Daniel Whitehead interviewing Miriam Swanson on Zoom

Mental Health, Faith & COVID-19 With Miriam Swanson

Miriam SwansonPodcast, Podcast COVID

Episode Description:

Global Student Mission Lead for UK-based university student movement Fusion, Miriam Swanson, shares some precious life lessons she’s received from slowing down during COVID-19. She talks about how to wean ourselves off our “addiction to busyness” and emphasizes the need for churches to befriend young adults who are going through mental health challenges.

A Note of Caution: This episode of The Sanctuary Podcast deals with sensitive subjects such as suicide, so please use your discretion about whether listening feels safe for you at this time. If you’re unsure, consider listening with a trusted friend. This episode was recorded on June 1, 2020. Unfortunately, no video recording is available.

Running time: 39:47

Release date: July 17, 2020

Update on The Sanctuary Podcast:

During these extraordinary times, while we can’t be with each other physically, we can reach out through screens and over phones, and we can share our stories with each other. Join Sanctuary’s CEO, Daniel Whitehead, as he interviews pastors, front line workers, ministry leaders, and friends about their experience of the pandemic and where they are making meaning and finding hope in the ups and downs of this season.

Resources mentioned in the show:


Young Life

Nigel Pollock on The Sanctuary Podcast

Bipolar Disorder


*Born This Way Foundation

Sanctuary’s program development coordinator Jane Born’s post on the Fusion blog

Faith, Grief, and COVID-19

*Correction: In this episode, the Lady Gaga Foundation was mentioned, but it is known as the Born This Way Foundation. 

Crisis Resources:

For your quick reference, here are nationwide emergency numbers and crisis lines:

  • Canada: 911, Crisis Services Canada: 1-833-456-4566
  • British Columbia: 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433)
  • United States: 911, National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
  • United Kingdom: 999/112, Samaritans: 116 123
  • New Zealand: 111, 1737, Lifeline Aotearoa: 0800-543-354
  • Australia: 000, Lifeline: 13 11 14 

Daniel Whitehead: Great, so welcome to The Sanctuary Podcast. My name is Daniel Whitehead. I am the CEO of Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries, and during COVID-19 I am also the host of our podcast. During this time we’re doing things a bit different during—we’re getting different friends we know from around the world, different parts of the world, different locations to just talk about their work, how they’re doing during this time of pandemic, and yeah to see what’s going on for them. And today I’m joined by my friend Miriam Swanson, and I nearly said Miriam Swaffield, because Miriam got married recently. I’ve got a piece I can read to you because…

Miriam Swanson: Oh yeah, go on.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah, let’s see what this says Miriam. It says: “Miriam Swanson is the global student mission lead for Fusion, a UK-based movement that helps university students find hope in Jesus and home in the local church. She is based in Jacksonville, Florida, because she went and married an American, but she helps churches reach students all over the world. Miriam, it’s great to have you with us. Thanks for joining us.

Miriam Swanson: Good to be here, Daniel. Well, from afar obviously; I’m actually at home. It’s really good to be here.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah, in Jacksonville. So when did you move to Jacksonville?

Miriam Swanson: Like eight months ago. I’d never even heard of it before I met Ben. I don’t really know where I am.

Daniel Whitehead: Wow that’s so cool. So well, so because I last saw you about a year ago in England—at an event in England—and I’ll be honest: I heard you speak in England—I haven’t told you this—and while you were speaking I messaged a friend of mine, and I said, “Have you heard of Miriam Swaffield?” Because I’d been living in Canada for four or five years, I’m out of touch with what’s going on in the UK.

Miriam Swanson: Sure, out of touch.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah, and he’s like “Uh, yeah,” and I said, “She’s a really amazing speaker!” And he’s like “Uh, yeah.” So there we go, in my head you’re Miriam Swaffield.

Miriam Swanson: Well, thanks for that.

Daniel Whitehead: But you’re now Miriam Swanson, which isn’t too big of…

Miriam Swanson: I’m Miriam Swaffield in my head too, so I’m still confused. Helpfully, the first three letters are the same so that’s a relief.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah, that’s a bonus, and so you moved eight months ago to Jacksonville but your role is the same. You’re still doing the same role for Fusion, which is this global thing. Tell us a bit about your role.

