who have no voice – I wonder if I might just find myself staring God in the face.

Uncertainty is uncomfortable. I would love to have all the answers. But I think that would make me God, and I suspect I don’t have the qualifications.


Expanding our God vocabulary

I wonder if the church might have an easier time relating to people today if it was willing to think creatively and expand its vocabulary of God metaphors.

I think one of our biggest problems is that we are still a bit stuck with the idea of God being up there, occasionally intervening down here. Like some sort of cosmic super-genie, granting wishes from above. But the whole point of the Jesus story is that God is with us. The curtain in the temple was torn in two, and there is no longer any separation. God is not looking down on us, demanding appeasement and hurling blessings and curses from on high – that’s what every other god in the ancient world did. According to the New Testament, this God is in the sweat, blood and dirt of our lives, with us in our weakness and in some mind-boggling way, suffering alongside us.

If my doubt and confusion feel like a fog, then God is in that fog, not hidden behind it.

When I’m losing faith in a particular statement or belief about God, it helps me to remember that there are many other God metaphors I can turn to if the more traditional ones lose their appeal.

I can choose to think of God as Source, breath, ultimate reality, Ground of Being…

The energy and luminescence behind all of life…

The Divine Mother who nourishes us within her womb…

The unquenchable spark of humanity…

The light that pierces the darkness…

The ocean that surrounds us, saturating all things…

The unspeakable beauty woven into the very fabric of the universe.

These ideas are deliberately vague; they aren’t meant to stand up to scientific scrutiny. Some things can only be described poetically, because to try and literalise them would reduce their meaning. As with all language attempting to describe the indescribable, they are abstract words, none of which contain God, so I hold them with a loose grip. But with a wide repertoire of God metaphors at hand, it’s easier to prevent my inner skeptic from denying God’s existence altogether.


In letting go of concrete beliefs as the foundation of my faith, I dare to hope that I am more open to experiencing the reality of the presence of God in this moment. God in the soil, in the breeze, in laughter, in the faces of strangers I would usually avoid, and in the last places on earth I would think to look.

Without my own fixed ideas and constructs limiting my perception, my eyes can be opened to the mystery of the divine, loving presence that infuses everything, pulsing through my veins and filling the air I breath.


“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands…

…For in him we live and move and have our being.”         Acts 17:24,28


I have lots more to say. Subscribe via email to receive updates when I publish posts.

If you want to get in touch and share your own thoughts or experiences you can leave comments, find me on Facebook or Twitter or email musicineverysound@gmail.com.

< Part 4: Love as our Compass

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Faith in the Fog: Science, Atheism and the Search for Proof

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This is Part 2 of my ‘Faith In The Fog’ series on my experiences with doubt, skepticism, mental health and forging a different kind of faith.

< Part 1: Surviving as a Skeptical Christian

Part 3: Faith in the Fog: Making Peace with the Messiness of the Bible >


The Fear of Science

One of the biggest steps towards learning to deal with my own crippling skepticism has been to convince myself that Christianity is not irrational.

Deep down I had always feared that if I thought too deeply or learned too much about science, this faith that brought hope and meaning to my life would eventually be exposed as wishful thinking, no more credible than an ancient myth or fairy tale.

You know what I’m talking about.

That nagging suspicion that if the beliefs at the centre of our faith were examined under a microscope for too long they might disappear into nothing, revealed to be unfounded and delusional.

The fear that science might disprove God.

In its more extreme forms, this fear of science leads some Christians to make absurd claims about the historical and scientific accuracy of Biblical texts. They fear that if even one aspect of their belief system is proved to be false, the whole thing might collapse. In the eyes of these Christians, scientists must be either deluded or evil, deliberately trying to distort the truth.

My fear of science came in subtler forms. For example, it concerned me that spiritual experiences and ‘answers to prayer’ could be explained away by psychology and neuroscience. How could I fully trust the Christian story if science was able to give equally, often more credible explanations?

I wanted proof of God’s existence, and science seemed to be eroding all my evidence. Skepticism was gradually gnawing away at my faith.


The Rise of New Atheism

It’s pretty hard to ignore atheism these days. The atheist voice in our culture is loud, angry and very convincing at times. So much so that belief in God can seem a bit silly, like still believing in the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus.

This quote is from the British comedian, Jimmy Carr:

“When I was a kid, I used to have an imaginary friend. I thought he went everywhere with me. I could talk to him and he could hear me, and he could grant me wishes and stuff too. But then I grew up, and stopped going to church.”

Ouch! That hurts, doesn’t it?

More and more I found myself wondering if people like Jimmy were right – the whole Christianity thing was one giant hoax, a distraction from reality.

In a discussion between atheists and Christians, I would nearly always find myself siding with the atheists. The thing is, Christians are irrational a lot of the time, and atheists are actually doing important work in exposing the bad side of religion.

I was never really fussed about the finer points of Christian belief. They differ from one denomination to the next, from one church to the next. Heck, for me they can change from one week to the next. I was concerned with the BIG questions. Was the universe designed by a supreme Being? Is there such thing as a spiritual realm? Does life have ultimate purpose and meaning?

(I should mention at this point that I am married to a biologist, who is also a Christian. For him, science and faith are entirely compatible, and atheism is no more rational than Christianity. It is through many lengthy discussions with him, and through reading the work of other like-minded thinkers, that I have been able to come to the following conclusions.)


Science has its limits

Jimmy Carr was brought up Catholic and, like many others, became an atheist after reading Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion.

In this hugely influential book, Dawkins’ argues that:

  • Evolution through natural selection provides evidence against intelligent design by a Creator.
  • We don’t need religion to be good.
  • Religion is bad for the world.
  • The God Hypothesis cannot be proven and is highly improbable, therefore God almost certainly doesn’t exist.

