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What are the connections between religion and mental health? What are religious communities doing to respond to mental illness, and what more can they do? Following the launch of our new report, Christianity and Mental Health: Theology, Activities, Potential, we have invited a range of guest bloggers to offer their perspectives.
Christianity has had a longstanding relationship with mental health; indeed, the very first hospital specialising in psychiatric disorders, The Bethlem, known as Bedlam, was started in 1247 by people of faith. The monks of the Order of the Star of Bethlehem who started this work noticed that it was those who were mentally unwell who were abandoned by their support networks, and so needed the most help. Although the institution wouldn’t be considered a shining example of psychiatric care today, there was an ethos of care for the poorest in society, who tended to be the most mentally unwell, as an outworking of faith. As time went on, God’s gathered people, his church, lost sight of this work, but it has remained in our DNA, and in the present this dimension of our calling is again beginning to surface and be expressed. But what next for us followers of Christ and how we think about mental health; how might this ministry be formed for the future?
Engagement with mental health on the part of the church is gathering momentum, but also continues to encounter closed doors and discouragement at times. There are three aspects that present themselves as ways to progress; listening, life skills and learning to live together. These three also provide a lens through which we can view our shared life.
Using words to describe the lived experience of mental ill health can be problematic, both for those experiencing it themselves and for those around them. This is complicated because it involves putting words onto a subjective experience whilst trying to develop a corporate understanding. Listening is key here, as each individual is the expert in his or her own mental health, and learning to listen more effectively is something we can all do. The words from the prophet Isaiah, read by Jesus in Luke’s gospel resonate with the words of those I have listened to on psychiatric wards; I feel trapped and don’t know how to be free, I feel like I can’t see straight any more, I long to feel whole again. Listening skills can be learnt, so that we can begin to hear below what is on the surface, the articulation of the broken reaching for that which is mended, and this helps us to reach into those parts of scripture that may not be immediately obvious. Listening is the process by which we assure the other that we really want to know, and we grow in our own understanding. We need to listen more.
And we need to learn life skills. Knowing how to live with mental health issues is hard, it involves good coping and resilience, and at times acceptance that the world has shifted for us and cannot be the same as it was before. We can all learn to cope more effectively, and acquiring new coping skills which are practical and easily integrated into our routines can make all the difference. Churches can be places where coping skills are taught in a group context, and this can be integrated with the practice of our faith. Practical skills are very much an answer to prayer. For example, ‘Be still and know that I am God’ is a wonderful place to start with learning the skill of being in the present, not dwelling on the difficulties of the past or being preoccupied with worries about the future. ‘Do not worry about anything...’ begins a conversation about God knowing that we are worriers, and gives us skills to help us through. We need to learn life skills.
And we can learn more about how to live together. Community is something that we as God’s people are experts in, and an aspect of mental health care provision that we can uniquely partner in. Keeping this as the first thing is important, as we can become too hung up on not being healthcare professionals or experts, but we are experts in providing places of welcome, sanctuary and reflection. That we can do. Given that mental health issues are more prevalent in those who are on the margins, those who are homeless and financially poor, being a non-judgemental presence, a visible reminder of God’s love, and somewhere that feels like home can aid recovery. We don’t need to do the stuff of medicine, we need to do what we can. In our church communities, we can model healthy behaviours, coping with life’s ups and downs, and being there for one another when the going gets tough. We need to learn how to live together.
This is a good place to start, but of course it isn’t the end of the story. The blending of the practice of our religion with a pragmatic, skills based approach is vital to address the stigma which can be prevalent in church. Our theology seems at times to be obscured by an inability to hold in mind that we are complex, creature not creator, and that to feel low, anxious, or detached from what others perceive as reality is not a lack of faith or a failing in our makeup. If this were the case then the high prevalence of mental ill health in clergy, those who live by faith, would not make sense. The truth is that there is a fragility in all of us, none of us is impenetrable, invulnerable and unbreakable. Being able to look on ourselves, to see ourselves as Jesus sees us and not to look away is part of the mission of church. To know that in our mental fragility and brokenness he sees us and loves us as who we are, and that because our identity is rooted in him we do not need to break his gaze.
This then is where the future lies for the engagement of church with mental health. To remember our roots, that this work is embedded deeply in us across the generations of disciples. To focus on listening, life skills and learning to live together. And finally, to hold our fragility and vulnerability in common, and to look into the face of Jesus because of and despite this, knowing that he is the author and perfecter of our faith and shares in our suffering.
The Reverend Alison Hogger-Gadsby is the director of Keeping Health in Mind, a charity which aims to reduce stigma and to raise the profile of mental health by offering resources to the Church and encouraging local churches to be promoters and protectors of good mental health so all can belong.
Image by Ed Gregory from pexels.com available in the public domain