October is Mental Health Awareness Month in Australia—a time for better educating ourselves and becoming more aware about an aspect of life that has profound implications for overall wellbeing. While the Baha’i Writings tell us that mental health struggles—or tests and difficulties–in no way impede our capacity for spiritual growth, they do influence how we perceive reality, build relationships, and the amount of energy and focus available to us for pursuing our career and serving others.
In comparison to the suffering experienced because of war, displacement, famine, prejudice and inequality, my challenges do not seem worth mentioning. Who am I to write about hardship when I am coming from a place of such privilege? And yet I do recognize that each of us can only explore the subject of mental health from our own lived experience, so this is my very humble contribution to the dialogue. I would like to emphasize that these are only a few personal thoughts. You can study and reflect on this compilation of Writings on mental health, test and difficulties called Light and Mercy, and seeking professional help to strengthen mental and emotional wellbeing is never a bad idea.
I recently chose to move across the world—a decision that has brought many new joys and opportunities into my life. It has also, however, required that I adapt to a different way of life, build a new community network, communicate in a language that I have not used for many years, and still find the focus I need to get my work done. I’ve come up with a number of strategies that I use to support myself when I notice my mental health needing a boost. Here are a few things that I have found invaluable so far:
1. Building a firm foundation
The Universal House of Justice tells us that “[e]ach of us is responsible for one life only, and that is our own. Each of us is immeasurably far from being ‘perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect’ and the task of perfecting our own life and character is one that requires all our attention, our will-power and energy…”
Moving from a place where I had a strong social network to a place where I only have a handful of close friends hasn’t been easy. Adjusting to so much change while trying to build new relationships doesn’t always work out. I’m learning that there’s no shortcut to building a new life, that it’s unrealistic to expect that new friends will provide the support I need while I build it, and that I need to take the time to find joy and stability in my own new rhythms and daily accomplishments. Building healthy relationships with others is so much easier once we are firmly rooted and secure in the unfolding of our own lives. Regardless of what I am navigating through, being of service to others helps me to contribute and get to know people, and reminds me of the bigger picture.
2. Showing myself kindness
The National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Canada wrote:
“The lives of the Founders of our Faith clearly show that to be fundamentally assured does not mean that we live without anxieties, nor does being happy mean that there are not periods of deep grief when, like the Guardian, we wrap ourselves in a blanket, pray and supplicate, and give ourselves time for healing in preparation for the next great effort.”
I’m slowly realizing that not having much of a support system here is a hidden gift: it’s forcing me to learn how to be kinder to myself. This week that has looked like giving myself extra time to pray; booking myself a ticket back to Canada this winter for some quality time with dear friends; acknowledging everything I have accomplished during this time of transition; finding myself a therapist who can offer me extra support; and signing up for Elizabeth Gilbert’s Letters from Love on Substack, which has given me a new practice of writing myself letters from love. If that sounds cheesy, it totally is. But it is also proving revolutionary in strengthening my capacity to treat myself with the degree of compassion I need while going through this time of transition.
3. Relying on God
I don’t know about you, but often when I notice that I’m struggling to come to terms with a situation that is causing me distress I also notice that I’m overly attached to the outcome I think is best, and have lost touch with the reality that, unlike God, I do not have the ability to see the end in the beginning. When this happens, being honest with myself gets me back on track. It may not eliminate the challenge, but it reminds me that the only way I’m going to navigate through the tests with any grace is if I trust in Divine Wisdom. When I’m feeling anxious or overwhelmed, I find myself turning to a prayer of Abdu’l-Baha about hope and this passage about the Will of God:
“Whatever God hath willed hath been, and that which He hath not willed shall not be. There is no power nor strength except in God, the Most Exalted, the Most Mighty.”
Whenever I recite these words a sense of calm descends over me that I cannot entirely explain. All I know for sure is that placing my trust in God transforms how I experience hardship—even while I continue to navigate through it.
4. Reminding myself that hardship has a larger purpose
Shoghi Effendi reminded us that:
“The troubles of this world pass, and what we have left is what we have made of our souls; so it is to this we must look — to becoming more spiritual, drawing nearer to God, no matter what our human minds and bodies go through.”
In another passage, he wrote that:
“Suffering is both a reminder and a guide. It stimulates us better to adapt ourselves to our environmental conditions, and thus leads the way to self improvement. In every suffering one can find a meaning and a wisdom. But it is not always easy to find the secret of that wisdom.”
I have a very long way to go in finding grace within the experience of suffering, but, at least in theory, I like the idea that accepting suffering as a necessary and natural part of a fully-lived life could make space for greater ease when the waves of tests inevitably roll through.
I hope some of my reflections on the wisdom contained in the Writings about ways that we might navigate periods of stress and overwhelm with greater grace and mental clarity are useful to you. If there are other passages in the Writings that you find yourself returning to when you are in need of extra strength, it would be wonderful if you would share them in the comments section below.
National Mental Health Month is marked in Australia every October in a bid to advocate for and raise awareness of Australian mental health and promote better mental health for all.
If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, please know that you are not alone. Help is close at hand. Call the Lifeline Helpline for support at 13 11 14 or 000 if you are facing an emergency.
Ariana Salvo was born in the United States, and spent sixteen years of her childhood on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. She moved to Prince Edward Island to do her master’s degree in Island Studies, fell in love with the tightly knit community, and has never left. When not writing, she can be found exploring art at galleries around the world, flower farming, traveling to remote islands, hiking and taking photos of the wild natural landscapes of Canada’s eastern shore, teaching English to international students and reading historical fiction with a good cup of tea.