Miriam Swanson: To be honest, I’d already been meeting with church leaders in other nations who were interested in this idea that the local church could really be at the heart of student mission, and university student mission at the heart of the local church. So anyone that got hungry for that, I’d often go and be that initial “Let’s have a conversation, and let’s see, well, do you have a campus nearby? Have you ever reached young adults before? How is your church community—potentially could be part of that family for this generation coming up.” So all of those initial conversations, and they were happening, are happening all over the world, so that took me to a bunch of places, including the States a little bit, so it wasn’t, it wasn’t a huge stretch to be based here to continue that work. Although obviously at the moment I’m not travelling anywhere, so.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah, of course. And also, Miriam, am I right in thinking you’re ordained?

Miriam Swanson: Yeah technically I am a reverend. Reverend Miriam Swanson, yeah, that happened a year and a half ago, something like that, a year ago.

Daniel Whitehead: Great, and Church of England?

Miriam Swanson: Yeah I was…I’ve had a funny old upbringing. My dad’s actually ordained in the Baptist church—he’s a Baptist Minister—and then I went to a conservative evangelical for some of my teenage years. Then I went to a fresh expression of Church of England when I was at university, and then helped kind of lead it and helped it kind of plant different expressions and things. And then in the process of being in the Church of England in my adult life, just recognized one of the ways the Church of England help recognize and frame people who are leading and trying to start fresh expressions of churches, they like to ordain them. So essentially through a very old funny route I got a Masters in Theology and got a dog collar.

Daniel Whitehead: Wow.

Miriam Swanson: Which I’ve worn about twice.

Daniel Whitehead: Well I would wear it more often if I were you in all kinds of situations.

Miriam Swanson: People think I’m in fancy dress. That’s the trouble. When I was walking to my ordination service, it was really early in the morning [that] I had to go, and I was dressed all in black with a clerical collar. And I knew that people thought I was just walking home after a big night out rather than walking to church, they just so weren’t expecting.

Daniel Whitehead: Which you might have been.

Miriam Swanson: Which to be honest, they weren’t expecting me in a clerical collar but there we go.

Daniel Whitehead: The collar helps, though, right? Because I was a Minister in England for about eight years, and I remember one time a member of our church, their father was—he was an elderly guy—he was in a hospice and he had never really shown any interest, and he said I want to see a priest, and the member of the church said, “Oh well, I’ll get our pastor,” and he said, “Does he have a collar?” and they’re like “Well, no.” He’s like, “I’m not interested, I’m not interested.” He wanted a collar, so he should have bought a collar.

Miriam Swanson: It’s fine. You can fake it. No, don’t do that.

Daniel Whitehead: So Miriam, you got married eight months ago. Quickly tell us a bit about your life [and] who you’re married to if you’re happy to tell us.

Miriam Swanson: Yeah. Ben and I got married in November. He’s a Director for College Ministry for a movement called Young Life. So lots of people will have heard of them, they’re massive in the States but they’re actually all over the world. And he helps reach university students as well. So, plenty of synergy. We first started talking actually because we were called to the same thing: we both raise our own salaries; we both work full-time for student mission, and I met his best friends randomly in Canada actually years ago, and they were like, “You two should at least have a conversation about your two organisations.” So that’s kind of where it began. But yeah, moved over here [and am] part of a brilliant Vineyard Church just down the road, the pastor of which is our best friend who introduced us. So got a real strong community, brilliant little small group, and really love my neighbours as well. I made a big effort when we moved into this street to door-knock essentially and begin to introduce ourselves and say, you know, like, well basically we hosted like a coffee morning with donuts, I sent Christmas cards. Basically with that idea of, “If we’ve just moved into the neighbourhood, what’s it like to live next door to Miriam and Ben?” And I thought, you know, you’ve got a small window of transition when you’re new to set a new normal, and I’m so glad we did now, not only because we’ve got genuinely some of our closest friends in the community are now next door, but because thanks to the pandemic, suddenly our neighbours [are] all the people that you could see, where the people that are on your street. And so to already know about twenty of them—we now know thirty, thirty five of the street—and we genuinely are friends, just when a global crisis hits and you really need your neighbours to be your friends… so I’m very, very grateful for our little community, the way that we’ve been able to make some lovely friendships out of just the people around us.

Daniel Whitehead: Wow, that’s amazing. So talking of the pandemic: how are you coping? How is the pandemic in your world right now?

