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Mental health: The church needs to talk about mental health

My mental health condition exposed gaps in the church, says NOUS founder Lade Olugbemi

After recovering from a mental health blip, Lade Olugbemi realised that there wasn’t sufficient and effective support and information available within the Christian community for Christians who are battling mental health problems.

So, as Joanna Sopylo-Firrisa finds out in this interview, Lade set up The NOUS Organisation in 2015 to raise much-needed awareness of mental health conditions and the steps those who are struggling with their mental health can take to prevent conditions getting worse, aid recovery or avoid a relapse.

Talk me through your personal experience and how you came to realise that there’s a gap in mental health support within the church.

I never believed that an active Christian could have a mental illness. The stance has always been that the person diagnosed with a mental illness cannot be a Christian: he or she must be backslidden, living in sin or possessed by demons.

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So, when I started to have sudden mood changes, experiencing darkness and sadness that never seemed to lift, even after so many prayers, worship songs and listening to the word of God, I had to keep quiet about it. It was

IMG 1029 Lade Olugbemi, founder of The NOUS Organisation

a discussion never to be held with any brother or sister in Christ. It was taboo. The shame of speaking out and seeking for help was so much! I kept quiet and the condition festered. Mental illness left untreated can travel far and reach the high end of spectrum. That was my story.

My pastor at the time did not understand, and friends struggled to understand; in fact, one said to me when I told her that I was in a dark place that there is more to it than you are telling me; maybe there are unconfessed sins in your life”. 

When I knew that I was losing my mind and control of who I was, I had to go to a GP and it was not surprising that I was diagnosed with chronic depression. The journey of my battle with this condition lasted for almost a year. 

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The experiences I had with mental health services and my Christian community and family made me realise that the information the Christian community held around mental illness was very limited. I believe that the lack of knowledge and information among Christians is one of the driving forces behind the higher level of stigma that we have in black, Asian and minority ethnic communities.

When I tried to contact churches at the early stages of setting up NOUS, there was a lot of resistance, but I knew that this was and is my God-given task, so I persevered.

More and more people are talking about mental health and are highlighting a range of causes for concern, from lack of NHS funding to increasing cases among our young people. From your perspective, what are some of the big issues?

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In my view, the main problem is the lack of awareness of mental health problems and the symptoms and treatments thereof, as having accessible information is so vital. People often don’t know what mental health problems are, how to recognise symptoms, and how to support either themselves or those around them. Awareness is crucial, because some of the mental health problems, when recognised early, can be treated by self-care, talking therapies that support early recovery, and intervention.

Anxiety is a good example. Anxiety lies on the low spectrum of mental health illnesses and, often, doing exercise, going for walks or talking to someone is enough to prevent it from increasing in severity. If you know where to signpost people suffering from a mental health problem such as this, you can help prevent their condition becoming more serious.

Another big issue is disproportion in mental health services, especially when it comes to ethnic minorities being represented among service users. Most mental health services staff come from a different ethnic background, and they’re not familiar with the culture of many ethnic minorities. As a result, they may wrongly diagnose some patients or not know how to talk to them or relate to or identity with the behaviour and customs of their background.

Not long ago, I spoke to a psychiatrist from a black African background. He said that while he was on call, he was asked to see a lady who had been admitted the previous day. The nurse on duty was concerned that the lady may be experiencing psychosis and was reacting to command hallucinations.

You see, the nurse had observed that when the client was admitted the previous day she had very long hair, and when she saw her in the morning she assumed that she had chopped” off her hair. The nurse was not aware that African women regularly wear wigs, and most may have short hair beneath the wig. The nurse believed that the patient was experiencing psychosis as she was not aware of the presentation of many black women.

Why NOUS and not an alternative approach to help address mental health within a Christian context?

I knew that I had to do something, to help other people know that it is okay to not be okay and that they can ask for help. I knew I had to take this as a crusade commissioned by God to set people free from age-old wrong concepts of Christians and mental illness. The message is that mental illness is like all other types of illness; it knows no race, age, colour, academic standing, societal or religious standing, no status, neither the level of your spirituality.

I have spoken with pastors to see if they could give me a space to talk about it at their church. I also felt a need to take it to the wider community. We organised our first conference in May 2015 and it was well attended, thanks to publicity and attracting different media.

What did you have to learn to be in a position to help others?

I needed to add more knowledge to the basic knowledge that I had, so I attended the Mental Health First Aid course in 2015, which was delivered by Mental Health First Aid England, and I have not looked back. I got so much information on self-care and knowledge on how to support people who were experiencing mental health issues. I later went on to train to become a Mental Health First Aid Instructor. I have been delivering the MHFA Adult training in the community since then.