I actually agree with many of his arguments, and would probably be a convert if it weren’t for the following points:

  • There are a great number of scientists, including biologists, who believe in God.
  • There is some scientific evidence that religious belief can have benefits for general wellbeing. This doesn’t mean that it is definitely a good thing for the planet as a whole, but it makes the blanket statement “religion is bad” scientifically untenable. (Mike McHargue’s Finding God In The Waves explores some of this research in fascinating detail).
  • The God Hypothesis cannot be proven, but neither can the Atheist Hypothesis.

Science is the study of the natural world. It is very good at showing us how things work. But it cannot comment on the why questions. It can tell us how the universe came to be and how complex life evolved through natural selection, but it is not qualified to make statements about meaning or purpose.

The Christian scientists I have come across tend to all say a similar thing: science tells us how life works, faith gives it meaning. They are not in opposition. Christianity and Rationalism are examples of interpretive frameworks or narratives used to explain what we see in the world around us – science itself doesn’t take sides.


The Very Unsatisfactory Conclusion

I think it’s reasonable to conclude that ultimately, none of us can know the answers to these big questions. If we delve as far as we can into theology, philosophy, science, history and any other discipline we can think of, at the centre we find a deep mystery. A fog. We humans just aren’t capable of grasping ultimate knowledge about divine things.

This is very disappointing news for, well, all of us really. It’s not at all fun being in the fog. We want clarity. We crave answers and neat explanations. We long for the power to understand everything and the ability to prove everyone else wrong. We’ve mastered everything else, why can’t we prove or disprove the existence of God?

Because we’re only human, that’s why. As much as we would like to be, we are not omniscient.

This means that whether I believe in God or not, it’s a choice. It takes faith to believe in God, and it takes faith to believe that there is no God. (Any atheists reading this will have smashed their screens by now). I can’t prove it either way, so I make up my mind as best I can based on the evidence I have.

This is bad news for many atheists, for whom getting rid of the fog means wiping out all religion and holding rationalism as the only form of truth. It’s also bad news for many Christians, for whom getting rid of the fog means proving the existence of God once and for all.

We have to learn to live in the fog, which means admitting that whatever our position, we could be wrong.


Reimagining Faith

I remember having a mini-revelation about all this while walking along the canal in my parents’ village one afternoon in late summer. I was grilling my husband (again) about science and faith issues and how we can know we’re not deluding ourselves… when the most blindingly obvious but soul-stirringly profound thought struck me. That’s what faith is. If we could prove it, it wouldn’t be faith.

I longed so much for proof. I felt sure that if only I could know for certain that God existed, I would find assurance and peace of mind.

I have to tell you, figuring out that there are no absolute answers available to me didn’t do much for my peace of mind. But having confidence that to be a person of faith is just as intellectually valid as being an atheist was a good starting point. It gave me intellectual permission to continue calling myself a Christian, and to seek to deepen my experience of life through faith in an ultimate Source and a deeper meaning. It also gave me intellectual permission to read as many “secular” books as I liked without fearing that they might disprove God.

To conclude, we return to the problem I explored in Part 1 of this series, of faith being primarily about intellectual beliefs held as objective fact. If my faith is based entirely on a solid framework of beliefs, then if any of them are challenged I’m in trouble. (Or I can just put my fingers in my ears and sing loudly). My faith has to be based on more than intellectual reasoning. I simply can’t prove my beliefs rationally to anyone else, so I have to hold onto them lightly, respect the views of others and be genuinely open to changing my mind.

As I said, this was a starting point for me. Part 3 coming soon…


 

If you want to get in touch and share your own thoughts or experiences you can leave comments, find me on Facebook or Twitter or email musicineverysound@gmail.com.

< Part 1: Surviving as a Skeptical Christian

Part 3: Faith in the Fog: Making Peace with the Messiness of the Bible >

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Faith in the Fog: Surviving as a Skeptical Christian

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This is the first post in my ‘Faith In The Fog’ series on my experiences with doubt, skepticism, mental health and forging a different kind of faith.

Part 2: Science, Atheism and the Search for Proof >


How do I trust God when I’m no longer convinced he even exists?

How do I stop myself from being swallowed whole by the fear and despair that can come from seriously rethinking my beliefs?

How do I pray when it seems like there’s probably no-one listening?

Can my faith survive this?


If you have ever asked questions like these, I hope you know that you are not alone.

If your doubts become so overwhelming that you wonder if you are losing your faith altogether, then you are in good company.

Having serious doubts about the faith that has been a (possibly the) central part of your life can be unsettling, confusing and scary.

I don’t know many things for sure these days, but I am fairly certain that it’s possible to have an authentic, healthy and soul-nourishing faith whilst also being a skeptic. I continue to wrestle with these questions almost daily, but I no longer fear that I am losing my faith. I actually think these questions are a valuable part of my faith.


One of the biggest shifts in my thinking has been the realisation that faith is not supposed to be about having strong beliefs.

It’s still a pretty widespread assumption that being a Christian is mostly about what you believe. Of course, how you choose to live is important – there are very few Christians who would deny that. But it seems to me that what matters most to the majority of Christians is believing certain doctrinal statements. If you accept these statement as fact, you are saved; not by doing good works, but by asserting the validity of a particular set of intellectual propositions.

I’m not saying beliefs don’t matter at all. What we believe to be true drastically affects how we live our lives. It’s just that when we’re talking about things like God and the nature of reality and the future of the cosmos, we can never really know, can we? We are human beings, by definition limited in our capacity to understand such things.

It’s fine (and necessary) to have ideas and theories and doctrines about God, provided we remember that as long as they are contained within language and can fit neatly into human brains, they are utterly inadequate. A human claiming to understand God is not dissimilar a fruit fly landing on the tail of a Boeing 747 and claiming to understand the intricacies of aeronautical engineering.

