Tag Archives: Mental Illness

Heidi Dirks: Mental Health FAQ

Mental Health Initiative 2018

Note: This article is intended to provide general information and is not a substitute for professional assessment and interventions.

What causes mental illness?

In general, mental illnesses are caused when our brain doesn’t work the way it’s meant to. This can be due to a combination of physical factors such as genetics, a physical injury or substance use, or environmental and social factors such as experiencing war, trauma, the stress in our lives, and our access to social supports when we need help.

For example, symptoms of depression may be caused by low levels of serotonin in the brain, a chemical in the brain that carries signals between cells. We don’t fully understand what causes mental illnesses, or why some illnesses seem to run in families even though not every family member develops the illness.

While sin in our life, or sins perpetrated by others, can sometimes contribute to symptoms of a mental illness, mental illnesses are not caused by sin or a lack of faith. For example, an individual may develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after being assaulted, where someone else’s sin impacted their life and they developed a mental illness as a result of the trauma they experienced.

I’ve been feeling sad lately. Am I depressed?

It’s normal to feel sad sometimes. Maybe you have experienced a loss, are in the midst of a life transition, or are feeling isolated from supportive people in your life. Psalm 42 gives voice to feelings of distress in the midst of seeking God, asking “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me?” (verse five). There are many examples of sadness, desperation, and despair in the Psalms.

When a mental health professional talks about depression they are referring to a mental illness that is diagnosed based on criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5). There are different types of depression, but often when people talk about depression they are meaning Major Depressive Disorder. The symptoms listed in the criteria for this diagnosis need to be severe enough to significantly interfere with your daily life. Feeling sad doesn’t necessarily mean that you have depression; it may mean that you need some extra support right now, but you may meet criteria to be diagnosed.

If you are wondering if you have depression, talk to your doctor or a mental health worker. They can help walk you through an assessment, a possible diagnosis, treatment options, and connect you to supports in your life.

Is it okay for Christians to take medication for a mental illness? I’m also afraid about the side effects of medication.

Yes, it’s perfectly okay! As mental illnesses are likely caused by a combination of factors (physical, environmental, and social), medication can be a critical part of treating a mental illness. For example, medications known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI’s) are a commonly prescribed antidepressant, and they work to increase serotonin levels in the brain which lessens the symptoms of depression caused by low levels of serotonin. Just as Christians take medication for physical illnesses such as diabetes and bronchitis, sometimes we take medication for mental illnesses.

If your doctor is recommending medication, ask questions about the benefits and risks of the medication, including what side effects there may be. This will help you make an informed decision about whether you choose to take the medication. If you are already taking medication, don’t change your dose or stop taking the medication without first talking with your doctor. There may also be other treatment options, such as therapy/counselling, that a doctor can recommend.

Can people diagnosed with a mental illness recover from it?

Absolutely! But recovery will look different for each individual person. It may mean that the symptoms of the mental illness mostly go away, or that the individual learns to live a full life with the symptoms still present. Medication and therapy may be an important part of a person’s recovery.

But part of recovery is also finding hope and meaning in life. Christians find hope in God’s love for and offer of salvation, and they may find strength and meaning from spiritual practices such as prayer and reading scripture.

As well, social supports that come with being part of a faith community can be an important part of recovery. In the March 2018 edition of The Messenger, Irene Ascough wrote about how churches can promote positive mental health. These practices are helpful for all people, regardless of whether or not they currently struggle with a mental illness.

If I think someone is thinking about suicide, should I avoid bringing up the topic?

If you’re concerned that someone is thinking about suicide you can directly ask them if they are thinking of hurting or killing themselves. If their answer is “yes,” let them know that you care and make sure that they get help.

If they are in immediate danger, don’t leave them alone, reach out to crisis services (such as a local mental health crisis line) or emergency services (911-EMS, your local hospital emergency room). Look up your local crisis numbers and put them in your phone so you have them available if a crisis comes up.

If you want to be more prepared to respond to someone who is thinking about suicide, Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) is an excellent two-day training that will give you skills to assess suicide risk and respond to the situation. Living Works (www.livingworks.net) offers training for ASIST and other suicide awareness training programs.

I’m trying to read my Bible and pray more. Why do I still feel anxious?

Spiritual practices including reading scripture and prayer can be an important part of a person’s mental wellness. If practices that have been lifegiving to you in the past are no longer enough to help you cope with feelings anxiety, perhaps some additional wellness practices or mental health interventions are needed.

If reading scripture and prayer is done because you feel pressured or not doing so is making you feel guilty, you could speak to your pastor or a spiritual mentor for encouragement and to explore ways to connect with God.

