‘Science and Religion’ Moving away from the shallow end
This report is the culmination of a three–year project researching public and elite attitudes to science and religion in the UK today (2022)
For Mental Health Awareness Week, Simon Perfect explores the roles churches are playing, and could play, in supporting mental health. 13/05/2022
When I was a teenager, I developed an eating disorder. It began after I got braces; I wanted to cut down on sugar to improve my teeth. But it quickly became an obsession with healthy eating. I started to become extremely conscious of food, avoiding any which I thought of as unhealthy, and combining this with rigorous exercise. I became underweight and overly body conscious. One day I misread the label on a school sandwich and went on a long walk during my lunchbreak to burn off what I mistakenly thought was a huge calorie intake. Birthdays would involve me trying to avoid eating cake, or else gorging guiltily before heading out to burn it off again.
Eating disorders are mental illnesses; the obsessive thought patterns and behaviours are an attempt to exert control over something at a time of high stress. I was never formally diagnosed, but my obsession with ‘clean’ food fits the pattern of orthorexia – a proposed but not yet clinically recognised disorder. Thankfully I received the help I needed (a doctor telling me it was okay for me to put on weight) before my condition became too dangerous, and I was gradually able to leave the mental stranglehold behind. But many of the estimated 1.25 million people in the UK with eating disorders (25% of whom are men) suffer for a lot longer than I did, sometimes to the point of hospitalisation or even, tragically, death.
This week has been Mental Health Awareness Week, and so is a time for sharing stories like this. It’s by sharing our stories that we normalise conversation around mental illnesses and mental health more broadly.
This is, after all, something that matters for all of us. Covid and lockdowns swung a wrecking ball at our collective mental health. Mental illnesses are increasingly common: 17% of adults experienced depression last summer, up from 10% pre–Covid; and referrals to NHS child and adolescent eating disorder services almost doubled in the first year of the pandemic. Beyond formal illnesses, many more people are facing mental challenges. We face an epidemic of loneliness, with 7.2% of adults saying they often or always feel lonely. And the cost of living crisis is biting our minds as well as our wallets: 28% of adults say the crisis is having a negative effect on their mental health. In the words of Archbishop Welby (who has talked frankly about his own depression), “we have a national case of PTSD”.
This is a conversation for everyone. Therefore, it’s also a conversation for Church. What are churches doing to support people with mental health challenges?
The answer is a lot, in informal and often unseen ways. Churches and church leaders are often on the frontline of mental health support. In a 2020 cross–denominational survey of 1,050 churches, 29% of respondents (and 42% of urban respondents) said their churches offered support for people with mental health problems.1 Most of this is informal support – befriending and signposting to professional mental health services. But there’s also a wide range of Christian organisations and initiatives, some based in particular churches, which provide more direct support, such as activities to help tackle addiction. The National Churches Trust roughly estimates that UK churches’ activities on mental health support cost £26.9 million a year, and would cost the government anything from £20 to £116 million to replace.2 On a national level, church institutions are talking more about mental health and have produced resources for making mental health a part of church life.3
More broadly, there’s a well–attested positive correlation between religious commitment and mental health – as Theos found in our 2016 examination of existing social–scientific studies on religion and well–being. The relationship between good mental health and participating in religious group activity (worship, social action etc) is particularly strong. But holding religious beliefs and personal religious activities like prayer also correlate with better mental health. Unsurprisingly the evidence on belief is mixed – presumably believing in a vengeful God is worse for your mental health than believing in a God of love – but it can’t be dismissed. In other words, faith as well as religious participation can be good for mental health.
All this is good news for churches. But while mental health is an increasing priority for many churches, there’s more to be done. Last year my colleague, Dr Hannah Waite, researched attitudes of churchgoers (across denominations) regarding mental health. She found that while progress has been made in reducing taboos around mental ill health in church, particularly around anxiety or depression, issues like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder remain stigmatised and poorly understood. Some Christians tend to reach for ‘over–spiritualised’ explanations for mental illness – such as a punishment for sin – and such views can be deeply damaging, especially if expressed without nuance and compassion.
Furthermore, many churchgoers don’t feel comfortable sharing their mental health challenges with their church. Churches may be doing a lot to support people with mental illnesses, but quite often this isn’t explicit – many churchgoers feel that mental health is rarely talked about in their church, and that churches need to do more to make people with mental health problems feel included.
So the landscape of churches and mental health is still very patchy. But that shouldn’t detract from the fact that churches are now very important players when it comes to mental health support, and their work deserves recognition.
This week reminds us that we need places where all of our stories – including our stories of brokenness, messiness and fragility – can be brought in and held up. Where we walk alongside those with mental health challenges and provide space for sharing stories and listening. Where people with mental health problems are not left at the sidelines but are invited to the centre; where they’re seen not as individuals to be tolerated or problems to be fixed, but as persons to give and receive love – as persons we deeply need. Churches around the country are trying, and failing, and trying again, to provide those spaces, and that’s something to celebrate.
If you are concerned about your mental health, the Mental Health Foundation lists the details of services and organisations that can help you.
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Photo by Andrew Neel from Pexels.
1. National Churches Trust (2020) The House of Good: The economic and social value of church buildings to the UK, p. 31.
2. Ibid, p. 38.
Simon is a Researcher at Theos. He is also a researcher and tutor at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), where he leads distance–learning courses exploring Muslim communities in Britain and in other minority settings. He is co–author of the book ‘Freedom of Speech in Universities: Islam, Charities and Counter–terrorism’ (Routledge, 2021).
Posted 13 May 2022
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.