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Q&A: Katharine Welby-Roberts 

Editor Ruth Jackson spoke to Katharine Welby-Roberts, a commentator on mental health, daughter of the Archbishop and author of I thought there would be cake

Ruth Jackson: A lot of your book revolves around your struggle with anxiety, depression and self-doubt. Do you remember how old you were when these began to surface?

Katharine Welby-Roberts: I think I was probably about 16 or 17 when I was diagnosed, and before that I still had crippling self-doubt. I think we all have self-doubt to a certain degree; it’s kind of engrained in society. We’re always told we should be better and we’re not ever going to be able to meet that standard. If you’ve got a tendency to see the very worst in yourself, that makes it harder. Regardless of mental health problems, teenagers are going to struggle with that and the pressure of social media can make it worse.

RJ: How do you think we can spot depression and support those with it? 

KWR: That’s tricky because it’s quite individual. Lots of people talk about the classic sign of withdrawing, but I didn’t really do that. I just withdrew into my head, but carried on as I had been outwardly. Sometimes it’s really hard to see, which is entirely unhelpful. 

I think it is about making an environment where children and young people feel they are able to talk and express those feelings without fear of ridicule. I remember very much as a teenager I really didn’t like how I looked. If I ever mentioned that to somebody, they would say: “Don’t be silly, you’re beautiful”, and actually I found that really, really unhelpful. I wanted to talk about my insecurity, but I couldn’t because I was thin and that is the ‘desirable’ thing to be, and therefore I shouldn’t complain. So I learned to internalise a lot of that.

I think we should create an environment where if somebody says: “I’m struggling with this”, we don’t say: “Oh don’t be silly, you’re wonderful.” While you’re trying to say something helpful, young people need to be able to express themselves and talk through those doubts. It’s about asking: “What makes you feel that way? How can we address this? How can we journey in this together?” 

It’s very difficult if someone doesn’t want to talk and, at that point, you just have to be very present. You can’t put pressure on, because that is going to make things harder. But at the same time you need to be aware, be watching and be engaging. And I think, not saying: “Buck up” or “cheer up” or: “it’s not that bad, you’ve got it so good”. It was the fear of being dismissed that prevented me from talking to people.

Look for inspirational people, because, as a teenager, you’re not going to be desperate to talk to your parents about it. Have people they can relate to who have been through it. The Mind and Soul Foundation website has helpful resources.

Boundaries aren’t a lack of love. The more of other people’s rubbish you take on yourself, the less you can help them

RJ: Are there practical things we can do to make life easier for young people who are struggling?

KWR: Show that you are there and available in a non-pressured way. Invite people to things. If you begin to see a pattern that someone always turns down groups, make it a one-on-one thing. Or, if they always turn down one-on-one, make it a group thing. Often people will say no, and don’t want to impose their company on you, so just texting is a really practical thing. When I’m really ill, some people will start to drop off because I’m not replying. People with severe depression will pull back; that is the very nature of the illness. I have one friend who did an amazing thing by sending me a text, just once a week: “How are you doing?”, usually with a little joke. I’d reply sometimes, I wouldn’t reply other times.

These illnesses are long-term, so don’t expect a quick fix. Don’t just pray for someone and then leave it at that. Journey with people, go the long term. Sure, offer prayer, but don’t let that be your only solution or even necessarily the very first one you offer. Demonstrate practically that God cares by being God to them. Jesus would come to your house, even if you just wanted to sit and watch TV in your pyjamas. That is who Jesus is, so be that person. Don’t think that it’s going to be over in one or two months. I’ve been diagnosed for twelve years, but probably had it a few years before that and it doesn’t look to be on its way out. This is something I’m living with in the same way my husband lives with diabetes. 

RJ: What is particularly helpful or unhelpful when someone is struggling with depression?

KWR: I think the longer someone has been living with it, the more you shouldn’t talk about healing. I only talk about healing with a select few people, not because I don’t believe God can and will heal me, but because I’ve been really badly burned by people saying: “I feel God’s telling me that he is going to heal you today.” That’s great, but you could keep that to yourself in case he doesn’t. Why raise my hope? I’m struggling to find hope as it is, and you’re coming in on a one-off, and not having to journey with me long term. I still pray for healing every single day, and I still trust that God can and hopefully will heal me, but he hasn’t yet, and I think that is incredibly unhelpful. 

