Sarah and Bekah are hosts of A Drop in the Bucket, a podcast in which they use the analogy of a stress bucket to speak with guests about what affects their mental health and what helps them to cope and feel well. As Christians, they are also actively involved in their local church and seek to make it a place that supports people with all aspects of their wellbeing.
In the following conversation, Sarah and Bekah share the influence of their faith on their own journeys of mental health, and discuss whether the church is living up to its calling as a supportive, flourishing community.
How has your faith influenced your understanding and experience of mental health?
SARAH: When I was depressed, I didn’t lose my faith and I never felt alone. I feel very fortunate, because I know that is not the case for everybody. What was interesting for me is that believing that I have a hope in Jesus didn’t change that fact that there was a period of time where I didn’t want to be here anymore. If anything it made me think: maybe I’ll just go to Jesus a bit early. It still felt incredibly dark.
In the crux of my personal ill mental health, although I continued to believe in God, it was like I went back to this primal state where I couldn’t verbally pray, but my heart was screaming out. I wasn’t cross at God, I just didn’t feel an awful lot other than that I wanted this to stop. Reflecting back now, I always felt like God was with me, and that made a huge difference, because as soon as I did start to feel hope again, as soon as I had medication and therapy and my mental health became well, having that extra hope in Jesus made a big difference.
BEKAH: I struggled most with my mental health after I had a miscarriage and then later after my son was born because the birth was really traumatic. I don’t think I’d really dealt with the miscarriage, and the second pregnancy happened quite soon afterwards so I was trying to deal with two things at the same time. A lot of people felt like I should have been over the first one, as if it had fixed itself somehow, but the birth was very traumatic, and then having a baby is generally traumatic; I don’t understand how anybody is not traumatized by this! You are incredibly sleep deprived, and everything is so much worse when you don’t sleep. It was just a very messy time.
Like Sarah said, I’ve felt this sense of never being alone, which is the most important thing for me. Driving back from the early pregnancy assessment unit, having had this miscarriage just diagnosed, I screamed at God until my throat hurt: why didn’t you save my baby? When I got home, I genuinely couldn’t talk. And then that was it. It sounds really weird, but I didn’t blame God after that. I obviously had questions, but I didn’t want answers; what I wanted was comfort, and I feel like I got that from God and from the people around me. But this is a faith that has been built and invested in and encouraged over a very long time in ways that I’m not sure I can explain and ways that I am probably not even aware of.
Believing that I have a hope in Jesus didn’t change that fact that there was a period of time where I didn’t want to be here anymore... It still felt incredibly dark.
S: It’s worth saying that Bekah and I both relate in an emotion-based way, so a lot of our faith is built around connection and emotional reactions. In a way, mental health is very much a part of that; it’s about what’s going on in your brain and your heart and your emotions. In those hard times, we don’t default to needing concrete answers, we default to needing comfort and peace. We believe we get that from God, so that’s probably why for both of us, even in those hard times, our faith has remained.
B: One of the most useful things that anyone has ever said to me about faith is: Christianity is a relationship, not a religion. I’m a very relational person, but it’s not that I go, ‘I feel some emotions, and I feel God, so I’m just going to ignore intellectual arguments.’ I enjoy learning on an intellectual level about Church history and looking at the Bible and theology, but when I learn those things, it’s not evidence for me of God; it is me getting to know someone better. It’s like learning something about a person that you already love.
In what ways is the Church a positive place for people experiencing mental ill health?
S: One of the things that the Church does really well – when it does it well – is community. It’s about having a family outside of your own family, so when you have hard things going on in life, you’ve got a group of people that show up for you. I think you have to work quite hard to replicate that outside of an institution like a church; there are plenty of people who do it with friendship groups, but to find something that’s so intergenerational and crosses different jobs and cultures is a challenge. If a church is looking after people and treating mental health with the same importance as it does physical health, then that is an incredible thing.
B: The Church should be a place where no one ever feels like they’re finished, where everyone appreciates that you are on a journey, that you are learning and you don’t know everything. The fact that people in our community are struggling and we don’t get it is then another time to learn. Churches that don’t value learning and growth are really awful places to be, because you can walk through the door, not fit, and you are immediately back out that door. If a church sees themselves as a community that is committed to learning and growing and welcoming, then there will be a place for you.
Where are some of the areas that the Church needs to learn and grow in?
S: I found this a talk by Katharine Welby-Roberts, Justin Welby’s daughter, who has experienced mental ill health, she said, ‘There is still a prevalence in the Church of people believing that ill mental health is due to a lack of faith in God. If you do happen to agree with that, can I suggest you take a minute to reflect on it? Because you’re wrong.’
