Traumatised in Leadership
Jo is an Anglican Priest who experienced PTSD and is now helping others to lead well through their trauma
When I was ordained a friend bought me a mug – it had a slogan printed on it: “Keep Calm – I’m a Vicar.” As well as being a Parish Priest I was a voluntary Police Chaplain and I took that mug with me to the station. The Police Officers loved it. Firstly, they knew which was my mug but secondly, it summed up my role for them: “It’s ok – the Vicar’s here – if we need to talk, she’ll listen.” Over the years working with front line Police Officers who faced the daily stresses and traumas of life I’d come across many people who were keeping calm and carrying on – all I could really do was make these tired, emotionally drained, ultra-professional human beings a cuppa, greet them with a smile and offer to listen, if they ever needed to talk. Many did talk to me, some never did, but numerous were struggling with hidden mental health issues. They needed to keep calm – they couldn’t take their stress out on the general public.
Six years ago a stressed out minister I was working with reached the point where they couldn’t keep calm again. I delivered some difficult news and it pushed them over the edge. They exploded into a rant of shouting and I was the innocent target. As they screamed at me I froze to the spot, to this day, I cant recall what they said exactly, just that they were extremely angry, shouting in my face, and all I heard was a high pitched noise, I think they call it white noise.
I knew that this person was ill and that the shouting and screaming wasn’t about anything I’d done, or even about me. It was about them – and so when they apologised I tried to forget about it. I spoke to a senior minister about it, asking for help and guidance, and their reply was that there are many dysfunctional people in church. The issue was largely brushed under the carpet.
Over the next few weeks, I started to feel anxious in situations I’d breezed through before. Despite years of public speaking in ministry and teaching, the thought of standing up at the front brought on a panic attack. I spoke to the doctor about it and was given Beta Blockers to take away the physical symptoms. I was determined to carry on, finish my curacy and move to my first church as Vicar. I couldn’t think straight and I began to lose my confidence. On days off I slept more than I had ever done before and I missed out on family holidays by spending the whole time in bed. I was exhausted but determined to “Keep Calm and Carry On.” I couldn’t, of course, and when I was asked to return to the church where the minister had shouted at me I finally broke. I was overwhelmed with panic and I started to cry. I think I stopped crying a few weeks later.
Unable to function I was forced to take time off. I slept and rested for months and when I regained some energy I began to deal with my mental health and get to the root cause of my anxiety. I was helped by my GP who sent me to a number of therapists, each using different approaches. They helped, but the anxiety didn’t lift. I later met a psychotherapist who focused on the trauma which seemed to trigger the anxiety – the day the minister had “lost it” with me. He had discovered something I was trying not to think about, something I was too afraid to face or deal with, but something I knew I couldn’t hide any more. I had been violently attacked when I was 19 years old and had been so traumatised by it that my brain shut it out of my memory. It had come to light again on the day that I was shouted at and I experienced fear similar that of the attack.
I had tried to put it back into my memory box, it would do me no good coming out now, but it was never going to disappear and my efforts were exhausting me. Finally, with a diagnosis of PTSD I have been able to deal with it and subsequently move on from it. The memory isn’t in control of me, the fear has left and I am functioning well again. I have learnt a great deal about mental health over the years and witnessed many people ignoring their needs in an attempt to keep calm and carry on. I’ve seen people burn out in ministry, helping everyone else around them whilst neglecting themselves and their own needs.
There are many church leaders looking after other people but not looking after themselves. The effects are damaging, not only to themselves but to others too. The minister who shouted at me was not only damaging themselves, but their explosion also damaged me and my ministry. Scratch beneath the surface and many church leaders will talk about the stress of their job, the isolation they feel and the fear they have of being judged and criticised if they speak up about it. The stigma surrounding mental health is huge in the church. As church leaders we are expected to be super human, always there for people, always know their needs – without them telling you – and to always be well, physically and mentally. When I broke my foot a few years ago, people were sympathetic but glad I could still stand up and take the service that week.
The dog collar I wore for the first time at my ordination did not give me superhuman powers. I didn’t receiver extra sensory perception, I don’t know if ‘Mrs So and So’ is ill and needs a pastoral visit without being told and it doesn’t give me immunity to ill health. I am just a human being in public ministry, wearing the appropriate uniform, relying on God’s help and strength every day.
Jo Whitehead is the Associate Pastor at St Werburgh's, Derby.