(This may seem obvious to some, but it took me a long, long time to come to this realisation).

Once I started letting go of intellectual beliefs as the centre of my faith, things started to get decidedly foggy. My beliefs had been a sturdy framework on which to build my life; an interpretive lens through which I made sense of the world. When those beliefs started to shake and evolve, it was unnerving to say the least.

I’ve asked about every troubling question you can imagine, and yet my faith remains intact. It’s a lot less comfortable than before, and in some ways barely recognisable, but it’s also deeper, richer and more authentic. It’s constantly changing too, which can be exhausting, but also kind of exhilarating.


Forging a different kind of faith

In this Faith in the Fog series I plan to go into detail about various aspects of my evolving faith, coping with skepticism, and ways of thinking about things that have helped me navigate uncertainty and doubt.

I have things I want to say about the Bible, science, learning to trust again, prayer and spiritual practices, and mental health.

Mental health has been a particular interest of mine for over a decade now and it has become intertwined with my understanding of spirituality and faith. I think the two are inextricably linked in many ways. I particularly want to explore the mental health issues that can arise as the result of a “crisis of faith”, and share some coping strategies I have picked up along the way. (My life has been one long “crisis of faith” in recent years, and as someone prone to anxiety I have worked hard to find ways of maintaining some sense of equilibrium in the midst of existential chaos).


Experiencing serious doubt and skepticism can be tough, scary and depressing, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re losing your faith. It could be the first step into a deeper, richer, more authentic faith.

You can take the plunge and face the difficult questions head on. Your faith might change beyond recognition, but it can survive.


If you want to get in touch and share your own experiences you can leave comments, find me on Facebook or Twitter or email musicineverysound@gmail.com.

Part 2: Science, Atheism and the Search for Proof >

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Dear God, help me to believe in you.

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Dear God,

Today I am not sure you exist, but I’m praying anyway.

It seems as though the older I get and the more I learn, the less sure I am about anything.

I never used to doubt you, not really. I was taught that I could have absolute confidence and certainty in my beliefs, and I did. I was taught that there were clear explanations for everything if I was just clever enough to understand. We had the answers, others needed to hear them before it was too late. I suppose we thought we owned you, in a way.

Now I look around and see how this sort of “strong faith” so often leads to a closed-minded, blinding arrogance that causes people to justify oppression, violence and destruction of our planet, and I find myself siding with the atheists.

I was taught that you always answer prayer, and that if I fully trusted you and prayed with faith, all would be well.

Now I see images of boats crammed full of desperate families in life-jackets, surely praying harder and with more faith than I could ever possibly muster, whose cries for help apparently go unanswered. If you don’t answer those prayers, how can I be so arrogant to think that you will answer mine?

I was taught that I could have a relationship with you, but how do I silence the voice in my head that tells me you are a figment of my imagination, a kind of Santa Claus for grown-ups? How can I trust and rely on you as my closest friend and Father when you might not exist?

I suspect I am never going to stop asking these questions, but I know I will never give up my faith. The Jesus story (although not the penal-substitution-soaked, exclusive, it’s-all-about-avoiding-hell one) remains the best, most beautiful, fascinating and potentially world-changing story I have ever heard. Whether or not it’s factually true, I still believe it could save us. I am clinging to that.

The uncomfortable truth is that none of us can ever really know what all of this is about. But I would rather live with hope and be wrong than become a nihilist and be right.

So I will continue praying, even when I am convinced I am deluding myself. And maybe, just maybe, that is what faith is supposed to be about.

Maybe “strong faith” doesn’t mean having absolute certainty in my beliefs. Maybe it means refusing to let go of hope even when it seems entirely implausible that there is any deeper meaning to life.

Maybe faith is more like floating on the surface of a deep ocean than standing on a mountain top.

So God, if you are there, help me never to doubt you so much that I lose hope, but never to be so certain about you that I lose faith.

Amen.

“If I am capable of grasping God objectively, I do not believe, but precisely because I cannot do this I must believe. If I wish to preserve myself in faith I must constantly be intent upon holding fast the objective uncertainty so as to remain out upon the deep, over seventy thousand fathoms of water, still preserving my faith.”

Søren Kierkegaard

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Don’t Worry, Be Happy

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I am a born worrier.

It’s in my nature, it’s how I am programmed.

If worrying was a competitive sport I would be a regional champion. Think of any possible misfortune and the chances are I have worried about it at some point.


As a teenager I really lacked confidence so I mostly worried about what people thought of me. At uni I worried about being single. Then I got a boyfriend and started worrying about our relationship. Then that turned out fine so I worried about my health, and that we wouldn’t be able to have kids. Then we had kids and I worried about all the terrible things that could happen to them. The kids are fine so currently my biggest worries tend to be about being in some sort of accident whilst travelling.

Sometimes I tell myself that worrying makes me more cautious, which means bad things are less likely to happen. This might be true, occasionally. But for the vast majority of the time, worrying has been an utterly pointless exercise which has often stopped me from actually living my life.

Jesus knew that worrying gets in the way of living. For obvious reasons, this is one of my favourite bits in the whole Bible:

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

…Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

(Matthew 6:25-27, 34)

Life is short, and I have already wasted too many of my days worrying about things that could, but probably won’t, happen. Worries often still buzz around my head, but I am learning to swat them away before they land – they are not worth the time and attention.

Living in the Now

When I catch myself worrying about something, I remind myself of this and it really helps. There is absolutely no point living in an imaginary future, or in the past; the only thing we have any control over is this moment right here. Now.

This is what the Buddhist practice of ‘mindfulness’ is all about – awakening our senses and becoming fully aware of the world around us. It’s become so popular recently because lots of people are realising the power of learning to live in the present moment.


I have had a fantastic life so far, nothing really awful has ever happened to me. So every time I have felt low, my mind has been somewhere other than the present. Either dwelling on something that already happened (that seemed far more serious than it was) or worrying about an imaginary future.

The very happiest times in my life all take place when I am fully in the moment, soaking up and enjoying life as it unfolds.

Feeling awestruck by a night sky or a sunset over the sea; eating a meal so delicious I can still taste it now; laughing so hard and for so long that I forgot what was funny in the first place… these things all happened when I was fully present and fully alive. And since I have learnt to stop my mind dragging me away from the ‘now’, these moments have become a lot more frequent.


Children are experts at living in the present moment. 

I don’t often catch my two-year-old daughter fretting over what someone said at playgroup, or worrying about what’s happening tomorrow. When something bad happens she cries, but then it’s very quickly forgotten and she is once again fully immersed in whatever she is doing. She chases Daddy round the garden or Grandma pushes her on the swing and she is utterly delighted. Her whole face lights up and her world is full to the brim with joy. I am slowly learning to be more like her.

Jesus said that the Kingdom of God belonged to little children, and that anyone who wants to enter it would have to become like a child.

I wonder if this is what he was talking about.

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Moods, Mountains and Muddy Windscreens

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There is something about human nature that makes us virtually incapable of appreciating what we have.

We in 21st Century Britain have better living standards than the vast majority of people on Earth and throughout history. We have more food than we could ever need. We are free to do what we like, go where we like, say what we like. There is no real threat to our lives from war, corruption, famine or natural disasters.

Our parents’ and grandparents’ generation fought to the death for the freedom we have today. And as recent news stories have demonstrated, a very large number of people right now are literally giving up everything in the hope that their families might be able to live somewhere like this, free from the horrors of war. Not to have a slightly better house or higher wages, but so they can feed their newborn babies until their bellies are full and they stop screaming from hunger. And for the privilege of being able to watch their children go to school without the fear of seeing them shot in the street.

We are SO lucky. 

So why does it hardly ever feel like it?

It makes me really ashamed actually. But I don’t think we are really any different to anyone else, I think if the Syrian refugees were in our position they would be the same. It’s just a weird part of being human; a sort of blindness, an inability to see things in perspective. Everything is relative and we quickly lose sight of the bigger picture.


Muddy Windscreens

It’s like we are all driving in our little cars around the edge of this astoundingly beautiful crystal clear lake surrounded by breathtaking snow-capped mountains beneath an endless azure sky… but we’ve been driving so long that the windows are completely caked in mud and we can’t see a thing.

Occasionally something happens that wakes us up, we drive under a waterfall (because lakes have waterfalls) and suddenly we can see reality in all its glory. Often it takes something bad to happen – someone getting seriously ill or being involved in a serious accident – to make us wake up, stop examining the specks of dust on our windscreens and appreciate the things that actually matter.

“Don’t it always seem to go…?”


Moods

In my day to day life I now notice what a massive impact my moods have on me, and it’s quite scary. When I’m in a good mood I feel like my windscreen wipers are on and  I’m able to see things in perspective. I feel relaxed, thankful and open minded, and I am understanding and sympathetic towards others. Life feels easy and if I hit a bump in the road I laugh it off and carry on.

When I’m in a bad mood I am impatient, irrational, irritable and closed minded. I can’t see out of the car at all so I try to fix the problem by examining each speck of dust on the dashboard and in the glove compartment. After a while it rains, the windows clear a little and things start to look brighter again. It genuinely feels as if the world has changed, not just my mood.


Around the time I got engaged I was massively freaking out about nothing in particular; one minute I was enjoying the scenery and everything seemed wonderful, and the next minute something ridiculously trivial would trigger a huge emotional breakdown. I wouldn’t be able to see out of my own bad mood at all, and naturally I would want to pinpoint the reason, analyse it and try to fix it.

I gradually became better at understanding the nature of moods and learnt not to take myself so seriously during bad ones. This, along with recognising that my thoughts aren’t real, is one of the most important things I’ve ever learnt to do, and has helped to lift me out of some really dark places (all entirely imaginary of course).

I feel I am coming to the end of the road with the car analogy so let’s try another one…

Storm Clouds

I started to imagine that when I was in a bad mood a big dark cloud was surrounding my head, pelting down negative thoughts like giant hailstones. If I paid too much attention to them they would usually grow even bigger, but if I managed to ignore them long enough eventually the storm cloud would pass over and everything would feel OK again.

It is really, really difficult to ignore your own thoughts, particularly if you feel like the storm cloud has been following you for months. But I’ve found that with practice it really does get a lot easier, and the sky gradually becomes clearer. At the moment my best moods tend to occur in the morning when I’m fuelled up on coffee. (This is basically the same as taking mild anti-depressants, and as there is no sign of a coffee shortage, I’m fine with that.) I will have a dip in mood between about 2pm and 5pm (when the caffeine’s worn off), where I will start thought-swatting again until teatime when everything starts looking better.

I actually started writing this post two days ago at about 3pm, as it was the only time when both kids were asleep. I was struggling to find inspiration, and getting frustrated as I wanted to publish it that evening. I started wondering why I was even writing the stupid thing in the first place, surely no-one was interested and everyone would think I was weird. I felt determined to get it done though, surely I was feeling bad because I wasn’t writing well enough and just had to try harder. I was doing this for about an hour before I realised I was trying to write about bad moods whilst in a bad mood. I started again this morning and it feels completely different and so much easier. This afternoon I know I will feel a bit pants so I will do something else, get on with thought-swatting and wait for my bad mood to pass like I would a headache. Minus the paracetamol.

The world hasn’t changed, despite what my mind is telling me – it’s just that sometimes I can’t see through the clouds.


