September 2012

Our challenge

I’m sure that somebody reading this has been affected either directly or indirectly by mental illness. I have. Mental health problems, suicide and attempted suicide have touched my life in so many ways, writes Marie Lunt.

BY Marie Lunt

When my sheep were returned home from being shorn recently, it took me just a little over five minutes to recognise who was who. And, as I was trying to identify them, I became a little anxious and fearful that the farmer may have got them mixed up with his own sheep.

Even calling their names out loud only intensified the situation. But of course, I was only giving in to my fear and quickly saw the funny side. The sheep, too, weren’t as sure-footed as when they left, but justifiably so, they had just lost all their wool and had scored some nicks from the shears. However, with some gentle reassurance, a warm shed and a good feed, it didn’t take them long to lift their spirits.

I don’t know why, but this short-lived experience conjured up thoughts of how we’re all made in God’s image. I couldn’t help but marvel at how these sheep were stirring my spirituality. Here I am with my pet sheep, all standing naked before me and I couldn’t even recognise them! And yet, I thought how comforting it is to know that God can call us by name. “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine” (Isaiah 43:2).

We all know fear; it’s a normal part of our make-up that helps us to stay alert and alive. Fearing that a crocodile might eat you whilst crossing crocodile-infested waters is rational fear. But the fear that prevents us from feeling good about loving our self, we are told, is irrational. This fear is destructive; it conflicts with life, devours the spirit, leaves us mentally and physically debilitated, and sadly, so often can lead to suicide.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, more people die from suicide in Australia than from road accidents or skin cancer. Rather disturbing, don’t you think? But it’s also disturbing that mental health awareness and suicide prevention doesn’t receive the attention it warrants. That’s why annual commemorations like Suicide Prevention Day (September 10) and World Mental Health Day (October 10) are so important. They aim to raise our awareness about mental illness and suicide and challenge us to respond in our daily lives – to be more aware of those around us, to fine-tune our communication skills and to respond to those in need.

I’m sure that somebody reading this has been affected either directly or indirectly by mental illness. I have. Mental health problems, suicide and attempted suicide have touched my life in so many ways. I know what it’s like to live with someone who has schizophrenia. I know how some professionals cynically view mental illness. I know the frustration involved in trying to get someone admitted to a psych unit. I know that people give mental disorders a wide berth, and I know the shame and stigma attached to the word suicide. Hopefully, and by our own intervention in helping to prevent suicide, we will see a marked reduction in suicidal-related deaths.

Like many of us today, the fourth century philosopher and theologian, St Augustine experienced tough times. But in those impossible and hopeless situations, he discovered that he had two choices: one was to do nothing and stay miserable, the other was to “let go and let God” (L. P. Burns). He chose the latter; he listened to his heart resonate with the voice of God. “God commands not impossibilities, but by commanding he suggests to you to do what you can, to ask for what is beyond your strength; and he helps you, that you may be able,” says Augustine.

Whenever we are anxious and fearful, St Peter, too, reminds us to “cast all [our] anxiety on him because he cares for [us]” (1 Peter 5:7). God loves us and knows our limits. He will never give up his love for us.

I am always in awe whenever God attracts my attention. And it happens whenever I least expect it, like with my sheep, recently. God is full of surprises and, had I not listened, my fear may have consumed me, and then I wouldn’t have been able to recall or share that ever so brief but happy chance.

God is forever communicating by sending us invitations to listen. When I communicated with my sheep, I was challenged to listen to my heart; I then acted accordingly. I recognised fear and I laughed. By refusing to entertain negative self-talk, regardless of those past hurts that often create a false sense of betrayal or abandonment, can only be seen as a positive step towards competent and effective communication.

We live in a multicultural, pluralistic and fast-paced world. Our communication skills must be honed on a daily basis. We need to be fully present to others; we need to interpret their body language; and we must acquire that special empathy that fosters trust by tapping into true emotions. As Jean Vanier says: “To listen to someone means to become open and vulnerable to him or her and allow them to disturb us, to change our habits and our ways of thinking and seeing things.”

This is our challenge.

Marie Lunt

Marie Lunt has worked as a health care professional for over 28 years. She says her life has been enriched with many varied experiences, from delivering newborns to caring for the dying. She lives on a 20-acre property - "a piece of heaven" - just outside Maryborough, Victoria, with her pet sheep, dog, rosella and 80 olive trees.

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