Thank you to the lovely Sharon, for another really helpful guest post…
When mental health problems and physical illness collide
We are all increasingly aware of the mind-body connection. If we eat a piece of dark chocolate or go for a run, endorphins are released, and our mood improves. If we live on fast food for a few days or lie about on the sofa for too long, we are likely to feel low.
Similarly, physical illness affects our mental state, and vice versa:
Certain physical conditions – multiple sclerosis or lupus, for example – have a direct effect on mental health, causing depression, memory loss, and even psychosis.
Certain mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, affect physical health, increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease. People with eating disorders develop osteoporosis; those with depression develop unexplained pain.
If you have a mental illness, you are equally susceptible to physical illness as someone without mental illness, whether it’s a broken wrist after a fall, or news that blood tests have shown signs of autoimmune disease…or even cancer.
And that is hard to deal with! We cry out to God, “This is so unfair – an anxiety disorder, and now this?!”
Last year, I found myself in such a situation. I was discharged from a mental health unit after an acute episode of psychotic depression and was admitted to a surgical ward two days later.
The ward was noisy, with drips beeping and buzzers buzzing, rattling trolleys and chattering nurses. There were comings and goings with patients shipped off to theatre unexpectedly. And it was oh so bright. Overstimulated after the peace and quiet of the mental health unit, I panicked.
My Home Treatment team were based in a different area, so they couldn’t visit, and their fifteen-minute morning phone calls didn’t help very much: “You just have to manage. Physical illness comes first.” But without my usual routine and removed from everything I used for self-care – my piano, access to the outdoors – I spent most of my time in tears.
After five days, I asked to speak to the Ward Sister. I said I couldn’t take any more and I needed to leave. She said that I was too ill to go. I said that I was too mentally ill to stay! In an answer to prayer, my meds kicked in and I was soon well enough to be discharged, but I vowed to have better strategies in place for the next time.
Mental illness makes it harder to deal with physical problems. We feel excessively anxious about our symptoms; pain or fatigue make us more depressed; or we find that all our usual coping methods just don’t work, especially if the prognosis is not good. This is when we must turn to God for help.
God gives us examples in the bible of people who struggled with physical and psychological symptoms:
King David often described having pain alongside dark thoughts:
“Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint; heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony.
My soul is in deep anguish. How long, Lord, how long?”
But God revived him so that he could say (in verse 9):
“The Lord has heard my cry for mercy; the Lord accepts my prayer.”
Elijah was also once physically exhausted from conflict and went into the wilderness, pleading with the Lord to let him die (1 Kings 19:4). Instead, God provided him with food and water for forty days so that he could recover physically and mentally in time to make an important journey.
And our Lord Jesus Christ himself experienced the mental anguish of separation from God at the same time as acute physical pain from being nailed to a cross and speared in the side. He was truly “a man of suffering, and familiar with pain” (Isaiah 53:3), yet there was victory over death and Jesus was raised to life so that all of us might be saved.
God is a compassionate Father (Luke 6:36). He cared about my welfare in that ward and has been since. Let me share some of the strategies I’ve developed for when physical illness hits:
* Be kind to yourself – extra ‘self-care’ is needed (try a face mask or a bubbly bath)
* Adapt the routine which gives you mental stability (if you’re not well enough for your brisk morning walk, try listening to music to boost your mood instead; if you can’t get out socially, try joining an online forum for people with your condition)
* Don’t be afraid to take more rest (the rules change when you are physically sick and need rest to recover – you are no longer ‘giving in’ to depression if you take a daytime nap or two)
* If you have to go into a general hospital, tell your nurse that you struggle with mental illness. They may give you a side room or let someone sit with you outside of normal visiting hours.
* Keep in touch with your mental health team, who might increase support for you, and your GP, who is the lynchpin between mental and physical health services.
* Make sure a pastor or minister from your church is aware and can visit and pray with you.
* Ask friends to pray and for help with physical tasks. Having someone do the ironing or vacuuming takes pressure off you when you are physically compromised.
* Talk to God. Tell him that you are angry/resentful/sad. You may find that he reveals himself to you in new ways. “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:7)
Jesus did not say that his people would not suffer on earth (John 16:33), but we can look forward to the resurrection when we will have new bodies, strong and glorious – free from mental or physical illness:
“Our bodies are buried in brokenness, but they will be raised in glory. They are buried in weakness, but they will be raised in strength. They are buried as natural human bodies, but they will be raised as spiritual bodies.” (1 Corinthians 15:43-44)