At a time when I have been going through my own struggles with mental health, Rachael Newham’s ‘Learning To Breathe: My Journey With Mental Illness’ was a timely read. It is her story of battling depression and how she overcame it. Before reading this book, I had very little understanding of what it is like to be at the depths of despair to the point of considering and attempting to take your life. Her words were revealing, vulnerable and honest – by the time she was 18 years old, she had already attempted to take her own life twice.
The book challenged me to think about how I talk about different aspects of mental health. By sharing some experiences of people in her life that have both helped and hindered her, it has made me think about what kind of language I use when talking about mental illness. Rachael talks about ‘committing suicide’ as an unhelpful term because it has not been a crime since 1962 and it adds further stigma to the individual who is not a criminal. She mentions using the words ‘incomplete suicide’ or ‘completed suicide’ as alternatives. Moreover, she describes an encounter with a teacher who scolded her for ‘doing something silly’ when she took an overdose. Words are powerful and they have impact. Rachael says:
‘Self-harm and suicide are neither silly nor stupid; they are expressions of something inexpressible, ways of communicating hopelessness.’ (pg. 51)
What encouraged me about this book was how God brought people into Rachael’s life who helped her through. The impact of her school chaplain, her mum and others are a testimony to the importance of being a friend, listening and standing alongside someone who is struggling with their mental health. It was clear that a lot of the experiences that she went through prepared her for the future – for example how her school chaplain/youth worker taught her a lot about pastoral care which she has since been able to use when she has come alongside others struggling with their mental health.
Rachael also shares her faith journey which is woven throughout the book, from when she first became a Christian and having a desire to work in ministry to eventually ending up studying a theology degree at London School of Theology – a motivating goal to help her get well. Her love for the Bible and of the Lord is clear even in the darkest of times and she holds onto truth, especially found in the Psalms:
‘Psalm 88 has been called the saddest psalm. Its words are unrelentingly sad and express both how depressed people can feel in themselves and seem to others. It is a psalm that has no resolution, no reminder of God’s steadfastness amid the pain. Indeed, the only hopeful reference comes in the first line: ‘Lord, you are the God who saves me; day and night I cry out to you.’ The hope lies in the declaration that God is God and the acknowledgement that in him lies salvation, and that he remains present and loving, even when we feel at our most unlovable.’ (pg. 38-39)
As I have no experience of self-harm personally, but know of people who have self-harmed, I found it insightful but painful to read at times. There are many more people who are going through different aspects of mental illness and it got me thinking ‘what can I do as an individual to make a difference?’ Rachael helpfully includes a list of resources at the back of the book which can help with this. Seeing the variety of negative responses from different people that Rachael encountered when she was self-harming, whether in a look of disgust or unhelpful words, has made me examine my own thoughts and judgements. I want to be someone who is kind, patient and understanding and I would hope that the church would be a safe space and refuge for anyone struggling with their mental health – I know Rachael experienced a safe haven at church, but there is a lot to be done in changing attitudes and opening up conversations.
It’s a memoir that is deeply personal yet because of Rachael’s openness and willingness to share her experience, readers are better prepared to understand what life is like for someone who is struggling with a mental illness. I think it is a great book to start a conversation about mental health and make people aware of some of the thoughts and actions that can accompany someone who is going through depression.
Rachael Newham is the founder of Christian mental health charity ThinkTwice which aims to raise awareness of and provide training on mental health issues in the christian community. She completed a research masters looking at a pastoral theology of depression at the London School of Theology in 2014 and since graduating she’s run a mentoring project for young women in North London and co-ordinated the training for a national self-harm organisation. She spends much of her time travelling the country preaching, speaking and writing about issues related to faith and mental health. She regularly blogs at www.rachaelnewham.com