Finding hope in the darkness

One Christian leader’s battles with mental health issues is focus of his new book.

A Chat With

Mark Meynell

By Colin Blakely

Churches should be kind. That’s the message from Mark Meynell who has just published a deeply personal account of his struggles with mental health issues.

He was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder when he returned to this country in 2005 to take up a pastoral role at All Souls, Langham Place. But he realised that his depression had longer roots and he found it a struggle to cope.

“I had worked in East Africa for four years in a small seminary in Kampala. We had one or two things happen that in retrospect had a damaging effect on my mental health. We came back to the UK in 2005 and almost immediately I started having panic attacks. I was deeply doom-laden and fearful. I realised it was not normal and that I needed help. It was obvious that it was quite extreme reactions and I was then diagnosed with PTSD.”

But it was a seemingly trivial incident that sparked it off. He was in Berlin and mistakenly took a tram in the wrong direction. “It was trivial but it was an odd moment. It is incidental that it happened there, but it was a junction or formative moments.

“The immediate presenting issue was that I took a tram in the wrong direction. I suddenly realised that one of the big issues was my sense of shame. It was mildly embarrassing, with the emphasis on mild. But I was just overwhelmed by it. It opened the door to the much bigger sense of my own shame and that forced me to understand what that meant.

“One of the mistakes we have perhaps made is to exacerbate the distinction between shame and guilt cultures. It is more the orientation to sin and guilt. Maybe in the Protestant west we are more guilt-oriented, but shame is still a basic issue. I have had to unpack that and ask what it means.

“At the tram I realised I was ashamed that I had depression. I was a minister; I had been trained, relied on and therefore supposedly more sorted than other people. I realised to my horror that I wasn’t and it was deeply humiliating.”

However, he found solace in the Bible and he modified the title of his book When Darkness seems my closest friend from a verse in Psalm 88. Only there the Psalmist is even more emphatic: “Darkness is my closest friend.”

“One of the things that the psalms has done is to tell me that 3,000 years before I have been having this thing someone was having something uncannily similar.”

However, he took courage from the fact that ‘they have not kept quiet, they have spoken it back to God even when God doesn’t seem to listen. “Psalm 88 is a classic example and you can’t quite believe it is in the Bible because there is no resolution in it whatsoever. The book’s title is taken from the last line, it is categorical.

“I know that this is perception, but in the pit of the cave it does seem that darkness is my closest friend. The darkness screws up your perceptions. With it in the Bible I feel I can grin and bear it because I know I have not been the first.”

He uses the word ‘cave’ to describe his feelings because it is so unpleasant. “I think it was reading William Styron’s book Darkness Visible that was a turning point. The importance of language and vocabulary is important. I knew that the depression word didn’t do it: it was too dilute and didn’t meet my need.

“When I thought about caves… I have been caving once with friends and think they are mad. I latched on to that imagery as there were many aspects of that which resonated.”

Stryon, the author of Sophie’s Choice, became something of a friend to him in his darkness, even although the author had died a decade earlier. But he also found solace from music, hymns, literature and the Bible. At this time he was on the staff at All Souls. He found it both easier and harder to cope with his PTSD there.

“On the one hand it was easier because it was larger. Some things were easier to hide and that can be helpful or unhelpful. And sometimes when you are not at full capacity there are others who can cover for you.

“If I had been in a small context perhaps with one or no colleagues then that would have been much more stressful.

“On the other hand it is large, successful and busy. Inevitably when there are a lot of people, that requires organisation, systems and processes. One can get sucked into the machine and get chewed up a bit.”

Mark Meynell (whose surname rhymes with kennel) began writing the book as a personal quest, to help him understand what he was going through, but as he shared chapters with close friends he found it resonated and was something that had value for others.

“Going through mental health battles one is trying to find things to cling on to, people to share with and things to have in common.” And that included members of the clergy. And perhaps that is because there is more pressure on clergy.

“Look at the kind of job description, look at what people are asking for: it is Superman. It is absurd. When we expect all of that to happen it just leads to disappointment.