Miriam Swanson: Well, Daniel, you and I both know that it’s a slightly strange experience, being in a different culture than watching your home nation respond differently to a pandemic than the nation you’re in to varying degrees of success. So we’ve got quite a split experience because I’m on the phone to my friends in England, and probably a third of the people that I speak to and I’m in touch with would say that they’ve had the virus or a friend has, or a family member. My brother has recovered from coronavirus, thank goodness. And I’ve had some friends lose family members to it. And we’ve got some very vulnerable people with medical conditions around us so we try to respond as safely as we can, even though we are less at risk, for the sake of the people around us. But, yeah, it’s very mixed to be in one country that’s had one reaction, and then listening to home.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah I can definitely relate to that, because we were obviously, we watch, I mean—and maybe you can relate to this—we watch British news.

Miriam Swanson: Yeah, right, same here.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah, and we’ve lived here five years and we still watch British news. I just recently downloaded local, like CTV News, because I felt like I should, I’m like, I need to transition over, but I still read British news. So we were watching what was going on in Britain and seeing what was happening, so we were a little bit ahead of the curve in saying, “There’s something bad coming, guys, there’s something bad coming.” And again, BC has done—by God’s grace—it’s been amazing that BC hasn’t been as affected as, you know, other places so… but again, we tend to take our lead from what’s happening in Britain, not so much what’s happening here, which is—we’re way more overcautious than many of our friends, who are saying, “It’s fine now,” or “We can open things up more.” Like, no, we’re going to stay in lockdown as long as, as long as we need to. But okay so that’s—that sounds—actually, in many ways it sounds amazing, like the kind of set-up you’ve got. You’ve got this close connection with your community around you, that you’re in many ways—it could feel like you’re, certainly in the local—you’ve talked about family in Britain, but in the local you’re kind of business as usual.

Miriam Swanson: Well, it’s a bit of a strange one because I was on a sabbatical from work up until when lockdown happened. So because I’d married Ben I needed a work permit to stay and be able to legally work here, so I had to take about four months off until the paperwork came through. And then the strange timing of it was: all my legal documents came through to be able to start work at exactly the same time as—basically I got permission to travel and permission to work, and within two days all travel had been locked down, and everyone had to go home from work or were losing jobs. So there was this strange moment of my start of a new season was just the whole world flipped. So I have not been able to drive here because I needed the paperwork to get a license. I’ve not been able to go further than I can walk or cycle. My life has naturally slowed down and got very local, having had a very international and travelling kind of job. So it’s been this really interesting season where, for me, lockdown was almost a continuation of the limitations that I was in, and in some ways that became a gift because I kind of had a head start in some of these slower rhythms and some of these different paces of practice. I’d been very local; I’d already been cultivating these local friendships, and so that felt very funny but it also meant that, you know, when friends have been furloughed or laid off work, and are going, “Gosh,” I’ve sort of been accidentally given a work break. We’ve then been able to have really healthy conversations around what to do with that time, because I’d just done that for four months, even though I’ve now gone back to work in a pandemic. So, so it’s been strange but a real, a blessing in some ways because it’s not been a big shock to the system in terms of my personal—and that you know that’s a privilege to say that—but in terms of having just been on a sabbatical, it wasn’t a shock to not be able to leave the house or go very far. But for some people that’s felt very, very limiting very quickly, so yeah.

Daniel Whitehead: And that’s really interesting when you talk about the—your sabbatical in the build up to this, and learning some rhythms, I mean call them what you like, rhythms of rest, or I would say rhythms of wellness maybe. Maybe share some of those rhythms: what kind of things did you learn in your sabbatical that you’ve been able to carry on?

Miriam Swanson: Well, one of the biggest things for me, one of my biggest learning—sort of, well, it’s continuing now—was around just not, not feeling guilty and not feeling inadequate because I wasn’t producing something, right. When the world is structuring its whole existence around people as a means to an ends, and then the invitation of Jesus is that people are never a means to an ends, that people are the ends of, like, why he loves us, and why he made us. So to physically and in fact legally have to be okay with being enough because professionally I couldn’t do any public ministry, given that’s my actual job—you can’t just go preaching round churches for free and say it doesn’t count as work; that’s not how that goes—genuinely to have to slow down to the point of going, “I am totally enough and God is enough in me,” and I’m not producing anything that can be measured or can be performed in any way for anyone else—that’s been a phenomenal invitation, and a phenomenal discipline to just be utterly satisfied with: today I read, today I rode a bike, today I planted a garden. Just really normal, normal, normal things and finding holiness in really normal every day, dirt under your fingernails in the soil, or cooking dinner, or, you know, that normal stuff. So that’s been a real gift, and has meant that going back to work, I don’t feel so much pressure, to meet outside expectations of what it means for me to be back at work, and therefore can you deliver—that’s mainly not from Fusion, but it’s more a case of outside invitation that would be, “Oh good, since you’re back could you do this and this and this and this and this,” and actually allowing the Holy Spirit to be, like, “We’re not in a hurry. You are enough. I am enough in you. So what do you think, you know, what am I inviting you into, what would you like to do?”

