This may surprise some, but I don’t write-off my entire Christian past as negative. The relationship I have with that life stage is a complex and nuanced one, and I learned a lot through this time – through people, experiences and community.
My mental health as a Christian teenager regularly fluctuated. I had my highs: where I was productive, thriving, happier, and my lows, which saw me running on empty. Applying an ASD lens, I recognise these ‘lows’ as not only anxiety and depressive episodes, but often the result of autistic burnout left unattended.
In context, this makes total sense. School is an exhausting place for an autistic kid – you’re surrounded by people all day, and social interaction is normalised and expected. The number of times I spent freaked out about who to sit with at lunchtime so I didn’t look like a loner were significant. While I definitely had friends, I struggled to know who were my closer friends and had my foot in many different friend groups. These relationships dwindled and shifted through the middle high school years, but I always felt like everyone was better friends with other people than with me.
My faith was a safe refuge from the confusing world of friendships, and my church and youth group communities provided me with structured social interaction where I was not expected to carry a conversation or know what to say.
At youth group, I learned a journalling exercise to identify emotions. To work in a secular context, it definitely needs some tweaks, but I think what makes it so cool is that it’s (probably) grounded in psychological methods. The original exercise went ~something~ like this:
- What am I feeling? (Identify & Explain)
- What caused it? Can I identify the origin?
- What does god say? (i.e. peruse God’s word for biblical wisdom)
- What am I going to do about it? How can I employ what god says about this?
As an autistic human, I can struggle a lot to process my emotions and understand what they are. I found this exercise tremendously helpful in locating myself in space, unpacking the places my mind was going to, and regaining control by identifying a practical next step.
I would secularify it as the following:
- Identify your feelings
- Pinpoint their origin: why are you feeling this way? What began this (negative) thought process?
- What would [god, Jesus, Allah, Buddha, a close friend, your partner, a parental figure, mentor etc] say about this? How might they interpret this differently from you?
- What are you going to do about it? How can you help yourself?
If you’re a film buff or a bookworm you could even draw from a quotation or piece of literature that could apply in this context. I gain a lot from reflecting on various whakataukī (Māori proverbs) and whakatauakī (quotations of both tūpuna Māori and significant Māori figures today).
Te Reo Māori loves a good compound word. If you break down those kupu, you’re left with the following –
- whaka: to cause/make X happen
- tau: calm, at peace, grace, settled, resolved, to land
- kī: to say, express, utter, tell, mention; to be full
So a whakataukī is literally a saying that induces calm and peacefulness in order to settle oneself. Stunning, right? Feckkkk – te reo is a beauty.
Can you tell I enjoyed studying reductionism in my undergraduate degree? That’s an outright lie – but it’s definitely better than holism.
Remedying Mental Illness with God
This is a slippery slope – I could spend many posts discussing this topic. The exercise above combines religious thought with psychology, and while it didn’t do me any long-term favours, it was extraordinarily helpful in that time, place and context. The practice of writing out thoughts and feelings has always been a coping mechanism for me, and a way to express myself. Hence the relentless stream of consciousness and organised chaos that this blog has become.
Where it gets sticky is when much like the ‘pray the gay away’ phenomenon that swept the Christian masses once upon a time*, well-meaning buffoons decide that solving depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, PTSD, borderline personality disorder – are solvable by the grace of god. I suppose in a way, if you genuinely believe god is a miracle-maker, it’s consistent to expect he could rid someone of their mental illness. However, in practice, most sensible Christians know it doesn’t work like that.
*Unfortunately in many parts of the world – NZ included –this practice continues
Expecting mental illness to vanish through prayer alone is not only fruitless, it’s down right irresponsible. I don’t believe in prayer, so from my lens it serves a sole purpose of soothing the participating parties – but I can appreciate for that for some, it’s a dual approach. If you’re a mentally unwell Christian, or you are a believer supporting a depressed individual, by all means, pray. But most importantly, seek *secular* professional help.
I cannot stress the ‘secular’ part enough. ‘Nuff said.