Also, talking about God’s love and the ‘joy of the Lord’ as a solution to depression is unhelpful. I understand the joy of the Lord, I have experienced the joy of the Lord, but it hasn’t taken away my illness. I don’t think it’s incompatible to have depression and understand the love and joy of the Lord. You’re in a very dark place and God comes in anyway.

Look at the Bible, it is full of very practical things you can do. People often come in with a verse that’s going to fix everything or an example of how Jesus did this, or a friend who was healed in ‘this way’, which I always find very unhelpful. Instead, look at the road to Emmaus. Jesus doesn’t come in and go: “You’re idiots!” Well, he does slightly. But he journeys with them. Did you know Elijah was suicidal? God rained down fire when he asked for it. That kind of miracle would be amazing from God, but Elijah ran away and said: “God, just let me die.” God was very practical. He sent an angel to feed him. He did that until Elijah was ready to go on, and he wasn’t better, he wasn’t happy and skipping and joyful. He got to the next place and he was like: “Uuuurrrgghh” still! The Bible offers us examples of things we can do to support people practically. Food, drink, friendship, texts. Ask the young people what they need, because generally, people know. 

RJ: How do we support young people who also have all the added pressure of the digital world?

KWR: I don’t know. I’m quite a few years off, my son is only 10 months, so he’s not on Twitter yet! The people who have been parenting this last ten years of teenagers deserve so much credit. They have had to learn as they go. The statistics of how many kids have been told they’re not allowed on social media and have secret social media accounts is staggering. I don’t want my child to have secret accounts, so I won’t ban him from social media, but how do you navigate that? I think I would like to learn to talk to him about it as he grows up, so he is prepared for it. Online bullying, pornography, engaging in these subjects from a young age, but also sharing the joy of social media, because I really enjoy it! Sure, you get bullies, but also you get community. I think that that’s a really good thing for young people. During my pregnancy I was house-bound because I had chronic fatigue and severe exhaustion, and social media was my lifeline. 

We have to learn from young people because they understand social media better than us. They know all the sites, they know the pressures better. For me, it’s all about journey and relationship. When you’ve got a good relationship with a young person, you can talk about these things, and ask: “Why do you keep going back there if people are so mean to you?” And they might have a good reason, or it might be based in self-doubt and self-loathing.

Young people need to be able to express themselves and talk through their doubts 

RJ: How do we stop other people’s baggage becoming our own? 

KWR: I think that it’s about understanding that a boundary isn’t a lack of love; in fact, it is a declaration of love. I think the more of other people’s rubbish you take on yourself, the less you can help them. Many times I have been so engaged in someone else’s suffering that it has actually severely impacted my mental health. I would rather not engage to that degree with their suffering so my mental health stays stable, so I can be a support and a rock for them.

RJ: How do you try to listen to God’s voice above everyone else’s?

KWR: That’s a very good question. I wish I had the answer. Do you know Father Raniero Cantalamessa? You look at him and think: “Dude, I think I can see Jesus!” He is so inspiring, but I think that comes from years - not of a suffering-free life - but from years of holy practice of prayer and going back to the Bible again and again every time you doubt, every time you fear, every time you question.

God doesn’t promise we’ll live lives free of suffering. He promises that he loves us, that he will be with us. He promises a counsellor who will comfort us. I think it’s accepting pain as a part of life and accepting that God understands that pain. Look at Jesus’ life, it wasn’t exactly a walk in the park! It’s accepting that, no matter how much we might doubt it, God does love us, and I assume that, one day, it’ll sink in… hopefully.

RJ: How has becoming a parent affected your depression?

KWR: I really struggled the first four months. It was so hard, so overwhelming and so permanent! I wanted this child, but he’s here for ever! It is very isolating. Mummy friends, I have discovered, are the best thing in the world. I have never in my life made friends so quickly because you just have all these conversations about poo, sick, breastfeeding and everything. I go home and all I’ve talked about is poo and sick and I feel so good!

I think it really had a big effect on my mental health. My son is an absolute delight, I adore him. He is ridiculously cute and quite naughty, very cheeky and very stubborn. He might be a handful, but he brings me a lot of joy and he has shown me a lot about love and value when you don’t really contribute very much. I love him unconditionally and he does nothing other than roll around and bang his head! But there are so many things with parenting that are new and different, and you don’t really know what to do. My anxiety has been all over the place, my mood has been erratic at best. So it’s been a real challenge and a real joy for my mental health. Which is a complete contradiction, but that is what mental health is; it is just simply contradictions.

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