It was fantastic to interview author Rachael Newham after having the opportunity to read her new book ‘Learning to Breathe’. You can read my review here. She has been through the darkness of depression and writes from her experience which I believe has the potential to bless a lot of people and give them hope. Thanks for joining us here Rachael!
Tell us a little about you and how you came to faith!
I became a Christian at the age of five at my church’s holiday club having come from a Christian family where we went to church each week and were all really active in church life. My faith grew as I did; I’m an only child and church was not only where we worshipped but where I made my first friends. As I got older I decided I wanted to be a missionary in Rwanda (until I realised that it was really far away), but it planted in me a desire to ‘do something’ for God and the church – it was the beginning of my calling.
Your book ‘Learning to Breathe’ tells of your experience of depression. How did you come to share your story?
I actually started to write a book on my depression called ‘Learning to Breathe’ when I was 18 during my gap year. I wrote about 20,000 words and then I put it away as I did my degree but the desire to write the book didn’t going away. I was reading a lot of books and memoirs on depression but I was frustrated that so many seemed to end with ‘and then God healed my depression and I got married’ when my story didn’t play out that way. By then I’d done my degree and began to develop a theology of mental health and I wanted to take my angst-ridden writings and turn it into something that people could read and understand; both the reality of mental illness and that God has something to say about it!
I think I was very fortunate coming to writing with nearly all of my research done through my undergraduate and postgraduate dissertations and so that part was quite nice; it was just making the academic side really readable. I found editing the hardest part because I wasn’t just editing the writing but I was editing my own story.
What was your experience of God in the darkest times?
My experience of God alternated between impossibly distant and closer than I’d ever known. It was the honesty of the psalmists that captured my heart and allowed me to then be honest with God. In particular Psalm 88 which doesn’t have any of the resolutions like the other psalms but ends with the words ‘darkness is my closest friend’ – it was how I felt and the idea that someone thousands of years ago had felt the same and could talk to God about it captivated me. I was definitely drawn to scripture during that time; I began to explore the Bible because I wanted to find something that recognised what I was going through.
What would you say to someone who was self-harming or thinking about suicide?
I think the first thing (and the thing that probably made the most difference to me) was learning and taking to heart the truth that my life and my body were and are worth something. And practically speaking it’s vital that you find someone you can trust to talk to and be listened to.
One of the things that stood out for me in your book was how there were helpful and not-so-helpful people that you came across throughout your depression. How can friends and family best support someone struggling with mental illness? What is not so helpful?
Indeed! I’m aware that people want to help, they just don’t know how and don’t know what to say. The most important thing again is to listen to the person who’s struggling; ask them what you can do to help without swooping in and taking control. If you want to offer practical help, give them some options so that they can let you know what’s most helpful.
Without a doubt the most unhelpful reactions are ones which say things like “pull yourself together” or even worse “it’s okay just trust God more!”
You studied at London School of Theology (LST) and in your book, you talked of aiming to get there and it was a motivation to get well. How did it feel when you got in? Why did you decide to go there and what did you enjoy most about your time at LST?
Getting into LST was like a very geeky dream come true! I’d started googling Bible colleges when I was fourteen and to finally get there was amazing. My initial reason for wanting to go to LST was that it was a) close to home and b) offered a theology, music and worship degree! I didn’t end up doing that but it was what really caught my eye in the first instance.
In terms of what I enjoyed most it’s getting to be a part of the community and also getting to learn from the faculty, both in the lecture room and out.
You also founded the mental health charity ThinkTwice. Could you explain your heart behind it?
ThinkTwice started out as a blog and a Facebook page. Originally I just knew I wanted to create something to help the church be more open about mental health issues. Alongside that I began to run mental health prayer sessions at LST and found I was creating session plans to answer people’s questions. So when I left I spent a lot of time refining those plans and creating the first version of our course which aims to give churches and Christian charities not only an understanding of different mental health conditions and how the church can support people practically, but also begin to have a theological understanding of these experiences so that church can be a safe place.
Finally, how does the Christian faith make a difference to you in your everyday life?
Great question! In some ways, I find that hard to quantify because I’ve never known anything different; it’s always been front and centre in terms of how I think and behave. But I think aside from the fact that it shapes my work, it helps me to try and love people better; trying to understand where they are coming from even if their behaviour is challenging. Jesus did that with everyone He met – He didn’t just take people at face value but wanted to get to know them more. And finally, it makes a huge difference in my marriage because it’s not just about me and my husband, but creating something together which honours God and points people to Him.
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. Her first book ‘Learning to Breathe’ was released in August with SPCK and she regularly blogs at www.rachaelnewham.com.