If I was rich I would buy all the printed copies of Dr. Richard Carlson’s books and send them to everyone I know. He’s probably not the only one to talk about this sort of stuff but that’s where it started for me. I still go back to his books every time I start to lose my way and feel rubbish, and they always make me feel better.

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Happiness and Fly Swatting

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There is this idea ingrained deep in the British psyche that feelings and emotions aren’t important. Stiff upper lip, hold it all in, keep calm and carry on. We just don’t have time for all that foolish emotional nonsense. Well whoever came up with that was an idiot. Our emotions are how we experience the world – if we become emotionally detached and unable to feel the right things at the right times (which is what mental illness does) then we are not really living our lives.

Happiness

We are living in a world that is perpetually trying to convince us that happiness is something we should be striving for, that we can achieve if we just do everything right. If we meet the right man, get a good job, lose that weight, buy that car, wear those shoes, have a baby, go on that holiday… THEN we will surely be happy. I don’t know if you’ve noticed but this doesn’t work. Time and again we reach our goals only to find that the goalposts have moved, that we are still not happy and now need to do something else to achieve happiness. In my previous post I told the story of how I got myself depressed because I was so terrified of being single forever. Three years later my dreams had come true and I was engaged to my perfect man, but the goalposts had moved; my situation was completely wonderful but I was definitely not happy.

I know plenty of people whose lives are fantastic by the world’s standards but who are not happy. I have also met people who have very little and whose lives are very difficult compared to mine, but who are genuinely content. If happiness was something you could achieve by having lots of money and stuff, then judging by global standards, most people in Britain should be ecstatic all the time. The media is constantly telling us lies trying to get us to be more, do more, buy more, when in actual fact most of us have all we need to be content right where we are. I am getting pretty fed up with the negative, cynical mindset I encounter so often which makes people incapable of appreciating what they have; instead they spend their lives moaning and assuming everyone else should be moaning too. Happiness is not a place to arrive at, but a state of mind. A cliché for sure, but I would rather be eternally swimming in a sparkly rainbow sea of clichés than be cynical and miserable.

Paul expresses this same idea in his letter to the church in Philippi:

‘I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.’
(Phil 4:12-13)

This counter-cultural, upside-down way of thinking is still extremely relevant today, if not more so. I am approaching this from a psychological angle – how we can practically retrain our minds to achieve this state of contentment, but in doing so I don’t feel like I am undermining the God aspect. I think God gives us tools and techniques to help keep our minds healthy, just as he gives us hospitals and medicine to keep our bodies healthy.


I have come to believe that everyone starts off being happy, and that our natural state continues to be one of contentment and peace. In this state we respond to things exactly as they happen – we feel sad/angry/scared when bad things happen but we don’t let them get in the way of our appreciating the good things. Children are really good at this. It’s just that as we grow up our minds become filled with thoughts and feelings that cloud our view and prevent us from seeing and experiencing things as they actually are. Some people’s minds are so “clouded” that they believe that is their natural state. As a Christian this directly links to my belief that a fundamental goodness lies at the heart of reality and existence, and that all the bad stuff – however real – will not have the last word.

Thoughts are not real

When we feel bad, it is almost always because of a thought we’ve had, whether we can pinpoint it or not. Our minds are creating thoughts constantly, all the time, and have the amazing capacity to make us feel, believe and do almost anything. One of the most important things I’ve ever learned is that my thoughts are not real. They are just thoughts, and I am creating them – it is how my mind processes what I see and experience. When I have good, happy, positive and loving thoughts I embrace them and use them fully to my advantage. When I have bad thoughts I notice them, but choose to discard them as not worth dwelling on. A lot of the time I can do this before those bad thoughts start to affect how I feel. Sometimes this is really easy, sometimes it takes all my willpower and attention to discard what my mind is trying to convince me is true. I cannot emphasis enough how much this apparently simple and obvious realisation has helped me – realising for the first time that my thoughts weren’t real immediately took away some of their power.

Fly Swatting

It is a very difficult thing at first to learn not to trust your own thoughts. Our minds are very good at convincing us that they represent reality. I think of it as a bit like swatting flies. When I’m in a fairly good mood, some thoughts that I would swat away might be something like:

– “I don’t like how I look, I wish I looked more like…”
– “I wish I didn’t have to work later, I really don’t enjoy it”
– “She is a bit self-obsessed, I don’t like her”
– “I wish I was back in …, that was so fun and this is so boring”
– “I’ve always been rubbish at that so I won’t bother trying”
– “I might have a car crash today” (slightly more alarming but I do think this fairly often)

When I’m in a particularly low mood I will be swatting away thoughts such as:

– “I hate living here, it’s so depressing”
– “Everything’s hopeless, why bother”
– “I thought I was happy before but that was an illusion, this is reality”
– “The world is a bleak, meaningless place”

At the moment I’m pretty good at thought-swatting and rarely let them bury themselves in my brain and make me miserable. They are just minor annoyances that I have learnt to ignore. Of course sometimes I do take my negative thoughts seriously and start to feel rubbish, and I then have to backtrack to see where I went wrong. Moods are a natural part of life, but it is possible to learn to recognise them and not take the bad ones too seriously (more on that later). Life is good at the moment so I find this pretty easy. When I was feeling really low I would have to be putting far more effort in – the thoughts were more like seagulls than flies and I would be swatting them from all angles with a baseball bat. Gradually, though, each time I was able to discard the bad thoughts and start to feel more positive – to return to my natural state of contentment.


So there you have it – the first principle I use every day to tackle my over-active mind. I don’t know much about Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) but I think it is loosely based on this principle. I learned about it through an American psychologist called Richard Carlson whose books I happened to stumble across when I was feeling particularly low and desperate. My favourite is called ‘You Can Be Happy No Matter What’, but he wrote quite a few based on the same common-sense principles – I would recommend his books to anyone, struggling with mental health or not.