What’s the difference between a counsellor, psychologist, and psychiatrist?

Counsellors (may also be called a counselling therapist, therapist, psychotherapist) have a range of backgrounds, which may include a master’s or doctorate degree in counselling or a related field. Some Canadian provinces have regulated the counselling profession where practitioners must meet certain requirements in order to be licensed/accredited, but others have no regulation and it is up to consumers to check a counsellor’s education and credentials.

Psychologists have graduate level training in the field of psychology, with a focus on research as well as assessment and practice in treating mental illnesses. In order to work as a psychologist, practitioners must be licensed by their local regulatory body (such as the Psychological Association of Manitoba).

A psychiatrist is a medical doctor specializing in mental health, and they are able to prescribe medication. As a medical doctor, they are regulated by their province in the same way as your family doctor. The distinction between these three professionals becomes important when you are looking for specific mental health services, as well as with the cost of services.

Psychiatric services are covered through the health care system, and private insurance plans may cover services from psychologists and/or counsellors. Talk to your doctor or a mental health worker where you live to find out what options you have available to you.

Heidi Dirks

If you would like to see a Christian counsellor or psychologist, ask your pastor for information of clinicians in your area, or look on the websites of professional associations (such as the Professional Association of Christian Counsellors and Psychotherapists).

Heidi Dirks, BEd, MA (counselling), is a member of the EMC’s Mental Health Initiative committee and the Board of Church Ministries. She is part of Aberdeen EMC.

Irma Janzen: Supporting People Who Live With Mental Illnesses

Mental Health Initiative 2018

by Irma Janzen

People who live with a mental illness have been my teachers! I have learned a lot about life from what they model and what they say. Almost everything I have learned about how best to support them I have learned from them, and that is what I pass along to you.

However, before we begin with those kinds of tips, let’s think a little bit about love and how that includes treating all people with dignity, respect and sensitivity. As Christians this is our starting place and let’s let 1 Corinthians 13 be our guide.

I know that it is not always easy to treat people with dignity and respect, and this may be even more difficult when a person’s thinking is distorted, delusional, or hallucinated because of an illness. The person may simply not be able to think rationally or logically, and if we have not experienced this ourselves it is hard to understand what that person is going through.

A Willingness to Learn is Essential

First, be willing to learn about mental illnesses. Local mental health services, medical clinics and self-help groups have lots of resources. Articles, podcasts and many other resources are available on the internet. Here are some good places to start:




Second, learn to listen and be willing to learn from the person with the illness. Listen attentively and non-judgementally. I do not know how the other person is feeling and I may not understand. I need to be the learner. I also need to listen to what may be under the words. I need to listen to the tone and observe. I need to be okay to sit silently, to see the tears or to hear a tirade of anger. I need to be ready to listen for a while. It may not be enough to give only half an hour while watching the clock.

Be Quick to Listen and Slow to Speak

Be slow to speak. I must not think I have the answers or that a quick, short, simplistic solution will be helpful. If and when I ask questions they need to reflect back to the person what he or she has said. Or I could ask open-ended questions to encourage them to say more. Comments like, “Tell me a little more about what you just said,” or “You said you were really feeling down” are examples of questions that can encourage further talking.

There may come a time when I encourage someone to find more resources or to try something but that needs to wait until I have really heard and listened. Be careful of the attitude of “You can fix this if you just do this or that.”

There are times when it may be appropriate to divert the direction of the conversation. Continuing to listen to stories and incidents that repeat consistently may not be helpful. Some people can get very emotionally engrossed in talking about what they experience as reality through delusions or hallucinations. Changing the topic to another emotional topic may break the pattern and turn it in another direction.

Tips on Being a Good Friend

One thing I still sometimes forget is that when we meet casually I need to say, “It’s good to see you” rather then saying, “How are you?”

Many people who live with serious mental illnesses have already been disappointed with people who seem to be really good friends for a while and then disappear. They don’t need more of that. However, you may need to pace yourself carefully so as not to over expend and then drop someone when you are exhausted. Agreeing on a next time to meet and putting it into our calendars is often good. In that way we don’t forget, but it’s also a way of setting healthy boundaries.

It is often helpful to gather a small circle of people who will all be part of the person’s life. No one person can meet all my needs, so I should not try to be the person who can meet all the needs of someone else.

Being remembered is important. A quick text to say, “I love you,” or a note saying, “I was thinking of you today,” or (if appropriate), “I am praying for you,” are quick ways of letting the person know that he or she is not forgotten.

Some people would enjoy a party for their birthday or being invited to a Christmas party. Some might prefer a one-on-one visit. It’s easy enough to ask what they prefer.

There are times to take a meal, do the laundry, offer childcare or go to an appointment.

It is also good to invite people to contribute with their gifts. I remember a woman who hand-drew beautiful bulletin covers. I know that was in the pre-computer days, but maybe some people would enjoy hand-drawn bulletin covers in 2018 too. That’s just one idea to start you thinking creatively.

Spiritual Support

This is very important for Christians. When God seems far away, as sometimes happens when a person has a serious mental illness, some people want us to be praying with them. Others don’t. Some want a comforting Bible verse; some don’t. Let’s never assume that because a person does not want prayer at a certain time that they are not in a solid relationship with God. Maybe their faith is even stronger and more meaningful then mine. Maybe they are tired of platitudes when their prayers are cries and laments. It is appropriate to ask, “Would you appreciate a prayer or a Psalm or would you just prefer to sit in silence or to chat?”

The same caution applies to touch. Do we hug or shake hands? Ask. See what the person wants and go with that. People who have been hurt by touch may pull back if you seek to touch. Others are hungry for physical touch because they hardly ever experience it.

If we seek to be supportive and the person does not seem warm to our friendship or does not reply to a message, let’s not take that too personally. If we have made a mistake or done something unkind we need to apologize, but it may not have been a good day or there was a reason they couldn’t reply. Try again later.

As with any relationships supporting and learning from people who live with a mental illness takes love, time and sensitivity. I already referred to 1 Cor. 13. A metaphor that may be helpful is the one about the body in 1 Cor. 12 where we have the idea of the faith community being one body and all of us significant members of that body. If some part of our body suffers we all suffer. If the whole body functions well and together we have a strong and healthy body.

Irma Janzen

While this article speaks specifically about supporting people with mental illness, we all need support, sometimes more, sometimes less. Let’s accept the gifts that people with mental illness bring to our community so that indeed we are one body and that people around us recognize us by our love for each other.

Irma Janzen, MEd, MA, has served in education, as the coordinator of MCC Canada’s Mental Health and Disabilities Program, and as a pastor. She is part of Fort Garry EMC.

Andrew Walker: Relating to Others Through Senua’s Sacrifice

By Andrew Walker

The Board of Church Ministries is tentatively exploring a Mental Health Initiative that could be partly reflected in The Messenger. Stay tuned for more information.

The initiative fits well with a current video game I have been making my way through for the past few weeks, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, by developer and publisher Ninja Theory (Rated: M). Writing about video games may be something new for The Messenger, but as the saying goes, “Write what you know.” 

Senua’s Sacrifice is an unusual game in that it is more focused on a deeper understanding of mental illness and fostering empathy for those that have it. The protagonist is afflicted by “psychosis,” a mental disorder that has many potential causes with symptoms such as hallucinations, delusions, and catatonia.

The developer has spent significant time and care creating this narrative, and Senua’s mental state is more than just a gimmick. The mental health advisor Dr. Paul Fletcher and nonprofit Wellcome Trust are given top billing as the game begins. Fletcher is a psychiatrist and professor of Health Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge.

The story follows Senua on her Dante-esque journey through the Celtic/Norse underworld of Helheim to find her lost love, Dillian. Throughout the journey not only does Senua have to face the trials set before her, but also those of her own mind.

The player is constantly asked to question their reality through the use of distorted visuals and a constant bombardment from the voices in Senua’s head that at times can be trusted and at others not. Explaining it in a few sentences will not do the experience justice.

At times it can be nearly impossible to make decisions based on the conflicting information thrown at the player by the six voices Senua hears.

I found that I was being told specifically what I should do to succeed, but I had begun to just ignore all of the sound I was hearing. It took several failed attempts in an encounter for me to realize that my coping attempts were hurting my progress.

This mimics an exercise that many mental health professionals will use when trying to inform people about psychosis. Volunteers attempt to maintain a conversation while they are bombarded with conflicting statements from people around them. In living with a condition, some struggling people shut out the real conversation around them—and we need to be understanding.

Andrew Walker

While the narrative structure of Senua’s Sacrifice takes a Norse framework, there is much that we can learn from this game. It allows for an amount of empathy that I have not previously found in books or other media.

The game forces the player to experience the frustration and paranoia that those with psychosis and schizophrenia deal with in many of their daily interactions with others. It demonstrates the patience needed for us to love our neighbours who suffer from this all too common condition and allows us to walk a mile or two in the shoes of those we don’t often hear about.