Conversations about mental health are important conversations to have. We’re getting better about having them and treating them as normally as we would treat conversations about any other aspect of our health, but we still need work. In the early days of my mental health leave, I got lots of messages from support from friends, family, colleagues, and parishioners. If you hear your own voice in any of these comments, please know that I’m not trying to single you out individually. What follows are comments and themes in messages that came up multiple times, and I’m not criticizing any particular people when I reflect on them.
‘Take all the time you need.’ This was one of the most helpful things I could hear. As soon as we knew that I was going to need time off, the diocese told me that I could take two weeks without any questions asked. More than that would need a doctor’s note, so I set to work getting an appointment with my family doctor. I didn’t know how long it would take to get better, but I knew it was going to take time. People telling me to take whatever time I needed were giving me the reassurance that I was allowed to take this seriously.
In contrast, some other people wished that I would ‘get well soon’. On one level, I know that they were wishing that I wouldn’t be unwell any longer than I had to, but sometimes it was hard to remind myself that they weren’t telling me to hurry up and get back to work so that I could carry on in some of the bad habits that had been contributing to my problem. I can see that now, but based on my own experience, I would much rather tell people to take whatever time they need to get better, rather than encouraging them to get better as soon as possible.
‘Thank you for the strength/courage you’re showing.’ This was so important. Admitting that I needed help was one of the hardest things I’ve done, and shaking after a panic attack while your spouse starts reaching out to get you help does not feel strong at all. But as I started taking steps to work on dealing with my anxiety, I knew that I wanted to be open and honest about what I was going through. (I started thinking about writing this series on the third day of leave!)
When I spoke to my Bishop on the morning after I hit the crisis point, he told me that he would be in my parish that Sunday to break the news that I would be taking some leave. He said, ‘I can tell them whatever you’d like me to. What we’d normally say is that you’re on Administrative Leave.’ I said, ‘Please don’t say that! It makes it sound like I’ve done something wrong and I’m in trouble.’ He replied, ‘Well, we can certainly just call it medical leave, and leave it at that.’ I said, ‘If we say that, people might assume that I’ve got COVID, or worse. Let’s call it what it is: mental health leave.’
Saying those words was a big step. Admitting it puts people in a very vulnerable position. But the more people that talk about mental illness, the more others are encouraged to do so. Perhaps someone you know and care about is facing challenges of their own that they’re afraid to talk about. If so, one of the most important things you can do is give them a safe space to be honest, and tell them how proud you are of them.
Mental health struggles can seem overwhelming, but with help, they can be dealt with. One of the hardest parts is admitting that something isn’t right. If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, you can get help by calling 811. More support and resources are available online at nl.bridgethegapp.ca.