We are looking forward to having 'Freed From Shame' authors Dawn Holmes and Karen Todd speak at Riverside Church (next to Bridge Books) on Saturday 16th June from 10:30am-12pm. We had the privilege to catch up with Dawn for a special interview - we hope this will be a nice introduction to whet your appetites before the main event!
Tell us a little about how you came to write the book.
I started writing the book after having some mental health issues myself, within my family and friends, and general conversations about what the church is doing to support people. I realised that some people were feeling quite disillusioned with the church’s response, so I began to look into it a bit more. About 18 months ago I set up an online survey just to see if the responses were the same as my friends and family. We had 175 surveys back that were anonymous and the majority were saying again that they were quite disillusioned and they didn’t feel supported, they didn’t know how to ask for support. Not everyone was blaming the church, but there seemed to be a lack of knowing what to do on both sides. Out of that online survey I started writing the book.
How did you come to work with co-author Karen Todd?
I got so far with the book and I started realising I needed to find out how to publish it. So I just prayed ‘God, you’re going to have to sort this'. That weekend I went to a conference and there was a lady on a stall who had self-published her book and I asked her how she went about this. And she said ‘haven’t you seen the stall next to me?’ On the next stall was Karen and her husband with a big sign on the table saying ‘Do you need help publishing your book?’ And that was that! I talked to her and she was very excited – she had been looking into mental health and the church’s response for a little while as well so we met up after that.
'Freed from shame' - why this title?
Right at the beginning I had the word ‘shame’ in my head and I didn’t know how to put that because I didn’t want the book to look like we should be shamed if we’re suffering with a mental illness. I decided to stick with the word ‘shame’ but to change it to ‘freed from shame’.
There's a story about the front and back cover isn't there?
We played around with a few front covers and I always had a picture of a person with their head in their hands, that they were feeling shamed, but again I felt that wasn’t right to get across the purpose of the book. Actually it’s OK not to be OK and it’s OK to be in a church and not be OK. So the front cover of the book represents everybody as just the same; you couldn’t pick out who out of those people has a mental illness. On the back of the book we’ve greyed out some of the people - almost 1 in 4 of those people on the back cover are greyed out and that’s how they feel. People who are struggling with mental illness can feel like they’re either invisible, or they stand out too much, or that they’re ignored, or that they are making too much of a fuss, that they’re attention seeking. The front cover was the end product – they are freed from their shame because we’re supporting people and making them feel OK and it’s OK to struggle.
Tell us a bit more about the research that you carried out.
The research seemed to go really well. I obviously didn’t know whether I’d get just one or two replies or whether I’d get loads. There were 175 responses which was great because there seemed to be a wide selection of male and females, different ages, from different types of churches. The one thing that I regretted was that I couldn’t ever go back to them because it was anonymous. I might have had some questions to follow through but I couldn’t because I didn’t know them. That’s the nature of an anonymous survey! At the end of it I put if you want to share with me any further, please get in touch. That’s where the stories in the middle [of the book] came from – people shared further. It was just such a privilege to talk to people and they’re bearing their very souls. They may never have told anybody else ever how they really felt. To start with it felt a bit of a struggle – do I want to put myself in this position to hear these heart-wrenching stories - but actually it was a privilege. I made some friends through it as well.
Did anything surprise you or stand out about the research of the stories?
I’d never really thought about how people felt when they were suicidal. That was my biggest learning curve. I’d never understood how people could get to that drastic point and why they felt like that. Actually talking to people who had suicidal thoughts and were still perhaps feeling that way or had gone through that and [were] able to share with me their journey through that was quite revealing. It doesn’t help people to keep quiet – it helps people to give them a chance to talk about how they’re feeling. That’s what prevents a lot of the successful suicides is someone’s bothered to talk to them about it and listen to how they're feeling. Just the action of talking can make someone change their mind.
What advice would you give to someone struggling with their mental health?
Talk to somebody. You can have that fear of the stigma and the shame that will then stop you speaking out because you don’t know how someone is going to react and you’re unsure - perhaps if you’re a Christian, if your church is going to accept you with it. By doing it both ways – by them talking and then by the church or individuals listening and showing some understanding, that’s huge for somebody. It might not change their mental state but to have someone bother to listen to them is a big deal. It works both ways. The person has to be prepared to talk and share and the people listening and supporting have to be prepared to ask questions and listen.
What advice would you give to someone looking out for someone with mental illness?
Open the conversation. It doesn’t hurt to come alongside someone and ask what it’s really like – 'I don’t understand but tell me what it’s like for you'. They may never have had anybody allow them to speak in that way and that’s freeing for them as well.
What advice would you give the church?
Open up that conversation. From the front talk about it’s OK to not be OK or anybody from the front sharing their struggles – it immediately puts people at ease that actually ‘I don’t need to put on a mask and come to church' or 'I don’t need to stay away from church until I’m better’ which is how some people feel. Just open up conversations whether that’s from the sermon at the front, during prayer times, Individual people in the congregation – just don’t be afraid to talk about it. And practically, the welcome team – that first person that person meets when they come through the door is going to make a huge difference if they’re welcomed and comforted and they’re told ‘don’t worry if you have to leave part the way through, that’s OK’ and ‘don’t worry if you want to sit at the back if you feel unsure’ and ‘don’t worry if you need to go out to a side room because you’re too overwhelmed’. Those practical things make a huge difference.
Interviewed and written by Ruth Clemence