Just to restate where we are at the moment, last year we briefly considered mental health as part of our series on inclusion. We never expected or intended to cover everything we needed to know in a single evening, but rather we hoped to start a conversation in order to make clear that we want to be a safe space in which people can acknowledge and talk about their own mental health. We are now coming back to that conversation, inviting in guest speakers with experience of working with people with mental health difficulties, in the hope that this may give us greater understanding and some more practical responses.
Last night we were joined by Martin, who has spent most of his life as a community mental health nurse, and now teaches others to do that work. He is a member of his local parish church, and so while his church setting may look a little different to revive, he has also been thinking about how churches can be safe and inclusive spaces for people with mental health difficulties. He was honest that about the fact that as he has gone on he has become less confident of simple answers, and came to us as a fellow enquirer and learner, excited about the potential for churches to be healing communities.
In his teaching practice, Martin is definite about the importance of listening to the lived experience of people with mental health problems, and he shared the story of a man he called Olly, who comes in to share his own story with students. Olly had a wild youth, and when he left or was thrown out of university, he went travelling and began to experiment with drugs. During this time he began to experience psychosis, including hearing voices. He somehow made his way back home, where his paranoia led to him becoming practically nocturnal, and completely disconnected from society. He was admitted to psychiatric hospitals on a number of occassions, but this only dampened his experiences without stopping them. And then one day he stumbled into a church, and that is the moment at which he believes his recovery began. There was no grand moment of conversion, but simply being among the congregation began to make a difference. It gave him routine, and a place where he felt safe and knew he would be missed.
We spent a bit of time reflecting on Olly’s story, and the ways in which church can do for others what it did for Olly. We talked about it being a place where people can be accepted as themselves, where they can feel a sense of belonging, where they can find an adoptive family and a home, where they can be met with intentional care, where their dignity and worth can be restored. We also talked about it being a place where people’s problems are accepted, where there is an acknowledgement that we are all broken and hurting in different ways, where that acknowledgement acts as a leveller. We talked too about the spiritual power of community, and the way in which Jesus stretches our borders to breaking point, so that the church welcomes in those who other wish to keep out.
Of course the church doesn’t always do that, and many have experienced it as a place of exclusion, where their mental health has become a source of guilt and shame, where they have been accepted as a project if they have been accepted at all. When the church falls so far short of what it is called to be it can be an incredibly damaging place, and we have to recognise that and be honest about it, facing hard truths about the times we have not loved people as well as we should, but we must also share Martin’s hope and excitement for its potential, and strive to be the kind of church we described.
Martin told us that research into what helps people recover from mental illness talks about the importance of nonjudgemental acceptance and unconditional positive regard, and he believes that we are uniquely placed to offer these things as Christians. In recognising that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), we acknowledge that we are all in need of them, and in declaring that “all are justified freely by his grace” (Romans 3:24), we bear witness to the truth that we all receive them from God.
Martin also shared some of his thoughts around the importance of story telling and meaning making, and the role of the church in that. People with lived experience of mental ill health talk about the importance of making sense of what has happened to them, and as a place that tells stories and looks for meaning in them, the church may be well placed to facilitate that process. I can bear witness to that, as it is when I have told my stories in church contexts that I have been able to find meaning in them, and from there have been able to find healing, whereas it is the stories I haven’t told in church that have carried the most pain.
One thing that came out of conversations was the significance of liturgy, as the words and prayers of the church give a pattern to hold onto and slot into, and we may say them until we oen them and they change the words we say about ourselves. Every church has a liturgy because it is simply the way the church worships, and there is significance in the simply rhythm of meeting, but at revive we don’t often use fixed words and prayers. The liturgies of more traditional churches are a rich resource, and perhaps we might think about how we might use these for ourselves and offer them to others.
Martin also talked about the importance of practical help, particularly of being a community that holds all things in common. Poor mental health can be isolating and limiting in all sorts of ways, and it can also come out of isolation and limitation, so there can be something incredibly restorative in being part of a community that broadens our horizons and our access to people and things.
At the end of the evening we looked at some real situations where churches were seeking to care for those with mental health difficulties, identifying some of the challenges and seeking to lay out some principles. What follows will not be exhaustive, and there will be an ongoing process of enquiring and learning, but added to our previous discussions, it hopefully gives us something to work from.
- Pastoral care is the responsibility of the whole church. Evidence says that a network of relationships is important, and it can be overwhelming for one person to take sole responsibility for another, particularly in moments of crisis. That’s why having this conversation as part of our regular meeting is so important.
- Often a joined up approach will be needed, and churches should know what avenues of professional and medical support are available, although such help may not be possible as services are stretched. In light of this, it may be good to get involved with campaigning for better funding.
- Somebody asked about red flags, signs that we should seek immediate intervention, and Martin pointed to risk of harm to self or others and dramatic physical changes.
- Even if churches do not have the knowledge or resources to deal with underlying issues, they can help make life easier and more pleasurable while that deeper work is done elsewhere. No one wants to be reduced to an illness, and simple care and friendship can be a great balm.
- A culture of honesty and accountability across the whole church will make it easier for people to speak openly about their mental health issues.
- There is a need to be aware of safeguarding policies, to protect both those who are suffering with mental ill health, and those who are seeking to support them. This includes not promising confidentiality, as it may be necessary to speak to someone else in order to get help.
- For those who struggle with social anxiety, someone else being proactive in starting conversations and introducing people can be a help. Of course it can also be utterly terrifying, and if you’re not sure which it would be, then you can always ask. It is easy to make wrong assumptions and leave people out or force them into uncomfortable situations, all with the best of intentions. I know I have made that mistake and I am deeply sorry for it.
- When it comes to prayer, ask the person in question how they would like to be prayed for and what they would like you to pray. Some may want laying on of hands, others may just want to know that someone somewhere is praying for them, some may want healing, others may want better management…it will depend so much on where people are at and what their past experience of prayer has been.
There is a wider point there about the fact that everybody is different, and principles can only be guidelines, not hard and fast rules. Care has to come out of relationship, and that means learning who the other is and how we can best love them. There are no shortcuts, but it takes time and energy and commitment. The conversations we have had so far have been a good start, but they are only a start, and there will be more learning and experience and reflection to come. As someone who was a history (and a present) of mental health issues, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for being willing to start this, and I pray that revive will become more and more the safe and welcoming space it seeks to be.
The intention of these conversations has been to build a base of knowledge that we can put into practice, so to draw everything together, here are our previous posts on mental health and inclusivity: