Arianna Walker: How a family trauma inspired me to tackle women's mental health issues

Arianna Walker longs to see the Church admit to its brokenness, develop the tools to live free and then reach out from a place of wholeness.

She runs Mercy Ministries UK, which provides a six-month Christian residential discipleship programme for girls aged 18-28 who are battling life-controlling issues such as self-harm, addictions and depression.

The background story of how she came to be involved in the ministry is compelling. She first heard the founder of Mercy Ministries, Nancy Alcorn, speak at her local church, Abundant Life Church. When she heard Alcorn's vision of mercy, "something came alive in me and I knew I would be involved with the ministry some day".

Around the same time Walker's sister, Debbie, who is ten years younger, went to live with her. They are a Christian family, her father a pastor, but all of them thought her 15-year-old sister was simply being rebellious and that time away from the 'bad crowd' she had got involved with was what she needed.

No one in the family had any idea that Debbie had been abused from the age of 12 by a man in his twenties. For three years this paedophile groomed her and the behaviour was a result of the trauma she had experienced.

As a family they went on a huge journey simply trying to understand how to deal with "why bad things happen to a good person, up close and personal". 

"When I first prayed my prayer to be involved in reaching broken young women I had images of hundreds of nameless, faceless young women in mind," Walker says. "I didn't realise the first young woman I would come across would be my sister and the first home I would ever open would be my own home.

"Walking that journey with her of what Christian brokenness looks like was a big learning curve for me, because it's different when there's that element of having known God yet this awful thing had happened to her. The big issue for her was trying to work out where He fits – where is He when it hurts?"

She gave her sister a book produced by Mercy Ministries, which had a huge impact as it showed her that she wasn't alone. Debbie decided to apply to Mercy Ministries and became the first girl from outside the US to spend time at the US Mercy Ministries house.

The programme gave her the time and space to work through the trauma using a faith-based perspective. She was taught about the principles of forgiveness, of transforming her mind and giving God space to speak into her brokenness. That was 12 years ago – Debbie is now programme director for Mercy Ministries UK. (There is more about this story in Arianna Walker's book From Pain to Pearls.)

Walker became more convinced than ever that they needed to pioneer the work in the UK and became part of a volunteer team to set it up. Five years on from Alcorn's talk at Abundant Life, they have a home with 20 beds, which gives girls the chance to relocate from their local environment to spend time working on the life-controlling issues that are overwhelming them. Mercy Ministries works alongside the girls' local church and offers the residential course for free.

"Our programme is totally biblical and Christ-centred, so is only suitable for those who choose to do it from a Christian perspective," Walker says.

She recognises that the UK has some alarming mental health statistics. For instance, it has the highest rate of eating disorders and self-harm in Europe (one in 15 people self-harm).

One in four women suffer from depression, which is one of the most frequent mental health problems in people who end their life through suicide. Women are also twice as likely to experience anxiety as men. Of people with phobias or Obsessive Compulsive Disorders, about 60 per cent are female.

So what can the Church do to reach out to those suffering from mental illnesses? 

"Churches are beginning to wake up to the fact that you can be a Christian and still struggle with mental health issues, but there is a lot of fear attached. Be committed to knowledge and understanding. We believe if the Church is equipped and educated then it becomes empowered and is able to respond from a place of understanding rather than fear.

"Mental health issues are so prevalent within society but also within the Church. Let's admit it is here and learn how we respond – it is great to see that more people are doing that, and looking at what they can do in response."

Walker is adamant that the Church needs to learn to be more open about its own needs: "In order for the Church to bring comfort it needs to be comforted itself. There needs to be an acknowledgement that we have to be prepared to look inside before we go outside.

"Courses like Freedom in Christ are so important as they provide the teaching tools we need – such as forgiveness. We talk about forgiveness a lot in Church, but very few actually know how to do it – although they know they should. When people can't, they feel ashamed and hide their brokenness because they don't want to be judged.

"I am passionate about removing the stigma from Christian brokenness and then equipping people to understand that this is a journey and there are clear tools in the Bible – that if we just did as we were told, as laid out in the Bible, we would find a whole new level of transformation and restoration in our own lives. It's from that point that we can then start giving out, but we can't give what we don't have. Let's be committed as Christians to reach for more in our own level of healing so that we can then give out from a place of wholeness."

While we may all wish to reach out to those in our churches who are hurting, sometimes we feel completely out of our depth. But "sometimes the best way to help someone is to help them get help," says Walker. "We can take on a false responsibility – it is not always us who are the answer. As a helper you can find out more and ask what you should do too. Don't feel like you need to be the one with all the answers."

For more information about Mercy Ministries visit: