"It is shocking to think a child as young as six could utter the words “I want to die”, but Rachael Newham can clearly recollect thinking about death very early in her life. “I was born with fluid on the brain and had chronic asthma so I was in and out of hospital,” she recalls. “I think I was more aware of my mortality than your average six-year-old.”
It didn’t occur to her until she was much older that it was odd. “I never had that fearlessness that children have, because I was hyper aware of my body and its limitations”, she says.
Rachael’s memories of early childhood are more surprising when you realise she had become a Christian a year before – at the tender age of five. After saying a prayer of commitment to God at a holiday club, she remembers tangibly experiencing the Holy Spirit, a passion for church and a deep desire to follow Jesus. She has since spent her life combining a love for God with managing the confusion and hardship associated with suffering.
Rachael remembers her childhood fondly, and says it wasn’t until she was 14 and went away to a Christian holiday camp during the summer that she experienced severe anxiety. “I was homesick the whole time and I didn’t understand why I was crying constantly and why I felt so awful.” Even once the camp was over she didn’t feel quite herself.
“I cried so much that it wasn’t a release anymore. It just got worse and worse and worse.” Afterwards, everything, including going back to school, seemed like a struggle: “I felt that every year I was alive it was just getting worse and worse. The rest of life terrified me."
he struggle to understand and manage her emotions surfaced acutely on the day of the 7/7 bombings in London, when Rachael was nearly 15. “It was a very weird week, which started with the jubilation of Britain being awarded the Olympic bid and ended with a terrorist attack. At the same time my best friend’s dad had just been diagnosed with cancer. The emotions of that week were catastrophic for me.”
Because she had suffered with severe eczema her whole life, Rachael was used to the idea of equating blood with a feeling of release “because when you draw blood is when the itching stops and it just starts to hurt.” She calculated, somewhat subconsciously, that if she couldn’t find relief anymore from crying,then self-harm might be an answer. That was when she started cutting her legs. An eating disorder swiftly followed which, as Rachael explains, was simply “an extension of the self- harm”.
All the while, she was reading her Bible more than ever. “I found a lot of comfort in the Psalms, but also in the life of Jesus and the Easter story in particular. Jesus in Gethsemane and his emotional turmoil; it was a huge comfort to me to realise that I wasn’t alone and Jesus had gone through this.”
She was also still involved in church, including serving on the worship team. But her questions were getting deeper: “Where is God when it hurts?”
Rachael’s first suicide attempt wasn’t a conscious decision. “The first overdose started with the thought process: this is a painkiller, so perhaps it will help with my pain,” she says. “The second overdose was a more deliberate attempt take my own life.”
When I ask her why, she explains: “I hated what I was feeling and who I was. I didn’t have a sense of being worth anything.” She felt exhausted all the time and nothing seemed to be getting better. It wasn’t until Rachael was 17 that she finally received a diagnosis of depression. A poor understanding of mental illness meant that doctors had been reluctant to label her.
“I found having the diagnosis incredibly freeing, because I understood what to do with the illness now. The idea of medication didn’t bother me because I had been on medication my whole life anyway. Being able to say: ‘This is what’s wrong. In part, there are chemicals that are not working properly in my brain’, helped a little bit to alleviate some of the shame I was feeling.”
It was around the time Rachael began medication for depression that she decided she wanted to study at the London School of Theology (LST) – a decision she describes as “transformational”.
Her years at LST, first as an undergraduate and then on their Masters programme, helped Rachael to delve deeper into the truths of Christianity. “I began to understand more about the community of the body of Christ – that everyone plays their part, and when you can’t play your part, the other members help you: a bit like the paralysed man who is lowered through the roof,” she says.
"UNDERSTANDING I HAD A CHEMICAL IMBALANCE IN MY BRAIN HELPED TO ALLEVIATE SOME OF THE SHAME I WAS FEELING"
During this time, Rachael realised that God was going to use all that she had been through in her life to help others. Where she had felt a failure as a Christian in the past – “because I was crying all the time” – she now realised that God could redeem it.
And sure enough: what started out as a Facebook page to raise awareness of mental health in the Church while she was a student, became the charity she now leads, ThinkTwice (thinktwiceinfo.org).
In her role she helps churches understand the implications of mental illness, and trains Christians and church leaders to better support people in their congregations affected by psychological conditions.
Now she’s on a mission to help Christians have a healthier understanding of mental illness. “If depression is a signal of lack of faith, then does that mean that conditions like asthma or diabetes are a result of a lack of faith? I see some incredibly faithful people who are trusting in God through mental illness.”
Rachael Newham would certainly be one of them.
Rachael Newham is the founder of Christian mental health charity ThinkTwice and author of Learning to Breathe: My journey with mental health (SPCK)