Daniel Whitehead: So Miriam, tell me, yeah, tell me about this whole thing about slowing down. How are you continuing to slow down your life at this different pace?

Miriam Swanson: So I think one of the, one of the temptations with starting work again would be naturally to speed back up, to begin responding and to begin sort of progress and produce and all that. So Ben and I decided to just begin a morning discipline of centering prayer, which is essentially where you sit in silence for a period of time—we’ve chosen twenty minutes—and you use maybe a word that helps draw you to focus on God’s presence within you. So the word might be “Jesus”, like as simple as that, or “love” or “Yahweh”, just whatever kind of word helps you focus on God. And we genuinely just start our day by sitting and in stillness and focusing that God is in us, that’s it. Now to be honest, mainly at the moment, centering prayer looks like learning how to fight constant distraction, because you spend most of the time really centering yourself that God’s in you before you start singing a song, or thinking about what you’re going to do that day, or you hear a fly or whatever. But I think part of the funny thing about prayer and slowing down—you don’t pray in order to then do it right, so then you’ve done it, and ticked boxes. Half the, well, the whole point really is communion with God. It’s like hanging out with the presence of God. And so as much as it is a frustrating process learning how to be still, and genuinely not ask for anything, or to just to focus that he is in you, and you are with him and that is enough, that helps the whole day be shaped around it, started with stillness, rather than when you’ve done your whole day [and] finally you can be still. So we do a couple of things like that, and even like, it sounds silly but choosing to, like, you know, maybe in our lunch break, walk our little yard and inspect all of our vegetables that we’re growing. But like going through this slow process, being away from a screen for a minute, of watching creation and growing things—for us that’s become this slowing down and like savouring the stuff that we can’t make but somehow we get to enjoy: these massive bell peppers that are growing in our garden, or the tomatoes that keep getting eaten by worms, you know, all that good stuff.

Daniel Whitehead: So that’s really interesting. So I’m hearing, like, learning the discipline of a slower pace, mindfulness, like meditation—these are, these are sort of buzzwords used in our culture, but these are the things you do. It makes me think—in the whole mental health conversation, one of the, one of the challenges can be, that let’s say we’ve all had maybe a relative, someone from a different generation kind of going, you know, “Mental health—that’s a kind of snowflake generation issue, we didn’t, we didn’t have mental health problems back in our day,” and some of us are going, “Really? Are you sure?” But, yeah, maybe, but you know, I kind of wonder if, you know, the very pace of our life that the world has become, the technology, productivity, you know—all of these things have put us under such pressure and strain that the external stressors which can tip someone into mental unwellness or keep someone in a long period of languishing in their mental health, or even like mental, a diagnosis of a mental illness, it’s like we’re surrounded by opportunities to be pushed over into something else. And yeah, it’s kind of interesting to me in this season of slowing, enforced slowing down, that there are some people—I have friends who are saying, “I haven’t felt, on one level, felt this well in a long time, because I have more time to breathe; I have more room to be, to look at the plants, to you know which I don’t normally have; to be with my children which I don’t normally have. It’s just, it’s a fascinating thing and I hope we don’t just revert back to what we did before when we’re able.”

Miriam Swanson: Right, right. It’s that, I don’t know whether—it really depends on your cultural context whether you’ve been, whether we’ve gone cold turkey enough and been weaned off our addiction to busyness, or the rat race or consumer, just consuming… I don’t know whether—I don’t know whether it’s been long enough for some people to genuinely have broken an addiction. I’d love to think that maybe some people that lead organizations, businesses, churches—I’d love to think that they could set a new culture. Because I am really aware that I’ve got friends that would love to have a different pace but they don’t feel able, because if the boss sets the tone, and the boss says, “I get in at 6am and I leave at 8pm and I don’t really see my kids,” there’s this unspoken expectation that to do a good job is to match your leaders. And so I think for those of us that in any way lead teams or others, recognizing, you know, we might have to lead the way in setting the culture of permission-giving, to not spend eight hours straight in front of a screen, but actually to have some space to create, to think, to dream, to write, to engage with your children before they go to sleep, to disciple people or hang out with people, and hear their stories—not just constantly produce something of yourself or, I don’t know… I hope culture, I hope those of us that are able, and lead others are able to give permission that slowing down might actually be the best thing for what people produce and what they do with their lives, rather than somehow you get less by creating more space and some bigger margins.

