Feeling Naked - The Shame of Mental Ill-Health

I want you to imagine a 19-year-old son, telling his parents for the first time that he is not okay. Picture him sitting on the sofa, trying to muster the courage to expose the secret he has been holding on to for some time. Notice that he averts his gaze from his parents as he shares, “I’m not coping.” Instantly, you can see the humiliation wash over him as he turns his body away from them. Feeling so exposed, the boy unconsciously digs his head below the cushions on the couch, a desperate attempt to hide himself from his parents.

I knew that trying to hide under a couple of cushions would never truly make me disappear, but the ‘shame reflex’ had taken over and demanded that I hide from those around me. After all, hiding was what I had become used to doing.

For those of us living with mental health struggles, I imagine you know the voice of shame all too well. The constant desire to hide, to fade away, to conceal yourself from those around you. Perhaps you feel stuck, and a sense of hopelessness has crept in as you are faced with the reality that nothing seems to help lift the heaviness. 

Living with shame is exhausting. Followed around by the nagging reminder that we are ‘no good’, ‘broken beyond repair’, ‘unlovable’, ‘messed up’, and a ‘disappointment’. We can trust that shame will do everything in its power to convince us of these lies.

Christian author John Mark Comer shares a story[1] from Marjorie Thompson about an old man who would sit in the church for hours on end. When asked by the leader of the church what he was doing, the old man responded, “I look at Him, He looks at me, and we are happy.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I find it hard to look at God, especially when my mental ill-health is distorting my mind. I feel too dirty, too guilty, too inadequate to be with God. Like my conversation with my parents, I notice my eyes averting from His. I feel myself hiding from God.

If you can understand what I am talking about, there is good news for us. The Gospel speaks directly to this lived experience. In fact, the idea of God stepping into our shame runs through the heart of the Bible.

Have you noticed that God’s Word starts with His people, Adam and Eve, naked and feeling no shame? Imagine this: to stand before God and others completely unashamed. No need to hide or conceal yourself. An experience of feeling completely lovable.

However, the result of Adam and Eve stepping out of God’s good and perfect design resulted in the first experience of shame. As Genesis 3:7-8 says, "Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realised they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord among the trees of the garden." In trying to cover their shame, they ended up distancing themselves from their Heavenly Father and from each other. 

What started out as fig leaves all those years ago, have turned into cushions for me. I believe in order to cope with our feelings of shame, we find ourselves grabbing whatever is within arm's reach and using it to hide behind. A trend started by Adam and Eve that continues to this day. However, it is also in the Garden that we see God’s first response to our shame.

God calls out, “Where are you?

(Genesis 3:9)

God is God… He knows where they are. So, why does the Creator of the heavens and earth call out after His children, "Where are you?" Could it be that the Heavenly Father is making the first move towards His children? A shepherd who is chasing after His flock. An invitation to return home to Him.

In the book of Ezekiel, the same Heavenly Father says, “I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness.” (Ezekiel 34:11-12) 

As we return to the garden, we see God replace the makeshift fig leaf clothes with animal skin garments. It is God who comes close and dresses them (Genesis 3:21). What we have here is a powerful symbol of God’s ultimate plan to deal with our shame. Here in the garden, God sacrificed animals to clothe His children. However, centuries later, in another garden, God will sacrifice His own Son in order to clothe His children.

So, the good news for us who are living with the shame of mental ill-health is that we no longer need to hide ourselves from God and from the world. We no longer need to be enslaved to the voice of shame. For we can hide in the embrace of Jesus. We can clothe ourselves with Christ.

We can now join in with Paul as he claims, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness… No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35-38).

I know how loud the voice of shame can be. I know how exhausting and, at times, tempting shame can be. With that in mind, it is my prayer that you will be able to feel the gentle embrace of your Heavenly Father as He draws near and clothes your nakedness. Come and look at your King, as He looks at you, and be happy.

It is also my prayer that you would not feel alone in your walk with mental ill-health. As we know, shame will do everything to isolate you. To keep you holding on to your secret. But please, get the help that you deserve. Talk to a friend. Talk to a trusted adult. Talk to a youth leader or Church Minister.

There are many websites, videos, phone numbers, blogs of lived experiences, and other resources that can support your recovery. Anglicare has put many of these resources into one easy website for you. So, I would encourage you to have a look at Anglicare’s Mental Health Resource Hub. You will be able to see for yourself that help and recovery are possible.

If you would like to speak to someone, please call:

[1] Practicing the Way, John Mark Comer, 2024