In a way, because mental health is often less tangible than a physical ailment, the Church can seem to say that all you need to do is just pray a bit harder. One talk I heard said it like this: if you truly knew the joy of the Lord, you would never be depressed. The implication is that if you are depressed or have ill mental health, then you are somehow missing an element of faith, and the idea you have ill mental health because you haven’t prayed enough, or believed enough, or been joyful enough, is so damaging.
I truly believe in a God that heals, but he doesn’t always, and I don’t understand the reasons for that. Mental ill health can put you in such a vulnerable place – physical ill health does the same thing – and you’ve got people around you saying that it’s because of you. It’s your own fault.
B: No one has ever gone to therapy to work out why they’re struggling with the way that they’re feeling and come out of it with a really long list of all the things they’ve ever done wrong. They come out with a better understanding of why things that have happened to them in their lives have hurt them so much, and why they respond in certain ways to certain situations. There’s then a responsibility that follows of: how are you going to take that forward and be a better person?
We can all be better people, but it’s a lot of unpicking past hurt and trauma, and that doesn’t need to be something big and obvious. What Sarah heard in that talk is as though someone said: ‘If you just have enough faith in God, those things won’t bother you, or they won’t happen to you’. The Bible says, ‘In this life, you will have troubles,’ so how does that fit with a theology that also says: ‘but at the same time, if you are a good enough Christian, then you won’t be bothered by it’? If you’re not bothered by stuff, you’re not having troubles, so which is it?
S: We had a lovely girl called Rowan on the podcast who talked about anxiety and about how it’s her brain telling her that something is so precious that she’s worried about losing it or something happening to it. When we worry about things, it’s because we care, and that is something that God asks us to do: to have concern for ourselves and for others.
No one has ever gone to therapy to work out why they’re struggling with the way that they’re feeling and come out of it with a really long list of all the things they’ve ever done wrong.
B: There has also been this separation of visible and invisible wellbeing; this isn’t just a criticism of the church, but society as a whole. There’s the physical stuff – we can also put the financial and relational stuff in there – and then there is the spiritual and emotional and mental. They get lumped together as the ‘invisible wellbeings’, but while they are all linked, they are still separate. Your spiritual wellbeing and your mental wellbeing can be in two very different places; you can have an incredibly strong, dedicated prayer life and know the joy of the Lord, and you can still be mentally unwell, because they are two different dimensions. It’s all linked, but it is not as straight-forward as what we can see and touch, and what we can’t.
One message that seems to underlay a lot of Church teaching is that because our identity is in Jesus, we’re worthless without him. Is it possible to build a holistic, healthy identity that includes faith but doesn’t make it something that detracts from individual worth or personality?
S: Sometimes there’s a misconception that your identity in Christ is exclusive of anything else. I prefer to think that my identity in Christ as the plate upon which all the other parts of my identity sit; it still underpins the whole of my life, but my identity also includes the fact that I love doing art, I’m really passionate about mental health, I’m a teacher, a friend, a daughter, and now a fiancé! I think it’s wrong that if your whole identity is in Christ, there’s no room for anything else.
B: There’s an element of still seeing what’s most important; so Sarah wouldn’t say that all of the aspects of her identity that she’s just listed are on par. I always think of the scene from the Lion King when Mufasa comes back on the clouds and says, ‘Remember who you are: you are my son.’ He’s not saying anything about any other part of Simba’s identity there, he’s saying: when you remember that you are my son, how does that affect what you do? What he does is go back and fight and make friends with warthogs. When you remember that you are God’s child, how does that then affect you? Because that is a part of your identity that is unshakeable and unchanging. There are so many parts of our identity that shift – I will not be the mother of a toddler forever – and that’s ok and that’s normal. Some of them will shift gradually and some of them very suddenly.
There’s this idea in the Church that you should become more like God, and therefore the aim is for all of these different kinds of people and personalities to all become like this, because this is what God’s like, and you’re all getting it wrong in all sorts of different ways. God is too big to have made any of us in his whole image. He has given tiny, little fragments of himself to everybody and that’s going to look wonderful and diverse and different. What it means then for people to have their identity in Christ is going to look different to different people. That’s what the Church gets wrong a lot of the time, thinking that we will all become cybermen where we’ve all got the same message and all walk the same way!
S: Which is why the Church ends up excluding people who don’t fit what they think a Christian looks like. I believe there are primary and secondary issues within faith; fundamentally, believing that God exists as our father, that Jesus died for our sins, and that the Holy Spirit lives in us now, are the three things that you should hopefully agree on as a Christian. People are going to have differing views on everything else. You see this in the conversation around evolution and creation and what people believe the Bible says about it. There has to be an acceptance that we’re not going to think the same on those things, and actually, isn’t it great that we’re not all the same and that we can learn from each other?
