Speaking Out of Darkness
What began as a dull, autumn day in London has turned out to be a gloriously sunny surprise. I can’t help but think there is something symbolic about that as Katharine Welby and I stroll along Embankment. After the appointment of her father Justin Welby to Archbishop of Canterbury in March, Katharine found herself thrust into the limelight. As a result, her journey in coping with depression has been well chronicled; although the battle is far from over, our discussion brings the sense that there is sun beyond the clouds.
Katharine is bright, bubbly, keen to chat. With her red hair, fluffy blue sweater and funky trainers, she doesn’t strike you as someone inclined to melancholy. She describes depression as something that’s ‘in me, but not part of me.’ It has now been a number of years that Katharine has lived with depression and she is currently, in her own words, ‘disabled’ by her condition, only able to work part-time. Having been a police officer with the London Metropolitan, she has also worked for Livability, an organisation assisting disabled people. She has an obvious interest in the wellbeing of others. It is this compassion which propels her to share something of her story with us here:
What is it like to have been thrust into the limelight and what has that meant for your mental health?
It’s still very odd. I walk through this big, beautiful garden on my way home from work and think, ‘this is my home, this is insane!’ We’re not a fancy family, we’re just the Welbys and my dad’s my dad. That can get me into trouble because I can make jokes about things I shouldn’t. I think if you have been given a voice, you should use it, but you have to use it carefully. It can be amazing to be able to say things on behalf of those that don’t have the same kind of platform.
That said, it’s not been great for my mental health. Although it can be fun, people can get very serious, and then I feel the pressure and think ‘ahh, too much responsibility!’ The responsibility is draining and scary, but it is fun – we live in a palace!
What does it mean to suffer with depression?
A lot of people will feel like they are a fraud, they will feel worthless. It’s a battle of the mind, where every thought has to be weighed to see if it’s real. It’s a negative lens on life. Some people who have poor mental health have lower immune systems; they get very tired and often have upset stomachs.
Has being a Christian made it harder to cope with depression?
It has been hurtful at times when people suggest that I am missing the point of God’s grace and all He’s done for us… The fact that I have been ill a long time does impact my faith at times, but other people’s attitudes don’t affect me – because what do they know about my relationship with God?
Do you think depression is something you can experience ‘healing’ from?
Yes, absolutely. I haven’t met anyone who’s been ‘zapped’ and healed in an instant but I’m sure there is someone, somewhere, who has. I believe absolutely that God can, will and wants to heal me, but who knows when that will be.
That said I do feel like I’ve been going through a process of healing for a while now, learning and seeing progress. Last year was horrific for me; it felt like I’d lost everything. But at the same time I learnt more about God’s love for me, who I am to Him, who I am in Him and that was healing in itself. Although the depression is still a significant aspect of my life, it doesn’t have the same power as it did – it feels almost like it’s removable. It feels like it’s spread to every part of my body. But although it is there, at some point, it will begin to shrink.
How do you balance a hope in healing whilst living with the condition day to day?
It comes down to knowing who God is. There is so much wrong in the world but I focus on the amazing things that God has done and is still doing. I have to have hope: God who created everything has died for me and has promised me life in Him. Quite frankly, everything else is a bonus.
You’ve mentioned how the Psalms have been helpful to you; can you tell us more?
The Psalms are wonderful because they are honest. God longs for us to be honest with Him. In the Psalms you’ll find anger, rage, hurt, joy, but one thing that is consistent throughout is that God is awesome. I think that’s the key to life: we can be brutally honest with Him, but He is all-powerful and will rescue us.
How would you respond to people saying, ‘Of course you’re a Christian, your dad is the Archbishop’?
I was brought up in a Christian family, but it has become real and alive to me personally. At 14 I became a Christian, at 21 decided I wasn’t a Christian, but since then it’s been a gradual return to God. He pursued me and drew me back. My faith is mine. It’s my relationship with God, my relationship with Jesus, my love. Yes I am a Christian, but not everyone is. A lot of people have a cultural faith, but it’s ritual not personal belief. When you explore it for yourself, you make it yours.