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The Story Of My Own Mental Health Wobbles

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This seems like an odd thing to want to shout from the rooftops about. Part of me thinks it is incredibly self-indulgent and no-one will really be interested. Another part (the English part I think) wants to stop all this fluffy, melodramatic nonsense about feelings, swallow it all back down and get on with pretending to be normal. But another part, the part that is shouting loudest, thinks that this sort of stuff isn’t talked about enough, and that a few years ago I would have found it really, really helpful to read something like this. So in the spirit of talking about mental health (see previous post), and on the off chance that there is someone out there who might benefit from reading about my wobbles and what I’ve learnt from them, here goes.


I am a really happy person, probably irritatingly so at times, and have been for a while now. I have my ups and downs, I am human after all, but for the last few years the ups have far outweighed the downs. Clearly this has a lot do with having a lovely husband, two wonderful children, a nice house, etc. But during the first half of my twenties my life was pretty wonderful too – I certainly had nothing to complain about, yet I spent a large chunk of those five years suffering with various forms of depression and anxiety.

As mental illness goes, I have definitely gotten off lightly. Some people will read this and think it sounds like a walk in the park compared to their own experiences. But I do feel like I have had a few small glimpses into what depression and anxiety are like, and those glimpses were so awful that I would go so far as to say I would choose a serious longterm physical condition over a serious longterm mental illness any day. No contest. However, I would also say that I am genuinely grateful to have had those experiences as they have taught me so much about how my mind works, and how a lot of the time it can’t be trusted. Left to its own devices I’m pretty sure my mind would make me utterly miserable. Over the last eight years I feel like I have learnt to recognise when my mind is playing nasty tricks on me, and a lot of the time I am now able to stop it in its tracks.

In my next few posts I will explain some really simple, seemingly obvious and yet profoundly effective principles that have dramatically changed my life, and taught me that it actually is possible to be happy no matter what life brings. To begin with I will set the scene by telling the story of my most significant wobbles to date, and what they felt like.


My First Big Wobble

When I was 20 and in my first year of university, I had “depression” for about 3 months. This is a retrospective self-diagnosis, as I never saw a doctor and at the time was too terrified of that label to accept it. But having done a fair amount of Googling recently I am almost certain that if I had gone to a doctor at the time they would have said I was depressed. Thankfully this lifted gradually of its own accord, and being depressed in those few months is by far and away the worst I have ever felt. Since then it has returned at various times and in various disguises, but has never been quite as bad as that first time.

I kept detailed journals between the ages of about fifteen and twenty-four (something I would definitely recommend doing). Looking back over my journal from my first year of university I can see now how my habit of over-thinking things led to my mood spiralling dramatically downwards. Embarrassingly, it was to do with my being single. This sounds really silly and it is. I had never had a boyfriend, and in the back of my mind had always assumed I would meet my husband at university like how my mum met my dad. After a few months of university and no obvious boyfriend material, I began to wonder what would happen if I didn’t find a husband at university. Looking back on it now it seems so ridiculous to even be thinking that aged 20, but back then that prospect was terrifying. I began to try and be OK with the possibility of longterm singleness, and kept imagining future scenarios without a husband and family, hoping to get to a point where I was happy either way. It was this obsessive thinking about an imaginary future that really started to knock my already very shaky self-confidence and lower my mood.

Within just a few days of starting this obsessive future contingency-planning, I was deep in the worst depression I’ve ever experienced. I felt like I was carrying around rocks in my chest. I tried to go out, hang out with friends, do work, but wouldn’t last long at all before I’d give up and go back to bed. I couldn’t eat, crying felt like a release so I did that a lot. Sleep was an escape once I finally got there, but waking up the rocks would immediately come slamming back down. My head was swarming with tortured thoughts, the world seemed a grim and horrifying place. I felt so emotionally detached that I forgot how to laugh, and often found myself sat in my bedroom longing to be able to cry so at least I was feeling something. I actually think that sort of pain is worse than physical pain, because it is incredibly real but invisible; you don’t know why it’s there but it’s inescapable, and makes you lose all perspective and meaning in life. I never once had thoughts of harming myself (probably because I was lucky enough that the depression didn’t last very long) but I can totally see how those feelings can lead to that. My mind was convincing me that there was no escape – any happiness I had felt before was an illusion, this was reality.

I had this constantly for probably about three days, and then for the next three months I was feeling OK and able to function about half the time, but the other half my mood would swing back down and all those horrible thoughts and feelings would come flooding back. Looking back now I can see that it was an illness – self-inflicted by my over-active brain but still definitely an illness. I should have gone to the doctor, who would probably have recommended I talk to someone regularly and maybe try something like CBT. I didn’t even come close to going to the doctor because I was absolutely terrified of being told I had depression. I didn’t know anything much about depression except that it was really hard to get out of, you had to take medication and it meant you were crazy. So instead I spoke to my friends (who probably thought I was crazy but hid it well), and tried to pray and read the Bible to regain some sense of security and peace. These things undoubtedly helped, but in my mind the issue was still my singleness, and how I either needed to get a boyfriend or be confident enough in myself to survive being single. I can see now that the issue definitely wasn’t my singleness, it was that I was depressed and my mind was constantly playing tricks on me.


The Next Few Wobbles

In my second year of university I was much more confident and my singleness didn’t bother me any more. I had lots of friends and was enjoying the student life. So my next big wobble was about something totally different, but equally embarrassing. I can’t remember why I started thinking about this, but I became absolutely terrified about global warming. Now global warming is a very real and terrifying thing and in some ways this was not an irrational fear. I am a natural-born worrier anyway, but this anxiety became crippling – I couldn’t stop thinking about end-of-the-world scenarios and it seemed to me like they were imminent. I stopped enjoying things, couldn’t concentrate on anything and it was affecting me physically. I suspect this was in a way part of the growing up process – the realisation after my lovely cosy upbringing that I wasn’t immortal and that bad things could happen. That lasted a month or so.