Daniel Whitehead: And there’s an interesting thread there in leadership isn’t there, about when you think about the role of a leader—I was talking with my friend Nigel Pollock, who heads up InterVarsity Christian Fellowship Canada—he’s the President there, he was on the podcast recently—and he was talking about… I don’t know if it was on the podcast or separately, but he was talking about leadership as creating space to think ahead of the curve, right? This is—leadership is about not reacting to the moment but about envisioning what’s—I mean there may be some reacting—but ultimately we need to find space. And I’ve been thinking that through about, you know, intentionally creating space to, to plan, to dream, to envision, it seems so obvious and yet it just strikes me that our culture, at least the culture I’m in…

Miriam Swanson: It’s so hard to do.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah, it just doesn’t want to give me that space or validate that space. It would say that’s another snowflake thing, you guys—you just want to sit around and dream.

Miriam Swanson: Or you’re made to feel guilty for being off emails when actually one of the richest things that you could contribute is that thought space of having a three-hour gap where you’re not responding to other peoples’ agendas but you’re actually dreaming of what, what is required of you.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah, yeah.

Miriam Swanson: It’s hard, it’s hard, because you do feel pressure to in some way do something that you can then measure, to then show that you’ve justified your existence and all that sort of rubbish.

Daniel Whitehead: It’s so true. I have a friend who’s lived with bipolar disorder, or a diagnosis, and one of his key rhythms to finding wellness, and a rhythm of wellness is to go for a walk every morning. If you asked him, “What’s been a really centering thing for you in your faith, and managing it?” He’s like, “Just going for a walk every morning, it’s as simple as that.” So he had been encouraging me to go—you should go for a walk every morning—and now I do, and I’ve started doing that since COVID started because it felt like well, I can do it now, I want to get outside, and I just feel like I’ve got—I haven’t got to be places, I haven’t got to meet people downtown or in coffee shops, so. And it’s been a tremendous gift, just this simple practice of walking through a forest every day for an hour.

Miriam Swanson: Yeah, that’s amazing.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah, and it’s a gift, it’s—you know—I’m aware of myself; I’m aware of my creatureliness; I’m aware of my own mental wellbeing or lack of; I’m aware of how I’m feeling more. I just keep finding people who stumbled across what seems patently obvious, and yet it comes as a revelation, that, you know, we need to just walk more, be outside more, do gardening more, talk to each other more.

Miriam Swanson: I’m pretty sure people have bought more dogs. I think there’s a rise in puppies—I hope there is, because I think people are recapturing the idea of going for a walk, and the discipline of getting outside, particularly when someone tells you, you can’t go outside more than once a day for example—suddenly outside becomes valuable, because when it’s taken away, you’re like, “I can’t just have it when I want it!” Certain parks become valuable, the beach—when they closed the beach, all the locals here that are like classically fall into that taking for granted that they live by the sea thing, they were, they genuinely—I’ve had friends be like, “I have vowed I will never not see the sea every day after they took the sea away,” and I was like, gosh like, it is funny what things like make you value, and you know like, yeah getting outside every day is a discipline—same here, like cycling for an hour a day, or going for a jog or whatever that looks like to be in, be in the air, be in creation and just reconnect.

Daniel Whitehead: That’s good stuff. Now—student—you work with students, student life, obviously student and mental health conversation: there is some brilliant work out there, people that I know like jack.org is a Canadian organisation [that] do brilliant work with students, and they’ve just partnered with the Lady Gaga Foundation—she’s got something, she’s got some mental health thing, initiative looks quite cool—there’ve been lots of initiatives for students. But I’m interested from your perspective working in the faith-student intersection, what kind of, and you may feel like you’re stating the obvious: but what kind of trends are you seeing? What kind of things are the students you’re working with experiencing in their mental health and mental wellness?

