The Calgary Journal
The Calgary Journal

David Harvey has struggled with anxiety for most of his life but as a pastor, he was at first apprehensive that sharing his story might be a risk that could get him fired.

The discussion around mental health is no longer a phenomenon. Although some people remain uninformed about the subject, many programs and initiatives have been put in place to eradicate the stigma surrounding mental health. 

Programs like Bell Let’s Talk serve to move the conversation forward by overcoming stigma; providing care, establishing research and engaging corporations. 

Harvey is peeling back the stigma behind mental health within Calgary church, Westside King’s has opened the door for teaching on the subject of mental health. 

Harvey, who was originally from Bolton England, which is just north of Manchester, spent over three years as the teaching pastor at Westside King’s Church. 

As a pastor, his role is to communicate, although this has not been easy due to the cultural differences between the United Kingdom and Canada. He has managed to step into the territory of mental health — Harvey initiated a preaching series around mental health, which Westside King’s revisits annually every January.

After his first year preaching about mental health in 2017, it became one of the “staple rhythms” in talking about mental health within Westside King’s. 

Despite his public vulnerability, Harvey recalls a time when he didn’t know how to address his own struggles with mental health. 

“I’ve battled with anxiety for a lot of years and only in the last five or six years I’ve understood how to name and address that.” 

Although Harvey has found his anxiety to be “dark and depressing,” he found that naming and understanding it has helped him through his journey. 

Still, Harvey recognizes how unwilling people are to talk about mental health. He noticed when they do, it often minimizes the matter. 

“Having a bad day doesn’t mean depression,” he said. “Liking your bookshelf well organized is not a form of OCD — inadvertently what we do continues the stigma of mental health.”

But Harvey’s life was an accumulation of stressful days — the week that finally tipped him over the edge was an average week for him. At the time, he was overloaded with responsibility between his roles as director of studies, husband, father, preacher and academic. 

His routine included responsibilities as the director of studies at the seminary he was teaching in the United Kingdom, which involved running two undergraduate bachelor’s degrees and three master’s degrees. 

He noticed his first anxiety attack during a particular week when the school’s programs were being evaluated by a government quality control agency. This week he also presented a chapter of his Ph.D. to his supervisors and gave an academic paper presentation. Then, Harvey and his wife drove to Scotland to visit his sister who had just had a baby. 

“If you throw a frog in boiling water, it will jump straight out,” he said. “But if you put it in cold water and slowly boil that water it’ll stay there forever. That’s what’s happening with most people in Western society — is that we’re just getting more and more and more and more stressed so that actually our resistance to anxiety is lower.” 

When Harvey brought up anxiety in a sermon for the first time, the response was overwhelming. 

“It was nerve-racking because of the stigma,” he said. 

David Harvey outside of Westside King’s Church, where he’s worked as a teaching pastor for over 3 years. Monday, November 4, 2019.

But Harvey had all positive responses from people saying they could relate to him. In fact, the reason people weren’t talking about it was that they felt like they couldn’t. As Harvey revealed his own struggles, more and more people started opening up about their own difficulties with mental health. 

“I uncovered this sense that one of the ways to really help with the stigma of [mental health] in church life is just to talk about it,” Harvey said.

Traditionally, the conversation around mental health within churches has been rather poor. From entire silence or assuming mental illness is caused by demons to suggesting mental illness is God’s punishment.

“It’s either like, ‘it’s just made up’ or ‘pray for it and it’ll get better’ or just ‘ignore it completely’, or in really bad cases ‘blame it on demons or the devil,’” he said. 

In moving to Westside, Harvey initiated the idea to teach about mental health, but since he’s not a psychologist or psychiatrist his aim was solely to remove the stigma.

Harvey’s original teaching series on mental health happened to be in September of 2017 when the “Bell Let’s Talk” campaign was first launched. 

Since then, the series now runs through January because of the common themes that unravel throughout that time of the year, such as first-time therapist visits, statistically higher divorce rates and Christmas credit card bills. 

Harvey’s wife Laura has supported him throughout his journey. She’s proud of David for speaking out on these issues and allowing others who are struggling to do the same.

“We remove any sense of shame or stigma and replace it instead with a sense of liberation, respect and trust,” Laura said.

Through Westside King’s focus on these issues, people can be open and honest about their personal experiences in a safe setting full of grace, love, and respect.

From Harvey’s point of view, it was simply a case of, “Can I be brave enough to get up in front of 600 people that employed me three months ago and say ‘hey, this is part of my story.’” 

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Edited By: Isaiah Lindo