Fast forward two years and I have just got engaged to my dream man. We’d met in my third year of university, he was incredible and I was completely besotted. We started going out about a month after we first met, and getting to know each other in those first few months was a wonderful, exciting, romantic whirlwind. When we started talking about getting engaged, my mind started going into meltdown. I became fixated on tiny things about our relationship that are so ridiculous I am too embarrassed to be specific. I would have extreme mood swings where one minute all was fine, and the next minute the tiniest thing triggered a huge crisis, everything felt wrong and I was in turmoil and blind panic. When we got engaged I was utterly miserable, and this was made worse by the guilt of not feeling what I felt like I ought to be feeling. Strangely, at the time I knew I was being silly. I knew that there was actually nothing wrong, and for that reason the thought never crossed my mind that maybe the relationship wouldn’t work and we should break up. But this didn’t stop me from feeling really, really low a lot of the time. I told my fiancé everything I was feeling, and he would have been fully justified to walk out then on the grounds of me being unstable and completely bonkers a lot of the time. But credit to him, he stayed. I remember really hoping that once we were married this craziness would stop, and thank goodness – I was right. Almost the minute we walked down the aisle all those huge “problems” mysteriously disappeared, and in the years since our relationship has been wonderful.

Since then I have noticed that the times when I feel lowest are when I’m not doing very much. When I was working as a secondary school teacher, almost every holiday and even at weekends, my mood would come crashing down. I started to be able to predict it but it was still horrible, every time I would feel those rocks in my chest and the world would seem like a bleak and hopeless place. I remember walking around a supermarket during one half term thinking how lucky the people around me were to be able to feel normal. Not even happy, just free from the invisible turmoil and pain I was in.

When we first moved to Plymouth I had six months of being in a new place with no job and very little to do, and predictably my mood swings returned. Generally I would feel fine in the morning, then feel really depressed for a few hours in the afternoon, and feel OK again in the evening. I have no idea what caused this but it became a part of life – not fun but manageable. Sometimes I’d feel so low I was unable to do anything except try to sleep until the bad feelings went  away. I began seeing these low moods as similar to a headache or a cold – something that I had to endure but that would eventually pass.

That was nearly three years ago, and since I’ve had children I’ve had no major wobbles.


So that’s the story of my mental health thus far. I hope anyone reading this who is going through anything similar can be encouraged that it’s probably not as bad as it seems, and that there are ways out.

I’ll be referring back to these experiences in my next few posts, where I will talk about a few basic principles I’ve learned that have had a profound impact on my life. I promise they won’t be depressing at all!

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What The Church Needs To Know About Mental Health

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Mental health is a real thing.

It’s not something lazy people have made up so they don’t have to go to work or get out of bed.

Neither is it something that “crazy” people have, that “normal” people don’t. If you have a brain, then mental health affects you.


Ever felt poorly?

We all know that our bodies are truly amazing in their complexity: their ability to process food into energy, to grow and develop, to get us where we want to go, to heal themselves. But we also know that things can go wrong; whether it be a sore throat, a broken leg, diabetes or lung cancer, we are well aware that our bodies are imperfect and vulnerable.

Before the development of modern medicine, people used to attribute physical illness to all sorts of things, and believed in “cures” that today we know to be counter-productive and harmful. A well-known example is blood-letting: for thousands of years people believed that the cause of many, if not most illnesses were caused by “bad blood”, and therefore could be cured by cutting a vein and letting blood drain out. Sometimes leeches were used to suck the blood out. Another delightful example is the practice of “corpse medicine” – the firm belief held for hundreds of years that by consuming the flesh or blood of a recently deceased person, you were gaining some of that person’s “spirit” and “vitality”, and in doing so improving your own health.

With the benefit of hindsight and the wonders of medical science we now see these practices as being harmful and barbaric.


Our minds get poorly too, it’s part of being human

As medical research continues and our knowledge expands, we are beginning to understand a little more of how our brains work. There are now many widely recognised mental disorders that are diagnosed and treated by health professionals. Until surprisingly recently these same disorders would have resulted in institutionalisation; the stereotypical image of a padded cell and a straight jacket were a reality for many. The controversial practice of lobotomy (drilling through the skull and scraping away a piece of the brain) was common practice for much of the Twentieth Century, certainly into the 1960s and possibly even as late as the 1980s. We now view this with incredulity – not dissimilar to how we view the practices of blood-letting and “corpse medicine”.

Mental health is still a very grey area and there is an awful lot we have left still to learn. But if the history of medicine is anything to go by, the fact that we don’t completely understand something doesn’t mean it does not exist or should not be taken seriously. Medical science has identified a wide variety of mental disorders caused by a combination of genetic, biological, physiological and environmental factors, that cause people a great deal of suffering. As with other medical conditions these vary in severity and cause a range of different symptoms. Mental health disorders include stress, anxiety, substance abuse and addictions, phobias, eating disorders, bipolar disorder and depression, psychosis and personality disorders. None of us have perfect physical health; we all get ill from time to time – whether it be with a cold, a sprained ankle or coronary heart disease. In the same way, our mental health fluctuates and impacts our lives, whether we are aware of it or not. Some will be affected by stress or anxiety, others will feel trapped by obsessive behaviour or addiction and some will have more serious, longterm conditions.


What about from a Christian perspective?