Miriam Swanson: Well, to be honest when we talk to—we help local church student workers reach students, so we’re in touch with a lot of people that would lead groups of students. Some of those groups might be only five, some of them could be as many as like three hundred—this is in the UK—and the number one pastoral question around student discipleship is “What do we do about the mental health crisis?” So there’s always, there’s always a hunger for how do we reach students that currently just don’t know anything about the good news of God—so there’s always that question—but right alongside it, in terms of for the student community that we are already in touch with, what resources are there? Or basically, help—because the gift of the church, being this intergenerational family, this place of encountering God’s presence, is also a very vulnerable place because it’s, ideally at its best, it’s real community, it’s real conversation and it’s like real encounter. But that also means real stuff comes up, and at university, you know, for anyone listening in, you know, who’s ever worked with a young adult that’s left home, you also get this moment when they unpack their stuff in their new life, where they start to unpack their stuff from their childhood, and they’re growing up when they’re stepping into their own young adult space, and beginning to go, “Oh, not every family did that. Oh, so that’s what it was like for you to grow up in an environment where you felt safe. I didn’t realise how unsafe I felt,” or you know, so we find a lot of this stuff—if it hasn’t manifested so much as teenagers; a lot more comes out as young adults, people processing their identity away from the family unit or their familiar. So it is a big need and a big question, just like, as you would expect, you know, if you look at any of the university stats in the UK, for the universities that have chosen, you know, I welcome those that have chosen to publicise some of their statistics around those suffering from mental health, like crisis moments and things. You can see the stats are on the rise and pretty overwhelming—universities feel overwhelmed, and so therefore churches who are looking to engage and serve that population equally feel overwhelmed to be honest.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah, that’s very interesting, it’s very interesting that you talk about that, that’s like the number one or the main thing. It’s not surprising, sadly but it’s very interesting. And what are your experience, I mean—again, your answer may be “I don’t really know,”—but what are your experiences of churches that are doing well in that conversation? Have you met churches that are being really intentional about trying to integrate, trying to make space for that, or is it more just, it just happens organically, or doesn’t happen?

Miriam Swanson: It’s the whole spectrum. I think generally the church is brilliant at befriending, and for a lot of students that are going through various levels of mental health crisis or just ongoing mental health struggles, you know, whether it’s a residual kind of river of anxiety running through life all the way through to, some very scary moments, scary kind of places of like suicidal thoughts and things—overwhelmingly I don’t really know any of the churches, certainly that we’re kind of working with ongoing, that aren’t befriending really well.  And everyone needs a friend, even on your darkest days when you just need someone to sit next to you, and not talk to you but just be there. Everyone needs a friend. So in terms of the church certainly not making anything any worse by praying for and befriending young adults, I’m really proud of the local church and the way they respond. There are obviously varying degrees of how people—the kind of healing and the kind of ongoing journey that they need—and so university resources and avenues are often very oversubscribed. Counselling sessions are often a couple of months if not longer, six-month delay on being able to get maybe as many as six counselling sessions maximum. So I have seen a rise in kind of responses around, “Okay well, can we link students with local churches just to have someone listen to them at the very least? Can we help small groups be safe enough spaces that whilst they’re waiting for professional help they’re not on their own?” Equally, you know, lots of student work do try and address this very directly with kind of evening speaking about mental health, really giving practical professional resources, you know, of which you guys are part of that, you know, as well as being able to pray and just sit with people in it and basically break that stigma that if you’re in church you have to be happy or well, but come to church with all of the pain that you’re feeling, and know that God’s hands are bigger, like he can hold all of that and—I’ve generally seen churches respond very sensitively even if the truth is it does feel a bit overwhelming and you just wish there was an easier way for people to feel okay in the world than often seems to be the case.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah. I think there’s a study that I think, well, needs to be done. We’ve talked about it, and there’s a genuine intent on our part to do a study—I’d be really interested to do a study among leaders of churches, because talking about that, I don’t know, just that innate desire for things to be—for people to be well,or whatever wellness, you’d have to define wellness but, you know, things to be at peace, and things to be, you know, moving along… I think there’s ton more lack of wellness than we realize, even among leaders. I mean, my experiences as leading a church was I, I was struggling with my mental health but I had no language or framework to talk about it. I just I didn’t even know it was a thing, let alone have a permission. And that wasn’t—I’ve never received a diagnosis, but when I look back, I go, yeah, I was like just emotionally dead, and that’s a clear indicator that things aren’t going so well on those fronts. So I’m, yeah, I think it’s really interesting how, I think our students, our younger, younger generation who hopefully are growing up in this interdisciplinary world, where they’re, you know, accessing therapy and faith and they’re kind of implicitly working out, “Okay well these have to co-exist”—Sanctuary tries to help them to go, “Well this is how they co-exist, this is how you fit these different perspectives,” but I think there’s a lot they have to teach the older generations about how to live in the tension of the already and the not yet, and the…