“More understandable is when you have people who themselves are aware of their brokenness and they want to be able to rely on people for support and a clergy figure is an obvious person to lean on. And when you realise that they are less than reliable or that they are flawed, mental health being a case in point, that can be disarming and unsettling.

“On the other hand, I have found that when I opened up to other people then it has been liberating: perhaps we are all abnormal together…” In his book he stresses the importance of Grace in his journey.

“It is only because I know myself and my weakness and sins. In the Gospel there are many more salves for this than we credit. I am loath to use the word ‘answers’ but the Bible provides balm, it is healing. “Grace means patient accompaniment. It means unshockability and walking along the road and accepting people even when they are not sorted yet. That in the end is why I am a Christian, it is the Gospel and it applies profoundly to all of this stuff.

“If there wasn’t grace I could do it and I wouldn’t be a Christian. A legalistic mindset, the opposite of grace, has no room for brokenness it just cracks the whip. And where you find legalism expressed in a church it will be a church that has no room for brokenness.

“Grace is fundamental.” Meynell, who in his childhood dreamed of being an opera director, has included helpful resources in his book, and even created a Spotify playlist because he believes that music, particularly music without words, can be helpful because it is so abstract. However, among the ‘cave’ songs he includes is U2’s I still haven’t found what I am looking for. While the tone of the song perplexed some of the Christian followers, it only served to inspire him. “That song is fantastically faithful. A theology friend calls it one of the finest depictions of biblical eschatology in music because Bono says explicitly ‘you know I believe’, but the point is that I’m not there yet. ‘I believe in the kingdom come,’ he says.

“The tensions are also there in the Bible. To be faithful to scripture is to be ready to wrestle with the tensions that are there on every page. From Job onwards you have the assertions about the nature of God, about his goodness and justice, then there is the reality of living in a screwed-up, broken world and here’s me in the middle. How does it all
work? That creates the drivenness of a prayer like ‘How long O lord.”

He points also to Romans 8, ‘everyone’s favourite purple passage’. “That is all about the now and not yet. “It is doing the spiritual splits and doing the splits is painful. And mental health will be one of those things. An expression of what it is like to live in a fallen world. “In the end the question is: can I keep trusting God as he is presented? And there are days when I struggle.”

He is, however, sure about the blind spots of the Western Church. “We are not good at helping people in their discipleship incorporate a theology of suffering. It is a very important ingredient. What are you going to do about the struggles to come?
“The Puritans prepared people for death, that just normality for them but we avoid our mortality, we ignore our flaws and sins. Although we are very quick to talk about other peoples’.

“As a matter of discipleship we need to help people to suffer, to sin and to fail well. It is not that we encourage sin or failure but we acknowledge the reality of all of things for everybody.

“The issue is not ‘are you going to do it’ but how are you going to pick yourself up and deal with or, or deal with it in others.

“A supposedly successful organisational institutional approach to Christianity is not going to have the space for that.” And he would like the church to be kinder and quotes the famous adage ‘Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.’ Although it is often attributed to Plato, it actually first appeared on the pages of our sister newspaper The British Weekly in its Christmas edition of 1897. Meynell would like the adage to be used more often, partly because people with mental health issues are afraid of the stigma, and also because people might not even realise they are affected.

“There may be symptoms that they might not have articulated or linked together as being classic expressions of depression. This can be a sense of one’s worthlessness, awfulness and evil, and that gets exacerbated by a thoughtless preaching about sin.

“There is always a degree of guilt because we are human, but a depressed mind will explode that — exaggerate that — into a total sense of identity and that is very unhelpful and not right and it is not how God sees us.

“How we talk about those things needs a lot of nuance and care. I’m definitely not saying that we don’t talk about those things but we need to be doing it carefully.”

His book was published during Mental Health Awareness Week and he is glad that the public perception is changing.

“Another focus these days is about anxiety rather than depression. People live with high degrees of unhealthy anxiety. It is nature’s ways of getting us out of danger, but hyper vigilance is very unhealthy and dangerous. There are probably a lot of people who have that and don’t even realise it.”