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Faiths panel discusses mental health

19 October 2012


Depressed: the Home Secretary, Theresa May, refused a request from US investigators, on Tuesday, for Gary McKinnon, a computer hacker (above), to be extradited. Mrs May told the House of Commons that, "There is. . . no doubt that he is seriously ill. He has Asperger's syndrome and suffers from depressive illness. . . I have concluded that Mr McKinnon's extradition would give rise to such a high risk of him ending his life that a decision to extradite would be incompatible with Mr McKinnon's human rights." Mr McKinnon's MP, David Burrowes, who is Parliamentary chairman of the Conservative Christian Fellowship, praised the "compassionate" decision 

Depressed: the Home Secretary, Theresa May, refused a request from US investigators, on Tuesday, for Gary McKinnon, a computer hacker (above),...

DENIAL, nervous laughter, and "thinly veiled contempt" were ways in which people revealed that they felt threatened and uncomfortable when confronted with mental ill-health, the Archbishop of Canterbury said this week. But the Bible provided examples of people who had experienced depression, including Job and Jeremiah; and Jesus himself had "sweated blood".

Addressing a conference held in Lambeth Palace on Wednesday to explore how religious communities could work to reduce the stigma and discrimination associated with mental illness, Dr Williams said that, while "massive legal discrimation" might not exist in the UK, people experiencing mental ill-health continued to face "massive prejudice and a failure, sometimes refusal, to understand".

A 2011 survey of 2770 people conducted by Time to Change, a programme run by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, and funded by the Department of Health and Comic Relief, which seeks to end the stigma and discrimination faced by people with mental-health problems, found that 60 per cent of respondents said that the stigma that they faced could be as bad as, or even worse than, the mental illness. Twenty-seven per cent said that stigma and discrimination had made them want to give up on life.

Dr Williams, who admitted that two of his godchildren had "faced very serious mental-health issues" in recent years, said that simplistic claims that those with a faith enjoyed better mental health were "an unhelpful take on the question, as if mental health was just something which you could have with the right ingredient mix".

People in faith communities "face the challenges of mental health just as much as others do"; and people of faith had "the profoundest possible obligation to show our faith in all those who are part of our community", including those with mental-health problems. "If people of faith are not able to say 'Don't be afraid,' then who is?"

The conference heard from a panel of speakers: the Care Services Minister, Norman Lamb MP; Bhai Sahib Mohinder Singh, a Sikh leader; and Imam Abdul Qaiyum of the East London Mosque. Bryony Bratchell, a 19-year-old diagnosed last year with bipolar disorder, said that "attitudes have been the biggest barrier I have had to face." She now works with Time to Change. 

Bhai Sahib Mohinder Singh suggested that it was important to have "more faith in faith" (he had never been to the doctor with his own mental-health problems). Imam Abdul Qaiyum emphasised that those suffering from mental ill-health should not be blamed, but treated with compassion. "This is a test for us. . . . How do we help them?" 

The director of Time to Change, Sue Baker, said that having a strong faith, which could give "purpose and meaning", was "well-known to support health and well-being". She also spoke about a programme with the South Asian community in Harrow, where mental ill-health could be seen as damaging to marriage prospects and was a source of "shame" in families. This perpetuated a "cycle of silence". Volunteers who had experienced mental ill-health had been recruited to speak about it, and local faith leaders had been engaged in an education process.

"There is a very fine line between saying faith is very important to well-being. . . But the other side of that is that, if faith leaders do not understand mental-health issues, and attach blame to people when they experience them, then that is going to undermine people's ability to cope," she said.

After addressing the event, Dr Williams said that it was "absolute nonsense" to suggest that the Bible said that believers did not get depressed. He spoke of Job, Jeremiah, and Jesus. It was "very dangerous if you give the message that you have to be cheerful". Seeking medical help for mental-health problems was "not inconsistent with prayer". Christians always assumed that prayer is part of healing, but people found help through many avenues, "not least through professionals that know about these kinds of issues".


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