Mental Health Matters
How our churches could make a difference
By Eva McIntyre
One in four seems to be a catchphrase for most ills these days. When I see those figures, I wonder which issue it’s going to be about; cancer, heart conditions, abuse of various kinds, victims of crime… or mental illness.
The fact that this particular statistic is used so often tends to make me sceptical; it connects to another familiar phrase stored in my brain: ‘There’s lies, damn lies and statistics’ and raises the question of whether these statistics really bear any resemblance to reality. It creates a hardening of the heart, rather than the intended outcome of driving me to action.
The hidden minority
In the case of mental illness the statistic of one in four is, in fact, partly true because it is taken from the evidence provided by the NHS. Partly true because it only represents the people who actually go to their GP, get some sort of diagnosis, probably a prescription and, if they’re lucky, a referral for some sort of psychotherapeutic treatment. Contained in this figure are those who live with some serious, long-term conditions (such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, OCD or schizoaffective disorder). It will also include people struggling with debilitating depression and anxiety. Missing from this evidence, though, are the countless hidden sufferers who struggle alone with depression, anxiety or obsession, never plucking up the courage to tell anyone, least of all a medical professional. They live in fear of a note on their files, the potential effects upon their careers, the likely stigma, and a sense of failure and shame.
I sometimes say, a little flippantly, that my churches are ‘full of depressives’ and the common response from other clergy is ‘Aren’t all churches full of depressives?’ This is not a glib or superficial statement, though; there is something important going on here when we acknowledge the high ratio of those who attend our churches that are living with mental ill health and it’s telling us something very significant about our ministry.
Church communities are, on the whole, places of welcome and compassion where we feel safe, experience a sense of belonging and hope to gain some sort of inspiration to make sense of our lives. This is actually proven in the research carried out by the ‘Time to Change’ campaign that has been working for the last eight years to end the stigma around mental health.
Here are the figures from their research:
- In 2008, they found that only 10% of service users experienced stigma when participating in faith community activities. This was the lowest percentage of all areas of life, including family and NHS professionals.
- Between 2008 and 2012, even more impressively, this figure dropped by 4%.
- In 2013 it fell by another 1.5%, meaning that only 4.5% of people reported experiencing stigma while attending our activities.
That’s something to celebrate; we are already making a difference and getting things right.
Behind the figures, though, are the stories of real people. I’d like to introduce you to a few of those people; individuals I’ve met through my work with Mental Health Matters on behalf of the Church of England. They may be stories that you identify with, either recognising something of yourself or someone you know. I’ve changed names for reasons of confidentiality.
Hiding behind a façade
Paul is in his seventies and has struggled with anxiety for the whole of his adult life. Before he retired, he expended a huge amount of energy on hiding this from his employers, for fear of losing his job. He knew that they wouldn’t understand; they’d make wrong assumptions about his ability to perform and his reliability. The stigma attached to mental illness prevented him from being truly himself, and not just in work but all sorts of social settings. Even at church he felt he had to hide, for fear of being judged as weak and failing as a Christian. After all, aren’t Christians supposed to know the answers and be happy and healthy?
In the last few years, Paul has been able to speak about his anxiety and that’s because his minister spoke about hers in church one Sunday morning. They were able to engage as equals and explore the subject matter without fear and realise how they had developed gifts such as compassion and patience through their struggles. What was more, other members of his church admitted to struggling too, and it became clear that most people experience some sort of emotional and psychological struggle during their lives.
We’re all potentially only one event away from a ‘dark night of the soul’. Sometimes, being vulnerable is the most important thing a minister can be.
Lillian is a mother and grandmother who has Seasonal Affective Disorder and faces depression every year when the days grow shorter. Yet Lillian is also one of the most gifted and able members of her church and has enriched its ministry incredibly. Because she is open and honest about her experience of depression, others know they can talk to her without being misunderstood, avoided or told ‘chin up’. As people began to talk more openly in her church, the ministry to those in the wider community who also struggle with grief, mental illness and loneliness grew and is now a significant part of their mission.
Far from hampering ministry in our churches, lived experience of mental health struggles can be a source of blessing and fruitfulness if we let it. It’s because of our brokenness that the light gets in. It’s in falling down that we learn the humility to allow God and others to help us to our feet, and it is in our weakness that we are strong.
Emily is in her forties and lives alone. She has a mood disorder that developed after she suddenly lost her job. Sometimes, she sits in the service at her church and cries. She feels safe to do so because crying alone means she’ll never stop, and crying in her church isn’t frowned upon. Always, she says, someone will reach out to her and let her talk after the service.
Rachel is in her sixties and also lives alone. She has been suffering from chronic anxiety for years but told me how she gets little support from her church; she says they think she’s ok because she plays the organ and no-one stops to ask her how she is. Even when she did talk to people a few years ago, they didn’t understand.
It doesn’t take a huge amount to become a church community that responds well to those experiencing mental illness. A little knowledge goes a long way; knowing what depression and anxiety are, and finding out a little about other forms of mental illness, will take away the sense of fear and of being out of your depth. On our website there are resources written by Christian mental health professionals that provide this information, advice on pastoral care and when and how to refer people for further support.
It’s not easy being a friend in the difficult circumstances of long-term depression. Often, the depressed person you love will push you away, but it’s so important to be there for the long haul. ‘Being there’ doesn’t have to be all-consuming; just remembering to text someone daily or weekly can make a huge difference. Most friends will fall away after a while; a good friend hangs on in there, even when s/he feels totally powerless. But make sure you have a good support network, too; someone you can talk about your friend to in confidence.
A key area in ministry
I believe that mental health is the single most important area of ministry for the Church today. The NHS is stretched and its resources for those living with mental illness are woefully inadequate. In 2005, the UK Government declared it was setting mental health as a priority under the slogan ‘No health without mental health’. Yet it cut resources and ten years later it is cutting them further. Provision of hospital places in mental health units have dropped drastically and the promised ‘care in the community’ has not materialised in any cohesive and consistent form. The care you get depends entirely on your postcode and the volume of pressure for services in your NHS locality. There are specific groups of people who are particularly vulnerable to mental illness:
*Young men, especially young black men.
*Teenagers – and even children – (this is an increasing statistic with 1 in 10 children aged between 5 and 16 now being diagnosed with a mental health disorder in the UK).
*People with additional needs such as disability, deafness and learning disabilities.
*Those living with chronic illness.
*People on low income or struggling with debt and the unemployed.
*Those living in poor accommodation and homeless people.
*Those who are seen as ‘different’: such as those who identify as LGBTI (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender and Intersex) and those from minority