As a Christian, I believe that in some mysterious way God wants to heal us and make us whole – spiritually, physically and mentally. We live in a world full of suffering and brokenness; we ourselves are broken and vulnerable, made in God’s image but somehow incomplete or clouded with our human messiness. But we also have this incredible belief that God loves this world enough to want to restore it. And restore us. We have this hope that one day, somehow, everything will be made right, and in the meantime the Holy Spirit compels us to bring healing, hope and restoration wherever we find brokenness. Healing comes in all sorts of forms, often not in the way we would expect. Of course we don’t fully understand it, we never will, and I think that’s OK. But I am convinced that God wants to bring people healing and freedom in this life, not just assurance for the next.

I am fairly certain that God does heal people “supernaturally”. Sometimes. But very few church leaders nowadays would encourage members to rely solely on prayer for physical healing – they would tell them to go to a doctor. By doing this they are not implying that God can’t, or won’t, heal people; they are recognising that God uses doctors and medicine to make people well.


The Drowning Man

I am reminded of the story of the man who was trapped on his roof as his house became surrounded by floodwater. He prayed to God to save him, and waited faithfully and patiently for his prayer to be answered. A neighbour shouted for him to climb into his rowing boat but the man politely declined, assured that his God would save him. A few minutes later a life boat sped towards the house and the crew yelled at him to jump in, but again the man refused. A little while later a helicopter spotted the man stranded on his roof and lowered a rope ladder to him, urging him to climb up before the water swept him away. Again, strong in his faith and confident that the Lord would rescue him, the man refused. Soon afterwards, the flood water rose above the house and the man was swept away to his death. When he got to Heaven the man asked God, I had so much faith that You would save me, why did You let me down? God replied: “I heard your prayer. I sent a rowing boat, a life boat and a helicopter – what more did you expect?”

The church does a lot of damage to people by failing to recognise that mental health is a real thing, and that it needs to be taken as seriously as physical health. People are made to believe that the way they are feeling is a direct result of something they have done, and that praying harder, reading the Bible more or “pulling themselves together” will cure them. In the vast majority of cases this is utterly counterproductive and results in the person’s condition becoming markedly worse. Just as in the story of the drowning man, God has given us the knowledge and understanding to be able to diagnose and treat many mental health problems effectively, and we need to become better at recognising this.


Stop thinking about straight jackets and padded cells

Treatment for mental health problems depends entirely on the severity and nature of the condition, just as with physical health problems. In some cases talking therapies or mindfulness meditation will dramatically improve someone’s mental health; sometimes the problem is caused by a hormonal defect so needs medication, and some conditions require a combination of both.

In society as a whole and in churches in particular, there is still a massive stigma surrounding mental health caused by ignorance and fear. Whilst few of us would admit it, deep down we still associate mental health problems with straight jackets and padded cells. Very few people recognise their own mental health problems (because they’re scared of ending up in a padded cell), which in many cases means they are left untreated until they become utterly debilitating and even life-threatening. What would we say to someone who found a lump in her breast and refused to go to the doctor? There are obvious flaws in this analogy but considering the number of deaths each year caused by stress-related illness or depression, it is certainly worth taking seriously.


What can we do?

1. Realise that mental health affects everyone, not just the “crazies”

If you have never suffered with a serious mental health problem, count yourself incredibly lucky. But if you have ever felt stressed, acted in anger and regretted it afterwards or had an irrational fear of something, then your mental health is not perfect. If this still doesn’t apply to you then congratulations, you are superhuman.

2. Recognise mental health problems in others, and urge them to seek help

If you think someone is suffering with some form of mental health problem, suggest that they should do something about it. Take a break, go on a mindfulness course, see a doctor, have counselling, take medication if necessary. Don’t make them feel that they have in some way failed at life if they have to do any of these things. If your friend showed up with a serious rash or a broken arm you would not tell them to “buck up” or “pull themselves together”.

3. If someone is struggling, treat them with love, care and respect. Pray for them but do it sensitively!

If you know someone is having treatment for a mental health problem:

  • Ask them how they are and really LISTEN to what they say.
  • Be prepared to help in practical ways if that’s what they ask for.
  • Make the effort to build a relationship with them and don’t exclude them.
  • Don’t be scared to ask about their condition from a place of genuine concern, it helps if people understand what’s going on.
  • Ask them how they would like to be prayed for, and pray for them.
  • Understand that the symptoms of mental health problems often affect a person’s mood and personality. If they are having a particularly hard time don’t be offended if they’re not their usual friendly selves!

DON’T:

  • …pray for healing and expect an immediate result. Maybe it happens sometimes, and that’s great. But most of the time it just piles pressure onto the person and ends up with them feeling like they need to fake it.
  • ..make it your own personal agenda to see them supernaturally healed. Pray for them by all means, but accept that healing for many is a long and complex process.
  • …force them to be prayed for. In people who have been prayed for on a number of occasions with no obvious result this can cause confusion, upset and more damage. God heals in His own time and in His own way!
  • …make the mistake of thinking that all mental health problems are the same. Just as with physical health, some things get better quickly and completely, while some are longterm conditions that you have to learn to live with. If in doubt, don’t be afraid to ask.
  • …be so scared of saying something wrong that you don’t talk to them at all – as long as you’re saying it out of genuine love and concern and with sensitivity it will be appreciated!

4. Spread the word

The stigma and ignorance surrounding mental health will only go away if people talk about it more. So don’t be shy, start talking about it!


These are all my own thoughts and observations based on what I have read and experienced, I am not a health professional or a trained theologian. I would welcome any comments or disagreements – my aim is to start the conversation.

If you’d like to discuss with me any issues raised in my blog posts but would prefer not to write a public comment, you can email me at musicineverysound@gmail.com.

For more information and ideas on how the church can support people with mental health problems have a look at the Mental Health Action Pack from Mind and Soul and Livability.

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