Mental Health Awareness Week: To offer advice, you first need to earn the right to give it

(Photo: Unsplas/Jad Limcaco)

I don't have mental health issues.

I did, as a child, but it wasn't acted on. It's because people spotted it and helped without naming it that I am still here today.

I have family members who have mental health conditions. One believed that as a Christian they shouldn't get medication or counselling, and therefore remained untreated. Their life could have been so much easier if only they had ditched that lie and got the help and support they needed.

There are probably more people with mental heath illnesses in your church than you even realise. Some will be fairly open about it, but others will feel they can't say anything.

Why would that be? Surely our churches should be wonderful at supporting when someone has any mental health issues, diagnosed or not?

Well.... according to my Christian friends who have mental health illnesses, no, we're not. There is an improvement, but there is still a way to go.

The key issues appear to be: fear, language, misinformation and theology.

Some people are afraid of what they don't know, or struggle because "they don't want to end up like that".

Maybe they just don't know what to say, or it brings back memories of a loved one who struggled with poor mental health.

Language used around this subject can be thoughtless: "They must have been 'mental' to do that" is just one common phrase that is thought to be unhelpful for some. This isn't helped by the way the press can use language in reporting crime, blaming mental illness in a way that hints that all those with similar challenges can be dangerous – which is totally untrue.

Most of the friends I've talked to have stories about the 'advice' they receive: have you tried eating [Insert current super food here], you should get more sleep, you should get less sleep, stop drinking coffee, sit in the sun more, just go out and do some work... this list is endless.

The truth is, if you have met one person with any expression of mental illness, you have met one person with mental illness. Just like any disability, there will be some basic similarities, but the effects, coping strategies and treatments will differ. To offer advice, you first need to earn the right to give that advice.

In church, theology seems to be quite a big issue. Still, we find people who believe you can't be a Christian AND be depressed – they see the two things as completely incompatible. And yet, I can say without a doubt that I have seen more grace, more faith and more tenacity in the face of mental illness than I have seen in some who do not have mental illness.

I feel I need to say this again: having any mental health illness is not a failure of faith.

It is not something to 'own up to', because it is nothing to be ashamed of, it's a fact of life. It happens. It is something that shouldn't be hidden, but shared with key people who will love and support. But for those who are caring, it isn't a matter for gossip either.

Praying for healing isn't always helpful either, especially with so many difficulties that arise when healing doesn't happen. If your emotional and psychological resilience is already low, being told you didn't have the faith to be healed is nothing short of dangerous, adding spiritual pressure to an already full load.

Instead, we should be asking what prayer is needed for, such as; appointments, coping with a situation at work or home, or work capability assessments when they can't work. There are thousands of ways we can intercede and make a difference with prayer that doesn't include the pressure to be healed.

My final comments are to those who are currently struggling with their mental health: self care is ok. It's not selfish. Not taking those moments of self care can make recovery longer or the dips deeper.

We all know that getting medication, and then taking it at the right dose and at the right times is vital, but making sure you eat healthily and drink the right things is also really important. Good nutrition is not a cure, but it gives a good starting point for coping mechanisms.

Don't feel guilty about taking time out when you need it - I often refer to it as getting into your 'blanket fort' – that place that feels safe to you. It is normal to need this after being with people for any amount of time because people can be exhausting! As friends we should also understand that you need this and not take offence when plans are cancelled – more than once.

I have colleagues who keep working despite mental illness but recognise the need for regular space to regroup and recover.

Many have code words to tell friends when things get too much and then have practiced routines so friends can give the support needed, including taking them home.

For example, if one of my friends stands behind my right shoulder, I know she needs me to be a shield for her whilst she emotionally regroups. It works.

If you have not yet sought help, please do. And do it today.

Kay Morgan-Gurr is Chair of Children Matter and Co-Founder of the Additional Needs Alliance, part of the Evangelical Alliance Council. For more, and on Twitter @kaymorgan_gurr