By: Jessica Halim
Mental health is a buzzword these days.
1 in 5 Australians experience mental illness at some point in their lives. According to the latest census, if you share an office with 12 people, 1 person will have long term mental health issues. 
I am one of them. I was diagnosed with clinical depression in 2009. In 2011, I had panic anxiety and bipolar disorder symptoms.
My bipolar affects my mood and energy levels. On a good day I’ll feel normal, sleep well and can concentrate on my work and daily tasks. On a bad day however, I can’t sleep and instead feel energised when I should feel tired. Or alternatively I’ll feel no energy at all— not being able to work or even complete simple tasks like vacuuming without getting headaches or fatigued.
Given October is mental health month, I thought I’d share my story to help open up conversation.
1. It Can Become Your Identity
When I received the diagnosis, I felt relieved, knowing it wasn’t all in my head.
Yet at the same time, it can be overwhelming. Like having a big sign on my forehead: “I am depressed, anxious and manic/bipolar”. It feels like my mental illness dictates and limits my capacity of what I can and can’t do. It determines how my brain and body functions, as well as my mood and energy levels. My mental illness forms a large part of who I am, how I see myself, and my very identity.
Yet I’m reminded that having mental illness is not my ultimate identity. A helpful government website offers this advice: “Remember that the person is more than their mental illness. Reminding the person about who they are and what they enjoy can help them (and you) separate their identity from their illness”.
There’s so much more to me than my mental illness. For example, I love Zumba exercise and ballroom dancing. I like spending quality time with my niece and nephew. And as a follower of Jesus, I know my ultimate identity is in how much God loves me as his child through what Jesus has done for me. I don’t have to be defined by my mental illness. Or, as my friend who has had depression for 20 years said, “We are a person, not a patient”.
2. There is Still Shame and Stigma Attached Mental Illness
But it’s not just about how we see ourselves, it’s also how others see us.
When I was diagnosed with depression 13 years ago, I felt shame. Like I was some kind of bad or weak person. In Asian culture especially it’s still shameful to have mental illness. A family member said to me: “Don’t tell anyone about it. No one can know” —for fear of disgracing and dishonouring my family name by having mental illness.
Is there still shame and the stigma with mental illness today? A friend said this to me:
“I know as a society we’re talking a lot more about mental health these days, with R U OK? campaign, etc. But I do wonder whether we can talk freely at personal level. I suspect there is still the fear of shame and judgement with sharing our weakness and vulnerability”.
As a follower of Jesus, I know Jesus has already taken my shame on the cross so I don’t need to be ashamed of my mental illness. God’s opinion of me as his beloved child, full of dignity and purpose is what matters most, so I don’t need to be afraid of what other people think of me.
3) It Can be Isolating and Lonely (Even in Loving Environments)
Do close relationships with others make a difference with mental illness? Not always. My friend I mentioned earlier (who has had depression for 20 years) has a loving and supportive family, but said to me depression is isolating in its nature. She doesn’t have much energy for relationships so she often ffeels alone—even when people are close by and wanting to help.
Though I had bipolar symptoms in 2011, I didn’t receive the official diagnosis until 2014 and had to face the reality that I have to be on medication for the rest of my life. I remember the hardest thing that year was not the diagnosis or medication, but having to go through it alone.
Then I remembered as a follower of Jesus, while I feel lonely at times, I’m not alone. I’m accepted and loved by God. God hasn’t stopped loving me just because I have mental illness. In fact, he knew about it before I did.
This quote from one of Jesus’ followers I find personally quite encouraging:
“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)
Knowing God’s secure love for me gives me strength and perseverance when times are tough. I’m not walking through the storms alone, but God is always with me. It’s the firm anchor that I can hold on to.
4. There is a Pathway to Recovery
On my own personal journey, I’ve discovered a number of personal mantras that have helped pave a pathway to recovery:
The first is learning to embrace and accept the reality of it. Mental illness is part of my life now. It’s not about getting rid of it, but learning to live with it, free of resentment.
Connected with this is learning to take personal responsibility. I’m responsible for myself, I can’t expect other people to look after all of my needs, nor can I forever blame my mental illness itself or other people for my situation. I do find taking personal responsibility is hard, especially if I don’t have the energy or mindset for it. But as my friend with depression said: “Focus on what you can do rather than what you can’t do”. So I make little choices of what I can do, for example choosing to take my medication, exercise, eat healthily, etc. I celebrate the small wins, which all contribute towards my wellbeing.
I’ve also learnt to not skimp on holistic self-care. I need to look after all aspects of my life: physically (exercise, sleep and eat well), emotionally and psychologically (through counselling), relationally (supportive families and friends), and spiritually (connecting with God). These are some of the ways I can look after myself, but there are also roles for those around me.
5. What’s Helpful and Unhelpful Can be Highly Subjective
When I have bad days, I appreciate my friends checking on me: “Are you okay?” or if they’re a Christian “What can I pray for you?”. Then they listen to me without judgement, seeking to empathise, understand, and genuinely care for me. I feel like they’re walking beside me together on my journey, not pulling or pushing me into the direction they want me to go.
What I find unhelpful is when people give me solutions or advice without listening first. I do understand when they do this, they’re trying to be helpful and might not know what to say. However, when I share my struggles, often I’m not looking for a solution, but simply someone to listen to me.
I also appreciate friends who every now and then ask me: “How’s your mental health?” or “Are you still exercising or taking your medication?” It shows that they remember and care to ask me. I prefer that people say something, even if it’s awkward, rather than nothing at all. And as mentioned earlier, we still likely haven’t broken through on having these conversations in day-to-day settings.
So feel free to ask (sensitively of course). I’ll probably thank you for it. Because looking back, I’m thankful for the whole experience. Yes it’s tough having a mental illness, but through it I’ve matured in my character, know myself more, and my faith has deepened. I can understand, empathise and help other people struggling with mental health issues too.
But also feel free to ask the people in your life how you can help them. I’m sure they’ll be happy to share and it will be a rich and rewarding conversation. And it’s my hope that by opening myself up like this—it can help you too to start future conversations on a topic that is becoming better known, but not easily talked about.
Feature image: Photo by Matthew Ball on Unsplash