Miriam Swanson: And just the honesty of that, you know, like there is, in the kind of general workplace you get mental health days. Like there is now this increasing acknowledgement of, there are some days that actually coming in is the least healthy thing I can do for the day. And so there is an increasing language in society that gives space for people to not be okay, and that the wellness of a person to come before productivity, looking busy, whatever the thing is. So I think, you know, there are some really positive signs, and I’d say there are also more leaders being more honest about what they’re actually struggling with, for those that have a platform and have a microphone, who are able to share a journey healthily with a group—I am seeing more people realise that isn’t a weakness to share, that you went through a season of depression or whatever that thing may be, that it actually kind of gives permission for the people that thought they were disqualified from being a proper Christian, or whether they really fit in a room because they’re not actually doing okay to go, “Oh, so God can in fact work in me and through me even in the middle of what feels like an absolute crisis.” So I think some of that is really encouraging—a really encouraging sign—but, but as always this is still a very unknown and under-resourced area of health, so it wouldn’t be fair to say that there’s enough out there, you know. I still think there’s always more for us to learn and how to take to care of people pretty well, and ourselves.

Daniel Whitehead: I love—I just want to affirm that idea of friendship. Just connecting students with people who can be friends, who can be present, can be incarnate with people… I mean, that’s such a big part of it, is you know: the isolation and the loneliness, and the internalising of our pain only exacerbates and compounds that pain. So I think it’s just a beautiful vision to, to be committed to the ministry of friendship. As an organization I just think that’s, that’s amazing in and of itself as a goal. So, yeah, that’s cool, very cool. So Miriam, look, I’m not going to keep you much longer, but I have to ask you this question.

Miriam Swanson: Oh yeah.

Daniel Whitehead: What is most culturally jarring being a Brit in North America?

Miriam Swanson: Cheese, what on earth is going on with cheese?

Daniel Whitehead: Cheese—that was my answer!

Miriam Swanson: Mate, isn’t it terrible?

Daniel Whitehead: Cheese, yes, the cheese is terrible, yeah. It’s not cheese.

Miriam Swanson: If you get extra, extra sharp cheddar, it’s only just a normal strong English cheddar.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah. And it still kind of tastes like melted plastic, like it doesn’t quite—

Miriam Swanson: I just don’t understand what’s happened. And if you have to go and buy the good stuff, aka from Europe, it’ll cost you your shoes; it costs so much money. Halloumi is $10 for that excellent Greek cheese that should be on every BBQ.

Daniel Whitehead: Well, and halloumi is everywhere in Britain right. When I was in Britain last October, I was like—

Miriam Swanson: Honestly, there’s been a halloumi revolution at home, yeah.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah, yeah.

Miriam Swanson: Halloumiution—didn’t work, okay, here.

Daniel Whitehead: This is a great moment, this is a great moment. It is the cheese—that was my answer.

Miriam Swanson: Okay, great. Well yeah, it’s awkward isn’t it, but that is genuinely the first thing that came to mind. It’s like, what’s happened to the cheese out here?

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah I have a friend—I met someone once I met who’s a dairy farmer, runs a really good dairy farm in this area, in Canada, and he said to me—we were having a lot of cheese over a meal, which he had made. It was very good cheese. We were like—you know that thing when you’re in Switzerland where they melt it and then put it on vegetables, what’s that called?

Miriam Swanson: Oh come on, man.

Daniel Whitehead: Anyway it was great, and he brought this wheel of cheese, it was about this big. So I ate—I don’t know how much cheese I ate, but it was a lot, and in it he said to me, he turned and said, “Oh, in Britain they have some good cheese.” I’m like, “Yeah we do.” He said, “Yeah, I’ve had a couple of good cheddars from England.” And I’m like, cheddar is English: like there’s actually a place called Cheddar. And he didn’t know that.

Miriam Swanson: Cheddar Gorge, Wensleydale—we’ve got a lot of stuff going on.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah, a lot of good cheese.

Miriam Swanson: But anyway, I know that’s shallow but I think it’s just because we’re in that: Ben and I are on the hunt—because now Ben’s experienced English cheese, you can’t really go back—so we’re on the hunt for what is a, what is a decent cheddar out here, so that’s what came to mind because we just found some yesterday as part of the experiment.

Daniel Whitehead: Very good, yeah. I found Costco sell a really good English cheddar. There is one.

Miriam Swanson: I’ve been told that, but we won’t go near it during the pandemic because as you can imagine, Costco is a frenzy.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah there you go, you’ll have to wait. But yeah there is a very good cheddar from there which will go unnamed.

