The Power of Brokenness – How the Right Support can Redefine Mental Ill Health

Incredibly difficult, painful life events and experiences may terrify us in theory, but we often surprise ourselves at how we handle them in practice, changing as people in the process.

Seaglass on beach with sea in background.

Please be aware that this article deals with difficult themes concerning mental and physical health, suicide, and trauma.

It is common to hear stories about life-changing physical diagnoses resulting in huge personal growth, and this is where this article will begin. But what about harnessing the more slowly acting weight of mental ill health, trauma, or grief? Nobody encourages such things to come into their life, but if we are supported in a constructive way when they do, a slow but seismic shift in our worldview can take place. Like sea glass smoothed by crashing waves, seemingly destructive processes may reveal a new beauty.


Lessons from hospice work tell us that, in a paradoxical way, people realise their highest growth potential at the very moment that they heard the terrifying news of their diagnosis of terminal illness. For some, this potential was so powerful that it not only provided them a renewed will to live and helped them get through the excruciating regiment of chemo therapy; it also unleashed a previously unknown depository of energy to live a life that is even healthier and more meaningful than before. It was like all they wanted was a close encounter with their own mortality to tap into this previously unrealised life potential. A wild sense of freedom tends to burst into human consciousness when we encounter our ultimate brokenness, our greatest vulnerability, our own mortality.

Obviously, an encounter with terminal illness is an extreme example but pain arising from mental ill health can be equally excruciating, particularly those that upend the fundamental mechanics of our survival, such as our urge to turn against ourselves through self-harm or even suicide. The only difference so far is that mental ill health doesn’t automatically unleash such a growth potential. Perhaps, it is because mental health afflicts the body and the mind like a stranglehold whereas cancer diagnosis can come like a knuckle punch. But, with some guidance, lived experience of mental ill health too can trigger an existential renaissance that you never imagined would be possible before. There is a growing literature on this aspect of human experience that I would loosely refer as post-traumatic growth.

The key term here is the guidance or access to useful and relevant information, which I think is a key pillar of our support services. With some guidance, you can rebuild the broken aspects of your life by using the same debris that you were once buried under. In fact, you must use the same material because they are so unique and so personal to you that exporting foreign material would even alienate your new self.  The only foreign material here should be the guidance and information that a mental health adviser, a counsellor or a mentor would provide you regarding the reconstruction process, style and the speed.  So, whether they are intrusive thoughts, fears, phobias, suicidal thoughts or a terrifyingly blank mind, they are all powerful ingredients and should not go to waste.

So, I hope this power of brokenness perspective would help us view mental ill health in a more human, non-deterministic and more importantly, optimistic light. I am writing these words with a sense of exclusive allegiance to those who have hit the rock bottom, been to the belly of the beast and seen the devil in the eye and have come back to tell the tale; or still struggling to make a comeback; or don’t yet believe that there would be an exit. As long as you are conscious, at least for a brief moment, of your painful experience of mental ill health, and not entirely sleepwalking through it, you are best positioned to make a comeback, rebuild a meaningful life using the same dark materials once  you were terrified of.

To the part of (your) mind that says you don’t know me or my suffering, there is no hope for me, so and so forth… I say, what other more hopeful choice do you have than courageously trying? Trying to revitalise your body and mind using the very brokenness that you once thought was a life sentence. But remember, the key term is guidance and information that you previously didn’t have.

Student Support and Wellbeing – support at Kent

Did you know there is a large expert team of staff at the University of Kent who can help support you during your studies? The Mental Health Team consists of Mental Health Advisers, Counsellors and Student Mentors. Mental Health Advisers are specialist practitioners who can offer mental health advice and support. They can provide short term focused interventions to promote wellbeing and support students to develop coping strategies and help put in place an ILP or ‘inclusive learning plan’ if required. We also have a free confidential Counselling service for all Kent students, offering a safe space to those experiencing problems such as anxiety, depressed feelings, and emotional difficulties that may or may not be connected to student life. Take a look at our Student Support and Wellbeing page for more information, or contact us now.

Follow @UniKentSSW on Instagram for tips and advice on staying well and connected throughout the year.

Written by Namal Rathnayake, Student Support and Wellbeing, 13.07.22