There but for the Grace of God

Photo: Christian Erfurt

Young people at university in the UK are facing significant mental health issues under coronavirus lockdown.

Charlotte Pearson-Miles shares sad news about someone she knew, and reflects on her own struggles as a student and the way out she found in the words of Jesus.

Prayer days, outdoor services and light displays will have taken place at the weekend for those coping with bereavement amid the pandemic.

It’s good to remember, and to take time to grieve. I’m grieving loved ones I knew well, but this year I’m also grieving someone whose life only crossed with mine briefly.

Before coming to work for Doorsteps, Viva’s partner network in Oxford, I was a teacher. I’ve taught many subjects at many schools over the years, so my life has crossed paths with many memorable colleagues and pupils. I always love hearing what past pupils have gone on to do, and be.

I wasn’t prepared to hear of one’s death, though. Recently, the tragic news reached me that a former pupil of mine had committed suicide. A university student.

Our lives only crossed briefly but she left a real impact, a clear memory of a bright, bubbly girl full of life and sass when I last saw her years ago.

I don’t know the full story – whether she had been struggling with mental health issues compounded by university lockdown; or body image issues, faced with the relentless air-brushed social media posts of friends who seem to lead golden lives; or whether there were other factors at play.

Whatever the story, my heart goes out to her family and friends struggling to cope with the loss.

University can be so hard, so lonely, so full of pressures. It has been reported that one student per week has died at university since the start of term in September 2020.

Looking back, I can see that many of those pressures were of my own making, in my own mind.

Photo: Emma Simpson

‘Mental Health’ wasn’t even a thing when I was at university. I was desperately unhappy in my second year, often hiding in my room and ignoring friends knocking at the door, trying to entice me out to be sociable.

Looking back now, it’s hard to put myself back into that mind-set. To remember the negative spiralling, trapped in the dark places of my own mind.

There was a way out for me. I was one of the lucky ones. As a languages student, I spent my third year abroad, and that was a life-saver for me.

Bit-by-bit I rediscovered so many joys in life: re-reading old favourites like CS Lewis in German, making friends, enjoying food again, going for long walks in the beautiful woods above the River Danube, learning to play the piano again – such a joy to have a piano in my room!

There were still moments of darkness. My favourite uncle, a real larger-than-life character, was dying on the other side of the world. I wanted to tell him how much he meant, so, in those ancient days before instant communications, I wrote him a long old-fashioned letter.

He died before the letter arrived. That triggered the darkness again. The negative spiralling came back in force, the old prison of my mind, the lies.

Wanting to grieve him, I decided to go to church, looking up a protestant service time. It was the coldest unfriendliest church I have ever visited. My memory is of an echoing room like an amphitheatre. Nobody spoke to me.

Somehow I knew that church shouldn’t be like that. Back in my freezing room I opened a King James Bible I had felt ‘prompted’ to bring back from home when I visited at Christmas.

Hannah Busing

I don’t know how I knew to open it to John 14, but I did. Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me.” The ‘let not’ of the King James wording particularly resonated with me. I had a choice. A way out.

There are so many metaphors, psalms and hymns about similar experiences, the moment of coming to faith, of finding one’s feet on solid rock instead of slippery mud and mire.

One of my favourites is the Wesley hymn, ‘And can it be?’, especially the verse:
‘Long my imprisoned spirit lay, Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray – I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free; I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.’

That was my experience, my way up and out. I only wish that my former pupil had managed to escape the dungeon of her imprisoned spirit. I pray that she is now at peace.

If you know of anybody struggling with life at the moment, please find ways to come alongside even if it seems they don’t want you to. Keep knocking at their door, keep praying and signpost them to organisations who can help. These include:

and this one from the NHS which links to a lot of others

I now work for Viva: a Christian charity dedicated to changing more children’s lives to fulfil their God-given potential. We build and support networks of grassroots churches and organisations to protect and provide for children.

To come alongside and bring light in darkness.

Charlotte Pearson-Miles is Partnerships Manager for Doorsteps, Viva’s partner network in Oxford


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