Christians should be aware of what is taking place in our world so we can pray. But what should we do when our own mental health makes watching the news impossible? Dr Sharon Hastings shares her story of living with schizoaffective disorder
It was the final straw: a Ukrainian maternity unit hit by a Russian airstrike. I had to turn off the television and close down my news apps.
Ever since, I have asked my husband, Rob, for a digested update on the war each evening. I know he censors it; I know there are details I am missing. But I also know that preserving my mental health is essential if I am to be effective as a wife and mother, and if I am going to contribute in any small way to the cause of peace.
I am in recovery from schizoaffective disorder, a severe mental illness characterised by episodes of depression and mania, as well as psychosis (a separation from reality). I have not been ‘cured’ as such but today, I live a meaningful life in the context of ongoing symptoms and drug side effects.
Talk to the one who is “familiar with suffering” and experience his grace and compassion for you
Like others with severe mental illness, which also includes bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, there are things which I must do every day if I am to stay well. For me, these include taking my medication, getting outdoor exercise and Christian meditation. I also need to manage my external stimuli, including my Facebook feed and the media that I consume.
It is a painful thing to distance myself from the suffering of others. It can even feel wrong to do so as a Christian. But it can sometimes be vitally important – even if you don’t have a diagnosis like mine.
When Russia declared war on Ukraine, the world was already reeling from the Covid-19 pandemic, which had a devastating effect on the mental health of many. Studies have shown that 80 per cent of people with severe mental illness have seen significant deterioration over the past two years; while the number of people experiencing more common illnesses, such as depression and anxiety, has risen starkly worldwide.
We are a fragile people, depleted psychologically and socially by time spent alone and often, afraid, during lockdowns; some of us bereaved or suffering the long-term effects of coronavirus; many of us spiritually dry following months of online church and relentless bad news.
Now we are faced with these new tragic events that are playing out, heartrending human story after heartrending human story, in a 24-hour news cycle. For some of us, it’s just too much.
The God of compassion
And I think that’s okay. If I need to switch off, dim the lights and do a little yoga for the sake of preserving my own wellbeing, I believe that God sees me, understands my motivation, and is filled with compassion towards me.
It is not that I am choosing to blank out all that is happening because of disinterest or a lack of empathy; it is not that I have decided that the Ukrainian people are not my responsibility. No, I retain an acute awareness that, in a country not so far from home, there is a humanitarian situation unfolding, in a context of a war, that can only be said to be evil. All of us have seen and heard enough to know that people, including civilians and even children, have been killed, injured and displaced. And that the threat of nuclear warfare hangs over our world.
It is a painful thing to distance myself from the suffering of others; it feels wrong, as a Christian, to do so
It is just that this is simply too overwhelming, heart-breaking and mentally de-stabilising for me to cope with on top of a background of existing mental illness.
Perhaps you, too, need to step back from all this suffering (and fears about the implications for life here). Here are three simple things which I believe you can still do:
- Pray. God knows every story behind the news; his Spirit intercedes for us when we don’t have words (Romans 8:26).
- Give. Even if all you can donate is the cost of a cup of coffee, the smallest offering is of great value to God (Mark 12:43). If you can give more, do so.
- Trust. God is sovereign over our world. One day he will “make all things new” and evil will be vanquished (Revelation 21:5-8).
Finally, allow God to minister to you in your heartache. He cares about the people of Ukraine, and all those caught up in conflict around the globe, and he cares about your mental wellbeing too. Talk to the one who is “familiar with suffering” and experience his grace and compassion for you (Isaiah 53:3; Psalm 103:8).
And if it still all feels too much, don’t struggle alone. Talk to a friend or a health professional or call Premier Lifeline (the national Christian helpline) on 0300 111 0101.