In 2012, Charmaine Wee was first diagnosed with psychosis, followed by schizophrenia in 2015 and schizoaffective disorder in 2018. What worsened the situation was the struggle Charmaine had reconciling her mental health challenges and her faith, especially when well-meaning friends in church gave her advice like “You should read the Bible more” or “Maybe you’re not praying enough or in the right way,” causing her to dismiss her genuine mental health conditions as little more than spiritual warfare.
Her journey toward acceptance and recovery has not been linear — it has involved relapses, hallucinations caused by schizophrenia, and side-effects from medication. However, her pain has not been in vain. Her struggle eventually led her to start Mental Connect with her fiancé, Alex. Read on to find out more about her journey and how believers can better support others like her.
How did Mental Connect come about?
On my recovery journey, I was on Google trying to find resources that were available out there to get help. However, I realised that there was no central portal with mental health resources for a person going through a mental health recovery journey, or for caregivers to access. My fiancé, Alex, and I wanted to create a service directory that would bridge a service gap in the mental health community. That was how Mental Connect came about.
What made you first suspect that you might have a mental health disorder?
The journey was not a straightforward one. I wasn’t aware that I had a mental health disorder. Back in 2012, I was hallucinating hard due to psychosis and it was observed by my then-cell group leader. He asked for help from our vicar and they got a general practitioner to review me. He advised them to get me warded in the Institute of Mental Health (IMH).
After I got discharged, I started attending a different church, seeking answers for my mental illness. Over the next few years, I was unfortunately told that I wasn’t mentally ill, but just needed deliverance from demonic forces. While this may have been well- intentioned advice, it was not helpful for me because it stopped me from recognising my real mental health condition. I just rejected the whole idea that I was mentally ill. I did not relapse for two years though, and that possibly convinced me and those close to me that I wasn’t really ill.
I REJECTED THE WHOLE IDEA THAT I WAS MENTALLY ILL.
In 2014, I started hallucinating again, and ended up getting warded in IMH for a month. However, I was still convinced that it was just spiritual warfare and was resistant to taking medication as the side-effects were quite severe for me. For the next four years, I would relapse year on year. Yet I would not accept that I was ill and neither did the community around me. The only people around me that were trying to convince me that I had a mental illness were my Christian psychiatrists and therapist.
In 2018, while being warded in IMH because of another relapse, God gave me a vision and revealed to me that I was indeed ill and that I should take my meds. I was defeated but convinced that I should start my medical care plan and came to accept that I was indeed ill. That sparked the start of my recovery journey. That was the last time I was warded, and prayerfully never will be again.
I still struggle with residual symptoms though. I have moments of recurring hallucinations and challenging Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs) that can last from a few minutes to a few days. I am believing that God will heal me completely.
How did people around you respond to your condition?
Friends with good intentions have told me, “You need to pray more,” “You need to have more faith,” or “Maybe you have secret sins, that’s why you are sick.” They were talking to me about generational curses, and about being double-minded (about Christ) and more. They didn’t mean harm. They were just offering solutions based on the knowledge they had, but listening to these comments was not healthy for me at all. You don’t go to a cancer patient and say “Oh, too bad, you deserve the cancer because you have secret sins.” If you wouldn’t do that to a cancer patient, you shouldn’t do that to a mental health patient too, right? The brain is also an organ — it can wear and tear, and it can also break down. Mental illness is an illness, and should be treated as such.
MENTAL ILLNESS IS AN ILLNESS, AND SHOULD BE TREATED AS SUCH.
How has your faith played a part in your mental health journey?
It’s been a source of strength and hope. When I questioned God about why He allowed me to fall sick, I felt Him say that it is a part of Him using me for His purposes.
While I am not saying God caused my mental illness, looking back, had He not led me out into the wilderness, I would not have gotten this close to Him and I would not have walked into all that I am doing now for His glory. I know it is He that sustains me.
Also, I hold closely the teaching that if He called me, He will provide. I’ve seen His hand of provision throughout my holistic recovery as He has brought the right people and resources to help me in my recovery journey. To name a few, getting psycho-educated at the Association for Psychiatric Rehabilitation (APRS) and Caregivers Alliance, getting a job in a private mental health clinic, Promises Healthcare, being part of PSALT Care, a Christian mental health support group, and an accepting, empowering, and loving care group at the church I am currently attending.
He also gave me the grace to be able to comprehend all that I’m learning about mental health tying in with spirituality to walk out my recovery. He truly has been sustaining me with His grace and strength in this suffering.
Why do you think the church has difficulty providing support for those struggling with mental health?
There is probably still a general lack of equipped manpower and resources
on psycho-education (not just in the church). Also, no two persons suffering from mental illness are alike. There are some symptomatic similarities within the same categories but the journeys are different. It takes a lot of effort to journey with a person with love, intentionality, acceptance, and care, and to understand how to be a support for those who are struggling.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) indicates that there are eight dimensions to wellness: social, emotional, spiritual, intellectual, physical, environmental, financial, and occupational. One needs to know that it takes a different combination of these dimensions for an individual to be healed.
Personally though, I do think the situation is improving in churches, based on the increased conversations, mental health equipping talks and conferences, and growing interest in the last few years.
STRUGGLING WITH MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES CAN FEEL LIKE BEING AT THE BOTTOM OF A BLACK HOLE LOOKING UP.
What advice would you give to those whose friends are facing mental health issues?
Sometimes your best present is your presence, love, and acceptance. Struggling with mental health issues can feel like being at the bottom of a black hole looking up. Buying a cup of bubble tea over and just hanging out are simple ways to show us you’re there.
Be open to listen to our thoughts but don’t dismiss them. You don’t have to have experienced mental illness to do that. It also helps if you acknowledge how scary or difficult it can feel. Ask what we’d like you to do to help — we’ll let you know.
Don’t tell us to pray more because the Lord knows we probably pray heaps or can’t even bring ourselves to pray right now because the pain is so overwhelming. Keep us covered in prayer instead. Let us know you’re still praying for us from time to time!
Accept that we may behave differently because of the sickness. Sometimes, it can feel like we are defined by our sickness(es), but remind us that we are more than that and love us anyway.
Recognise that recovery is not linear. It can look like three steps forward and two steps backwards. For some, it can even look like two steps forwards and three steps backwards! Be patient, loving, and encouraging. Do not judge. Keep giving your empathic presence if you can.
Finally, get equipped or psycho-educated. There are some good courses by Caregivers Alliance that you can check out!