B: It’s like when you go to an escape room and you start out with four different envelopes that are given to four different people; what would be the point if everyone had the same thing in their envelope? It would be great if we were able to bring together four different ways of seeing, but instead it’s expected that everyone will open the envelope and… oh good, God’s given us exactly the same message so we can all agree.
B: Well exactly, I don’t think that’s very fun.
Sexuaity and gender identity are increasingly recognised as factors which impact people’s mental wellbeing, especially within the Church. How can the Church be a place of support to these people?
B: There’s evidence that a young person who identifies as non-binary or transgender is a ridiculous amount less likely to suffer from mental ill health and a lot less likely to attempt suicide if the people in their lives use their preferred pronouns. That is not a hard thing to do to keep someone alive and feeling loved. I understand some of the reasons that people might struggle with this. For example, parents have chosen a name that they want to give to their child; there’s an emotional connection there. But ultimately, someone is coming to you and saying, ‘This is how I’d like you to refer to me.’ Regardless of any of your opinions on the subject, that is an unbelievably basic request. I don’t think that is a difficult thing for us to do within the Church, for us to normalize the fact that when people ask us to respect them, that we do it.
There are a lot of thoughts and opinions reigning over the conversations about gender and sexuality, asking, what should we do? Fundamentally it’s the same as we should always have been doing about everything: love and respect people.
I had these CDs growing up, Psalty the Singing Songbook, and I will evangelise about these all day long – I just think they’re brilliant! I’ve been listening to them again with my son who loves having them on in the car. There’s one that’s called Salvation Celebration where they’re doing this whistle stop tour on a train, performing at the different stations to spread the gospel. As they’re talking about their friends, they ask, ‘How do we tell them about Jesus?’ The blue songbook says, ‘First of all, it’s important just to love them.’ I was so struck by that. There are a lot of thoughts and opinions reigning over the conversations about gender and sexuality, asking, what should we do? Fundamentally it’s the same as we should always have been doing about everything: love and respect people. That is what we do first.
S: In the Church, like in wider society, we have this culture where it’s deemed ok to judge and criticize people that you don’t know. Whereas actually, it shouldn’t be acceptable to go, ‘I don’t know you, but I think this about your life…’ We both feel very strongly that God calls us to love people first and foremost. This also comes back to what Bekah was saying earlier about Church being a place where we’re willing to learn and grow. We would both say that we are still learning and growing in terms of how we can best support Christians and non-Christians around gender and sexuality. If we don’t always know how to handle a situation of refer to someone, it has to be ok to ask.
B: The reason we get anxious about messing it up is because we care about getting it right for that person, and right for one person is not right for another. These conversations need to move beyond, ‘You people over there, we need to understand you.’ It’s instead being able to open up conversations about identity, which we all have! How can we all be encouraged to step outside of the boxes that we’ve been put in? I really respect and appreciate the fights of people who have gone, ‘I don’t want to be comfortable, I want to be me,’ because it allows everyone to do the same.
What is your vision for how the Church should be?
S: I would want it to be a reflective demographic of society. You can’t force people to believe, but I would hope that anybody, regardless of your race, gender, sexuality, background, mental health or physical health, can be a part of the Church. My fear is that at the moment this is just not true, because overall the Church is not a place that welcomes mess. As humans, we are fundamentally messy, no one has their life sorted all the time or fits this perfect box that people seem to think exists. The beauty comes in the different pieces we can bring together and how we can learn from each other. I would love Church to be a place that not only allows that to happen, but encourages and celebrates it. Bekah had a phrase about ‘beautiful disruptions.’ There are a lot of beautiful disruptions that are going to need to happen before we get to that place, but I really look forward to those happening!
B: A place where nobody sees Church as just about coming on a Sunday, but where Church is a community doing things together and supporting each other. Where people feel that there is a place for them, but not just in a way which says, ‘We will look after you and support you because you are a mess and we are here to help you’; but a church where there is a place for you here because you can contribute and teach, and you are going to be valued the same as everybody else. We will all give and we will all take at different times; there’s no hierarchy here of who gets to be a better Christian.
S: I would also love Church to be not just for those who are Christians and are within the building, but that we are known as a community of people who turn up for others regardless of whether or not you believe in our God. Our church has the most incredible food bank, and you don’t have to turn up and say, ‘I believe in God, can I have some food please?’ There is a need and we have a heart for meeting that need; I would love that to be more of the thing we’re known for. I would love if the stereotypical Christian on a US drama show wasn’t the white supremacist with a gun who was killing people because they’re gay, but rather if it was somebody who is willing to open their home for anybody.
B: If the church is going to be more like Christ, just look at who Jesus spent his time with.
S: He rarely was in a church building.
B: And when he was, he made a big mess of the tables!