Miriam Swanson: Fine, because you’re not endorsing any particular brand.

Daniel Whitehead: I’m not endorsing any products. I don’t know why I just thought that makes me sound important, to say I’m not endorsing products.

Miriam Swanson: Sounds like the BBC, not that we’re endorsing the BBC, but I did just there.

Daniel Whitehead: There you go, you’ve done it now. And I did mention Costco as well so, failed there.

Miriam Swanson: Oh yeah, that was your fault.

Daniel Whitehead: Any other comical moments about living in Jacksonville you want to tell us about?

Miriam Swanson: We just don’t understand each other; that’s the truth. I think fifty percent of what I say is just misunderstood. The amount of times that people have genuinely said the line to me, “I have no idea what you said but I loved how you said it,” and I’m like, “Cool.” I just wanted to know where the restroom was. I’ll ask for tap water and I realized that they don’t use that phrase, like they give you table water, if I go, “Oh can I just have tap water please?” they’re like—

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah, yeah.

Miriam Swanson: “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I actually don’t talk in restaurants anymore, I actually make Ben ask for water or do whatever because I’m, like, I’m so exhausted with going, you know, like water that you don’t pay for because it just comes but it’s from a tap, it’s not fizzy, but what, you don’t know what fizzy means—oh, not sparkling, no, seltzer, okay, oh my gosh—it’s so confusing, the words. I think weekly I still say something that someone will go, “Hmm? Can you?” including like Ben, and I actually live with him, so the struggle’s real.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah, I love, I now do it on purpose with my staff, where I’ll actually say things that I know are British. So I’ll kind of have this look in my eyes, and there’ll be this moment of pause, and they’ll look at me and be like, “What does that mean?” and yeah, look it up. But it also means if you do typos when you’re messaging them, and you write something that makes absolutely no sense, you can just say it’s a Britishism, like in Britain that means…

Miriam Swanson: English phrase.

Daniel Whitehead: What it was meant to mean, yeah.

Miriam Swanson: I tell you what: playing Bananagrams when you spell differently.

Daniel Whitehead: Oh, yeah.

Miriam Swanson: Just like anything to do with, like, Scrabble and you’re like, “I can’t give you a point for that,” and then you go and look in the Merriam-Webster, like the American version of the Oxford English Dictionary, and you realize that’s a word.

Daniel Whitehead: Wow.

Miriam Swanson: Honestly it’s just, it’s tough, it’s tough to score points here.

Daniel Whitehead: But again, if you don’t have a British dictionary there, you could just make words up and say that they’re British.

Miriam Swanson: Again, that feels like cheating, but thanks for giving me that advice on record, so I hope…

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah, it’s good to record my cheating skills. Yeah, Miriam, thanks for joining us, thanks for your work, thank you for your commitment to students around the world, and, yeah, just your work in helping the Church be a safer place for students. I just think that’s amazing, so thank you for doing that.

Miriam Swanson: No, well, thank you for resourcing the Church to be a safer place as well. We need each other, so it’s good to be in touch.

Daniel Whitehead: That’s great. And on the Fusion blog they’ve actually got a piece written by one of Sanctuary’s staff—Jane Born wrote a piece.

Miriam Swanson: Yeah it’s great.

Daniel Whitehead: And that’s on the blog and that’s also promoting our grief resource, so you can look that up on the Fusion blog. What’s the web address for Fusion?

Miriam Swanson: Fusionmovement.org.

Daniel Whitehead: Okay look it up, great. Well, thanks for joining us. We will see you next time on The Sanctuary Podcast.

Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries exists to equip the church to be a sanctuary for all people, at all stages of their mental wellness journey, may this podcast encourage you to create safe space for your own story, and the stories of others as well as create change in communities that stigmatize those suffering with mental health challenges. 

The Sanctuary Course is a small group resource designed to help initiate and guide conversations about mental health and faith, it is a starting point, creating a base of shared knowledge from which churches can explore the next steps, perhaps most importantly through the simple act of talking openly about mental health, the course helps churches begin to create safe spaces for people to share their mental health stories, and receive support in community. 

Each theme in the course is explored from a psychological, social and theological perspective, and each session is accompanied by a compelling film focussed on an individual story, a person of faith whose journeyed through mental health challenges. 

This podcast is released under creative commons attribution, non-commercial, no derivatives 4.0 license. Don’t change it or sell it but please share it all you like.