What does NOUS do to raise awareness of mental health problems?

We speak at seminars and conferences that are organised by NOUS or other organisations or local authorities. (Our conferences are free of charge and open to everyone.) We have been privileged to work with local authorities, including Bexley Council, clinical commissioning groups, The People Alliance, Families Together, among others. When we organise seminars or conferences, we enlist a diverse panel of speakers and experts, including psychiatrists or psychologists, experts by experience, clinicians, and carers. At the end of the event, we have a Q&A session so that people can ask these experts questions.

As a qualified mental health first aider and mental health first aid instructor, I deliver training to individuals and organisations. I offer peer-to-peer support in the community, to family and friends and other organisations. In addition to this, I consult with local authorities on how to reach communities and improve access to talking therapies. We’ve also extended our reach to Nigeria and are planning to expand to Ghana and Kenya.

I’ve seen that NOUS is active on social media. Is it important to have a social media presence?

Yes, we have got an open Facebook page and a closed group. Anyone can apply to join the latter. Our presence on Facebook allows people to ask questions, share their experiences, and connect with people who are going through the same or a similar difficult period as well as those who can help.

I do Facebook Live videos where I talk about different issues and give people the opportunity to ask questions. For example, to coincide with the theme of last year’s Mental Health Awareness Week (MHAW) campaign, which focused on stress, we did a live video about stress, where I talked about what triggers stress, how to manage stress levels, and other topics.

People were particularly interested in the stress test, which reveals the level of cortisol (stress hormone) in your body. A lot of people didn’t know that they could request the test from their GP and were very interested in it. We did another Facebook Live for Children’s Mental Health Day.

We also have themes to address specific mental health conditions, such as bipolar disorder. We would take a specific area, such as this, and discuss it from different angles. Our focus this year is body image – how we think and feel about our body.

Thanks to social media, people can contact us from anywhere. If someone doesn’t know how to contact their local mental health service, they can contact us, and we’ll signpost them. We also have a lot of resources on our Facebook page and LinkedIn account.

What can Christians do to help people who have mental health conditions?

I strongly encourage you to become a mental health first aider in the first instance. On the course you learn about the symptoms of different mental health problems and it’ll help you to spot the initial signs of a problem among, for example, colleagues at work, and friends and family. You’ll then know what to do to help. There’s a real need to raise mental health champions around the country who can work with people to encourage self-care and signpost them to local mental health services.

Visit our website to find out about the training we organise, or invite us to speak at your church or conference. On our website you can also find out more about the services we offer and how you can support our work, as it’s important that we keep holding seminars in small communities and reach more people.

What specifically can local churches do to tackle mental health problems?

I encourage church leaders to engage more with organisations outside of their structures, as many are not equipped to deal with mental health problems on their own and they may not know where or how to signpost people to relevant services. That’s why churches would benefit from having mental health first aiders and a mental health framework.

Prayer is, of course, important and necessary, but people who suffer because of mental health must be signposted to appropriate services. Churches have been adjusting to people who have learning disabilities and they need to do the same for people who have mental health problems. The Bible says that we’ll always have the poor and sick among us, and we need to be prepared to welcome them in an appropriate way.

I’m glad you have mentioned the Bible. What has God revealed to you through scriptures about mental health problems?

Proverbs 4:23 is our foundation scripture: Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” And also, John noted in 3 John 2: Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well.”

Our mind is one of the essences of our being: we are spirit, we live in the body, and we have a soul (which comprises the mind). The latter oversees our senses. If the mind is affected, the body and the spirit will be affected too.

Christians tend to focus on the spirit, but we don’t take enough care of the mind. The battle is happening in the mind and it is the door to the spirit. We need to, therefore, take care of our mind as much as we do of the body and spirit.

The Holy Spirit has told me raise awareness of this problem and highlight the importance of the mind, specifically among ethnic minority groups.

If there were one thing you would like us to remember about mental health, what would that be?

As our tagline says: Let’s talk about it.” It’s a conversation we cannot leave behind. Mental health is important. It’s out of your mind that decides who you become; your light springs out of the mind.

About the author

Writer and blogger Joanna Sopylo-Firrisa has worked as a freelance journalist in Poland and has written for various media in the UK. At www​.good​goodlife​.co​.uk, Joanna blogs about faith and everyday life.

See more from Joanna Sopylo-Firrisa

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