How I Found Church Can Be A Safe Space For Mental Illness

It’s fair to say when you hear the two terms, ‘church’ and ‘mental illness’, the image which comes to mind often isn’t of bedfellows, but of people at war.

Much of the Christian church today struggles to deal with matters of mental health. Either they brush them under the carpet and leave them unspoken, or, even worse, they deny the problems of mental health altogether.

Recently, on Twitter a Christian tweeted that PTSD was from God. A Christian actually tweeted that.

I’m a writer, I’ve had books out. I’m rarely lost for words. But even I was dumbstruck at that.

I’ve never actually had a mental health condition diagnosed. But many of those close to me, those who know the mental health world, who’ve heard my story, have all said I show classic symptoms of some kind of condition.

Some have said my symptoms resemble PTSD, others have said I may be at the very thin edge of the autistic spectrum. And many of the symptoms are there. So whilst I’ve never had anything officially diagnosed, it’s pretty clear I struggle with some kind of mental illness.

I’ve had periods of deep depression, very low moods, a desire to escape, insomnia, and more recently, the occasional panic attacks and anxiety attacks. I don’t quite pick up social cues as others do (though I’ve trained myself over the years to do so). Sudden, abrupt, changes of plan in my day make me feel uncomfortable and anxious. These have all been part of my life. Indeed, they are part of my life.

And I’m pretty sure, the major cause of this was a major trauma I experienced between the ages of 8 and 23. A perfect storm.

In 1985 my mother lost her short-term memory due to an severe asthma attack, an event which triggered a ten year spiral of trauma in my family. Alcoholism of a parent, parents fighting with each other violently, almost daily. And as the eldest, I subconsciously took responsibility for all these problems, blaming myself for not fixing them, breaking up fights – whilst my own daily hell of ongoing psychological bullying at school continued unchecked. Five years after this ended, just when things were calming down, asthma finally finished it’s work on my mother, and she passed away.

17 years have passed since then. Writing about that period is something for a book, not a blog post. But suffice to say, there was lots of counselling, and lots of prayer – all of which helped considerably. But in hindsight, this treated only the surface wound. It treated the symptoms, not the disease.

It’s only in the last 18 months, that I have finally began to confront the deeper trauma insider of me, the deeper mental and psychological damage this trauma had on me. And although it’s happened in the full glare of a home group linked to my church, I’ve never felt safer as part of that community.  In fact, it was because of the grace, understanding, compassion and care of my church, that I’ve come so far.

Because my church is different.

Grace, Not Judgement

I’ve never, once felt fear at talking about my circumstances, feelings, or experiences at my church, or above all, my church home group – which, in many ways, is where the real work of church gets done. Indeed, it was leaders of my home group who, 18 months ago, were the first to recognise these issues.

One night, out of nowhere, I found myself physically pinned back to my seat, sharing all of my pain, my bitterness, my hurt, my grief. No one was holding me there physically – but it was like my physical body was being pushed back whilst my heart exploded out of it. The full mess of my trauma being stayed all over the room, for all to see.

People knew my story. They knew all I’d been through. But they had no idea before how deeply it had impacted me. Neither did I, to be honest. But my leaders did. That night, after splattering my heart everywhere, I got a big hug from them. They told me they’d seen this for a while and had been praying I would too.

No judgement. No condemnation. No denial. Just love. Acceptance. Grace.

That, I was to discover, was only the beginning of a long journey. A journey which challenged me to go to the darkest places of my soul, and instead of numbing the pain, actually live in it, experience it, show it to the light and confront it. It has meant lower moods, it has meant anxiety attacks, panic attacks, and excessive insomnia. It was like all this trauma had been buried and now was finally being released and showing it’s true colours.

In the short term, I got worse. My life got darker. But ultimately by exposing my darkness to the light,  I’ve also begun to see signs of deeper healing and genuine transformation. (tweet)

My close friends told me that from the moment I first acknowledged this, I looked different. They tell me to his day, that since that night, it seemed like a burden had been taken off my shoulders, and I’m a different person now.

I believe this happened because that night I finally opened up my heart, and told my conscious self the truth of the deep trauma and psychological damage I was keeping buried. Scripture says the truth sets you free – and that’s never been more true for me than in the last 18 months.

I’ve been to some very low places since that first night. I still do. I’m still conforming this trauma and all it’s side effects. I’m working through some issues at the core of who I am, how I’ve trained myself to live, how I’ve seen myself and interacted with the world. 

Only a couple of weeks ago, I got into the lowest of low moods – which is putting it lightly. In all truth, it’s was the darkest of dark nights of the soul. I experienced despair, anxiety, panic and fear all at once, and it overwhelmed me. All my desire to go out into the world had gone. I no longer felt anything. I no longer cared. If I felt anything, it was abandoned, alone, and without hope. Overwhelmed completely. Consumed by panic and anxiety.

I challenge anyone to tell me that was caused by God. The God I know, the one I’ve experienced in my life, and through others, didn’t cause this. No, precisely the opposite. He was with me in the midst of it.