What do you think is the role of the church in helping community and those with mental illness?
Church is one the most cliquey environments there is. The majority of people at a church are mostly of the same background. When Jesus chose His disciples, they were from a variety of backgrounds; perhaps we should try and reflect this more at church. We need to be more fearless; we need to get beyond the surface level with people.
We rarely get beyond small talk at church, and I’m not very good at small talk… When people ask me ‘how are you?’ at church, I usually reply, ‘well, I feel pretty rubbish today, but thanks.’ People don’t know what to do with that. I am keen on breaking down the impression that church has to be something perfect. There is the balance: when life is great, share that, but when life is not great, don’t hide it.
Do you think people are afraid of getting beyond the small talk because they don’t know what to do when someone says they are feeling rubbish?
Yes, I think people are afraid. I have a mental illness, I am disabled by it, I have had to go part-time at work. My life is altered because of it. I am officially suffering from a mental illness! But I am not going to go around hacking people with a meat cleaver!
How can friends help their loved ones who struggle with mental illness?
All mental illness is different, but you can ask your friend what they need. Sometimes people want to be alone, but let your friend know that you are there for them. It’s important to know that it’s not going to be easy. Supporting someone with a mental illness can be a huge amount of work and very draining, so get some support yourself. Know your boundaries; you don’t want people to become dependent on you, that wouldn’t be helpful for them. But at the same time, be loving, be present. Understand that their thoughts can be dangerous to them and draw them away from you, so counteract that with a phone call or message.
What are the positives to be found in depression?
Self awareness, although that can be dangerous and turn into introspection, but being aware of yourself can help you recognise when you are being unreasonable…
It’s at this point Katharine falters and for a few moments it becomes apparent what her condition means for the day to day. She seems lost for words, a cloud comes over her face, she lowers her eyes and wrings her hands, apologising. But after a couple of minutes she composes herself and bravely dives in again, responding to the question I ask her about her work in serving the community:
I am passionate about community. There is very little that is worse than being lonely. It’s a very intimidating thing; the world can be so huge. We can get so focused on ourselves, but the gift of community means that you are forced to look at other people. It is not just about who is my neighbour but how is my neighbour? This is a big focus of the Livability scheme. It’s all very well knowing their name, but what if once you close the door they cry because all you did was want to know their name? Working with the police showed me that we can live right on top of one another and have no idea how our neighbour is. I hate that.
Can we achieve that community in London? What are the practical things we can do?
Yes, we can, absolutely. Knock on your neighbour’s door, say hello! Sometimes people will knock back, but it costs you very little to have a cup of tea with your neighbours.
What about personal safety?
I’ve worked in Hackney, which isn’t the calmest area in London, but the statistics for domestic violence in Fulham are not that different from Hackney. People might be more guarded in a rougher area, but you have to be more persistent. Build it up slowly; get to know one person at a time. Use your common sense: it’s about talking, communicating and recognising the fact that no matter what your background is, everyone wants to be known.
You have over 4,000 followers on Twitter. Is that a way you live this authentic life with people, sharing the good and the bad?
I love Twitter. I have made some really good friends over Twitter. I think it can be dangerous, but it is exciting. I enjoy being able to talk to people; I talk a lot!
What kind of feedback do you get from Twitter?
Mostly positive. People love honesty… people are drawn to it. I can be really open with my faith on Twitter and share some of my adventures with people.
How do your friends describe you?
Potentially slightly eccentric, probably quite fun, probably quite joyful… [more hesitantly] caring?
Hopeful depression; what does that mean?
Depression is a beast, but I know it’s not going to beat me!
The chocolate croissants finished, the tea drunk, and a smiling Katharine walks us out, chatting happily about her upcoming wedding and pointing out her favourite parts of the grounds. Although the clouds are still hanging around, I have a feeling it’s the sunshine that will win out in the end.
Interview by Madeleine Miller
Photography by Anna Bnan