Some years ago, I was in a very low place. I was deeply depressed, feeling paralysed by my anxious thoughts.
I was also suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder related to starting a new job. I didn’t know what was happening but I knew something was wrong. Feelings of inadequacy invaded my thinking and took control of my mind. I began to believe the world would be better off without me.
Acknowledging suicidal ideation—this pattern of entertaining thoughts of suicide—is difficult for anyone. Our bodies are complex and our minds are heavily influenced by trauma, repressed experiences, relationships and neurochemicals. This may not be the case for everyone as there are other well-researched factors that cause similar symptoms.
I do understand how victims of physical or sexual abuse suffer long-term effects, but have also come to realise that the corrosive effects of unhealthy relationships can etch themselves deeply into our being and erode our confidence and sense of wellbeing.
Growing up in a Christian home, I and those around me viewed depression as inherently “bad”. Over time and with therapy, I have been able to come to the realisation that the roots of my feelings of inadequacy and despair lay in my upbringing. For context, I grew up in a typical Pasifika (Pacific people living in New Zealand and Australia) family. We were extremely tightknit and God was central to all our decisions. Overly harsh discipline was combined with the moralistic expectations that came with being the spirited youngest daughter of a church minister. In my case, this led to feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness that in later years seriously affected my mental health.
The idea that I could experience thoughts of suicide seemed incompatible with my Christian faith.
Until I had my crisis, I also believed that my faith was directly connected to my health. Erroneously, I believed that if I had strong faith, then God would see me through every challenge, be they physical or mental. Therefore, I should not be experiencing negative thoughts of inadequacy or unworthiness!
Living through a deep bout of depression is not easy. It takes a lot of resilience to come out the other side. The great Winston Churchill (former British prime minister) described his bouts of depression as a “black dog” that followed him around. Honestly, sometimes it feels that way. As an avid swimmer, it often felt like I was barely treading water, doing just enough to keep my head from going under. Occasionally I had the feeling of being at the bottom of a deep pit and seeing the top of the hole as a small light—both very reminiscent of my actual childhood, with fears of not being able to breathe underwater or being stuck in a dark place with no light. No matter how people describe their experiences when going through depression, for those individuals they are real and a huge challenge to overcome.
As a Pasifika, sadly I was not alone. The suicide statistics for Māori and Pasifika in Aotearoa New Zealand are over-represented. We know that many who attempt suicide live with severe depression and anxiety and most have little to no idea of how to get through it. So, what makes it difficult for Māori or Pasifika to get the help they need when dealing with mental health issues?
Some time ago I was supporting a group of about 20 Pasifika people as they journeyed through a lifestyle program called CHIP (Complete Health Improvement Program, now known as PIVIO). PIVIO is best known for advocating a healthy lifestyle through a focus on diet and an increase in physical activity, but the last few sessions focus on the emotional and mental aspects of health. For our Pasifika group, it was noteworthy that while they were buzzing with excitement about how they were feeling from their change in diet and physical activity, they had not explored the correlation between mental wellbeing and overall health. As a result, I felt that the session we had on stress was one of the most powerful. The course participants came to a new understanding of how the major factors that contributed to increased rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes were related as much to mental wellbeing as they were to what they ate or how they moved.
There is a common misperception that Pasifika are laid-back and easy-going with not too much to worry about. Actually, we know that Pasifika living in New Zealand are more likely to be financially challenged, living in multi-generational housing consisting of six or more residents cramped into a substandard dwelling. We also know they are more likely to be devout church supporters as well as culturally and spiritually obligated to be involved with their communities. They are also much more likely to be victims of domestic violence. All of these factors create an environment where stress, anxiety and in many cases, depression will thrive.
Of course, these factors are not unique to Pasifika people, yet they do feel added pressure from their families and faith community. Added to this is the expectation of maintaining a façade of being happy and well—largely because not doing that could be misconstrued as a lack of faith in God or perceived as shameful to their family or church.
If living in a faith-based community can potentially have such negative consequences, how then can belief in God bring peace and stability to one’s life?
Professor Sir Mason Drurie is a well-known and respected health leader in New Zealand. In the 1980s he designed the Te Whare Tapa Wha model of care. This model of health uses the symbolism of the whare (Te Reo Māori word for “house”, pronounced “fuh-ree” with a rolled “r”), where each wall of the whare helps to support the other three. When one side is weak or crumbling, the other three are affected, which in turn affects the overall stability of the whare.
His analogy is that we, as complete human beings, are the whare and each wall represents a different aspect of our overall health. For example, one wall represents our physical health, another our emotional/social health, another our mental health and the last our spiritual health. When one wall is damaged, we need to build resilience by mending it while at the same time supporting the others to bring strength and stability to the building. Each is as important as the others.
Our idea of a loving God cannot be limited to loving only one aspect of our person. God’s love is not limited to those who struggle with just physical or spiritual health. He loves us even when we struggle mentally. God doesn’t just look at us at our best; He loves us as a whole person. I was wrong to think that my faith in God would automatically preclude my mental health crises. In fact, it was my belief in the full extent of God’s love that helped me through it.
There were a few additional tools that helped. My physical health required me to eat well, get good rest and be more physically active. My emotional health required me to practise gratitude, maintain a routine and set goals. My spiritual health required me to trust in the God who loved me despite my negative thoughts and feelings of despair. While there were many other tools that were useful, I found these to be what worked best for me and in using them I was able to support and build resilience for my mental wellbeing. I needed medication and psychotherapy to help me navigate life at that time and I also needed to learn that being mentally unwell holds no more stigma than being physically unwell.
If anything, my mental health crises taught me the very real importance there is in maintaining a balanced life through a sustained belief in a higher power. Just like in the analogy of the whare, we need to respect all aspects of our wellbeing in order to manage during times of crisis or to negate the corrosive experiences of daily life.
If you’d like to take a step toward mental wellness today, visit piviohealth.com
Adrielle Carrasco is the health ministries leader and liaison for women’s ministry for the Seventh-day Adventist Church New Zealand Pacific. She lives in Auckland, New Zealand.
If you or anyone you know in Australia needs help:
- Lifeline on 13 11 14
- Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800
- Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636
- Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467
- Headspace on 1800 650 890
- ReachOut at au.reachout.com
- MensLine Australia on 1300 789 978
- Care Leavers Australasia Network (CLAN) on 1800 008 774
- Head to Health at headtohealth.gov.au
If you or anyone you know in New Zealand needs help:
- Shine (domestic violence) – 0508 744 633
- Women’s Refuge – 0800 733 843 (0800 REFUGE)
- Need to Talk? – Call or text 1737
- What’s Up – 0800 WHATS UP (0800 942 8787)
- Lifeline – 0800 543 354 or (09) 5222 999 within Auckland
- Youthline – 0800 376 633, or text 234
- Samaritans – 0800 726 666
- Depression Helpline – 0800 111 757
- Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
- Shakti Community Council – 0800 742 584