In my desperation, I messaged one of the leaders of my church, also a friend. They invited me over. We talked. I explained my situation. We talked it through, honestly and openly. We prayed. And although I’ve had low moments since, and I still struggle with that lethargy, that sense of unexplained despair, what we talked and prayed through has become an anchor for me, something to hold on to, which has stopped me sinking deeper – and now I can say it’s helping me climb the wall to freedom. 

There was no judgement. No condemnation. Just love, acceptance, understanding and support. It speaks volumes that my church is the first place I feel able to go to share about my struggles.

To be honest, the last 18 months feels like a prologue to a new journey. But all the way through, my church, and my home group, has been my support network. A place I’m loved, accepted and welcomed, as I am. With all the darkness, imperfections, challenges and struggles. I’ve gone deeper in my faith as a result of it. And it’s not impacted my role in the church – indeed, in that time I’ve even been asked to lead my own small group. 

And this is how church should be towards those struggling with mental health conditions. Not exercising judgement. But loving people where they are, for who they are. Allowing people to own their stories, their traumas, their conditions and know they are loved, welcomed and accepted in the midst of them. This is what Jesus really stood for. Grace.

Those struggling with mental health issues should be able to see the church as a safe space, where we can go and be who we are, and know we are loved, understood, welcomed and accepted as we are. That’s what church should be. A beacon of grace to the world.

My church is an example that this is possible. It gives me hope that one day, the Christian church as a whole will be known as a friend to those with mental health issues – and not it’s enemy.


Buy my book ‘Mosaic of Grace’ here.


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Picture Sources: Andrei Niemimäki via Morguefile / James Prescott

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  1. Anne Peterson on March 31, 2017 at 12:09 pm

    You have not only gone to that dark place, you have successfully taken us by the hand and shown it to us. Not to scare us, but to let those who have also lived there know that they are not alone. I too, have struggled in my life due to trauma at an early age. When that happens you look like you are functioning on the outside while inside you are feverishly trying to stay afloat. I’m so glad that you have found a church who has openly accepted you as Christ would. Sadly, this is not always the case which as you can imagine just intensifies the feelings of being different. It’s a hard journey for those who have been hurt. One that is not helped when platitudes are passed out like cups of water to a weary traveler. The hurting ones must get to the place that our loving Savior got. Where he was able to forgive the very ones who put him on the tree. Because the truth is, those who hurt, are probably hurting themselves. One of your best pieces, James. Thank you for sharing it.

  2. Jessica Earley on April 2, 2017 at 2:02 am

    Wow…I can’t even explain how much your words touch me. My whole entire life has been hard. God definitely carried me through some of it. I’m strong, stubborn, and a lot like Peter. The Psalms speak to me. Paul’s words carry much wisdom and I love him. Your words on hate… the bone.
    My husband died a year ago in March. It has been heart wrenching for my children and I. I never wrote the obituary. It was too hard. I loved that man with all my heart. He wasn’t perfect… neither am I. Lazarus was my thinking. Obviously that didn’t happen.
    I turned my nine children to God. That’s all I knew to do. I’m still struggling. They are still struggling. There is a fine line between love and hate. I’m about to lose our family farm. Trapped here in the middle of the woods, no car, no job, no Christian school, no more homeschool, no close family, (many of them deceased), I’m ranting again. I hate Cancer. My kids hate public school. Everyone likes to steal from a widow. Wow, that was negative! A dear friend of mine told me years ago (when I was homeless for the 4th or 5th time, with 8 kids), “If you didn’t have bad luck, you wouldn’t have any luck at all!”. So true, I understand that completely now. Thank God I have luck. Life is a struggle. Satan chases those of us that love God. God has carried me through.
    Why do I pout my way through this struggle? I know God loves me. Life is so ridiculously hard. My kids have to struggle and they hate me. Church 4 times a week, you would think I get the picture. I’m weak. I was made of flesh. I don’t see the end result yet. I love my babies so much and want the absolute best for them. Why do I not let go and let God? Again ranting. I’ll be praying for your struggles. Please pray for mine.
    Thank you for writing these beautiful articles. So glad to have run across them tonight. I wish I could donate or help somehow to get others to read your inspirations. Right now I’m living off of less than should be humanly possible in this country. Thank God for getting me thus far. Keep writing… We are not alone.

    • Jessica Earley on April 2, 2017 at 2:24 am

      My church also awesome. We belong to a small church. They are amazing people. They love us and love others. They are taking my children to school and it makes me cry. If they could do more they would. They are amazing people. I’m not use to people driving us around. We are use to driving others around. I worked most of my life with the handicapped and my husband’s farming basically to give it away. I don’t want to be a bitter old woman. That’s not me. Fall and get back up. Jesus died for all of us. Guess if we lose a million times… Not only does he feel our pain… But he died for all of our mistakes too! Now that’s suffering!!!

  3. SC Skillman on April 3, 2017 at 5:39 pm

    Very moving post, James. I’m glad your church is so supportive, and that is fantastic. I belong to a small group in my church which is likewise very caring and we keep in touch throughout the week via a Whatsapp group – something I can recommend for other small groups.It help people to go deeper with each other if they make contact regularly over small things, then it becomes possible to share the deeper, big things.

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