One in five individuals will battle mental illness in some form in their lifetime. That statistic shouldn’t scare you; it should help you to not feel alone if you are that one in the midst of five. Coleen Thomson, board member and small group leader for 4word: Philadelphia, shares openly about her lifelong battle with mental illness and how she has learned to remove the negative power it can have over her life.
How long has mental illness been a part of your life?
Mental illness has been a part of my life for over thirty years, since my earliest memories. As a child, I was sexually abused by a family member and can remember wrestling with depression, anxiety, and even suicidal thoughts long before the age of ten. Although I still have many beautiful memories, I grieve that there was always a dark shadow of mental illness in my childhood experiences.
Growing up, you were in a church environment where mental illness was viewed as a “faith issue” and something to be worked out with God. How did that mentality affect you, short-term and long-term?
Suffering with mental illness can make you feel like there is something inherently wrong with you. It made me feel like I was a bad or even evil person. Combining that feeling with the theology of the sinful nature was overwhelming for me. I felt like the ‘chief of sinners’ as the Apostle Paul said. I couldn’t understand why I didn’t seem to have enough faith to overcome my feelings of despair.
Church didn’t feel like a safe place for me. If ever I admitted feelings of depression or anxiety to my church leadership or other parishioners, I was quickly pointed to Scriptures about faith and joy, and effectively told that my depression made God look bad. I continuously wrestled with deep condemnation and self-loathing, always trying to prove to God that I could be good enough for Him somehow. I still bear the long-term consequences of this struggle, as so many areas of my life were put on hold as I tried desperately to pull myself out of clinical depression.
When did you finally break free of that ingrained mindset and seek help from mental health professionals? What was that like for you?
I had this deeply ingrained mindset that professional counseling was bad for me and was a road to circumvent my personal responsibility for my sinful nature. It took many years of suffering in silence and fighting through suicidal ideations before I finally gave myself permission to explore seeing a mental health professional in my mid-twenties. I was desperate. I had fasted and prayed, I had tried with everything I could to overcome my mental illness, and I had failed.
I can’t even begin to describe how difficult it was for me to take this step. There were many sessions before I could open up and truly articulate how I was feeling to my therapist. Slowly my walls began to come down, and I started to be able to have self-compassion for the first time. Going to counseling initially made me feel like a failure, but it has completely transformed my life. I thank God I took the step when I did.
In terms of the stigma around mental illness, there is as much an internal stigma as there is an external one. What did you have to go through personally to be OK with getting medical help for your depression?
I truly had no support from my inner circle to get professional medical help for my mental illness. My church family was filled with toxic teachings on mental health and my parents were raised in the ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ mentality and have never truly understood it.
It was a lonely and deeply painful road for me. I asked God for help and I believe He gave me the courage to fight for myself. I remember thinking about Matthew 22:39, where Jesus tells us to ‘love our neighbor as we love ourselves.’ I didn’t love myself and caring for myself felt selfish and unspiritual. However, this verse (among others) highlighted for me the truth that we should care for ourselves the way God cares for us. We should also care for ourselves the way we care for others, with that same selfless love. I began to understand that my Heavenly Father is not cruel and He has designed us to need each other. In my case, I needed a mental health professional.
I made the key decision that I wanted to see a licensed therapist who was trained traditionally rather than simply going to a pastor or other spiritual leader. It was critical for me to gain understanding of how mental illness truly works in your physical body. When I understood that what I was going through was not my fault and was not a sign of some sort of personal failing on my part, I finally began the journey of true healing. I could see God not through the eyes of my own personal condemnation but through His eyes of pure love, understanding, and acceptance.
It took a long time but as I understood the physiology and the biochemistry of what was happening in my body, I finally became open to medication. I remember the first time I forgot to take it and could feel the deep sadness I had always carried around without it, and wept. I truly wish I had gone on medication sooner. Just as you would get medical treatment for a broken leg or another disease, mental illness often needs to be treated medically as well.
You are happily married. What has it meant to you to have someone else walk alongside you throughout your path to healing? Is it ever difficult for you to not internalize your journey and reach out to those around you for support?
My husband is a gift. God knew I needed him. After walking through so many years feeling isolated and misunderstood, being married to a man who truly gets me is a blessing I’ll never be able to fully express in words. That being said, he isn’t a mental health professional. I know that not everyone experiences that level of understanding and compassion from their spouse. It is so critical to have someone with professional training support you on your journey.
I had trained myself for so many years to suffer in silence. It is a well-conditioned mental muscle for me to internalize what I am going through. However, the healing I have experienced causes me to refuse to be silent. I speak out not just for myself and my own healing, but to give others the invitation to their own healing. Mental illness thrives in secrecy and in silence. I refuse to give it that power anymore.
What advice would you give to someone at the beginning of a mental health journey? What advice would you give to the church about being supportive of those dealing with mental illness?
I would encourage the church that Jesus came not for those who are well but those who are ill. We all need Him and we all need each other. It is easy to judge others when we haven’t walked in their shoes but that is not God’s heart for His people. The church needs to be well-educated on the realities and the science of mental illness, not only for its parishioners but also for its leadership. We’ve seen a recent increase in pastors committing suicides and pastoral scandals. As someone who served in full-time church ministry for many years, I know that the pedestal of unrealistic perfection is a huge factor in these tragedies. We need to give people permission to be their authentic selves and to get treatment for their mental health just as they would for their physical health.
And to the person at the beginning of their mental health journey, I would say:
When God told you through His Word that you are fearfully and wonderfully made, He wasn’t lying. You are not the exception to the rule. Nothing is wrong with you. You are a beloved child of the King of the Universe.
You are worth fighting for, friend. Reach out to someone who can safely steward the truth of your situation. Seek medical help. Talk to a counselor. You don’t have to live in darkness anymore. There is hope for you. Always.
Coleen Thomson has a heart to help leaders embrace their God-given identity and to empower them to use their unique gifts and callings to serve the world. She has served in both the corporate and ministry world for the last 20 years, including five years as a full-time missionary. She is an experienced speaker and an aspiring author.
Coleen graduated summa cum laude from Lancaster Bible College with a Bachelor of Arts in Biblical Studies and is currently pursuing her Masters of Business Administration. She serves as a board member and small group leader for 4word: Philadelphia. Coleen is married to Jonathan and lives in Pennsylvania. You can read more of Coleen’s thoughts at coleenthomson.com.