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All in the mind, body, and soul

13 October 2017

In the week of World Mental Health Day, Jemima Thackray reports on responses within the Church to mental-health issues

Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust

Better together: the Hearing Voices project at Norwich cathedral

Better together: the Hearing Voices project at Norwich cathedral

IN THE middle of a busy branch of a high-street café chain, an unlikely group of students, pensioners, and business people sit around a pull-up stand offering “Coffee, reflection, well-being, information, inspira­tion”.

This is the Winchester branch of the Tree of Life café, a drop-in ser­vice for mental-health sufferers which started down the road in Romsey as a joint project between Romsey Abbey and the local mental-health trust, and has now branched out with the help of funds from Winchester Cathedral.

We hear each other’s stories and drink subsidised coffee. No one is made to speak aloud; the support workers circulate and make sure that they catch up with everyone. When one of the group gets up to leave, a support worker gently squeezes the man’s shoulder, and I overhear the phrase “in it together”. Later on, the support worker, Steve Carroll, explains to me that this was in part a reference to his own struggles with mental ill-health, which led him to give up work as a secondary-school teacher. He now works as a peer-support and recov­ery worker for the mental-health trust’s chaplaincy team.

This peer-to-peer method, Mr Carroll says, draws on the “Recovery College” model, an innovative ap­­proach that the NHS is now putting at the heart of mental-health ser­vices in the UK, where service-users and staff “journey together” on educational programmes towards improved mental well-being. As one service-user put it, “everyone has ‘mental health’: we just start from different places.”

Inspired by this model, the “Re­­cov­­ery Friendly Church” is a net­work of Anglican churches working with the mental-health trusts to offer peer support, mostly through com­munity drop-ins and training. The Revd Patrick Jordan saw the scheme working well when he was an assist­ant curate in Lewisham, in south London, and has now rep­licated it in his church of St Mat­thew’s, Thorpe Hamlet, in Norwich.

“The recovery model is a move away from just managing symp­toms, and allows people to engage in life in ways that are meaningful for them, even while they have mental-health challenges. It’s not the church going out and paternalistically ministering to people with mental-health problems, but realising that these ‘people’ are us.”


THERE are, in fact, many similar partnerships between churches and NHS mental-health trusts. A recent Theos report, Christianity and Men­tal Health: Theology, activities, potential, referred to a “significant number” of initiatives at local level where the church is being a “pro­ductive partner” and helping “to reduce the burden on the NHS or social services”.

While the report mentions anec­dotal accounts of churches’ having difficulties in securing funding or partnerships, owing to their status as faith-based organisations, Mr Jordan says that he has “yet to have a bad experience of a mental-health trust. If churches are interested, then the trusts are interested in working together, because resources are so tight and waiting lists are so long.”

Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation TrustIn my head: the Hearing Voices project at Norwich cathedralLiverpool diocese has just em­­barked on a collaboration with Mer­seyside Care NHS Foundation Trust: “It’s a five-year strategic plan,” the specialist chaplain, the Revd Julian Raffay, said. “One of the areas we’re exploring is how the Church can support people in the community who are not considered ill enough to be in hospital, but who still need a lot of support.”


BOB CALLAGHAN is the national coordinator of the educational charity Inclusive Church. He agrees that this is a real opportunity for churches: “Trusts recognise that churches are good at reaching hard-to-reach people. We have the build­ings and the volunteers; they have the expertise and — some — money. Churches could be making more approaches.”

But Mr Callaghan regrets the Church of England’s apparent lack of an overarching strategy in this area. “One of the reasons churches aren’t galvanised, and there’s no co­­herence or communication across the country, is there is no one own­ing it centrally, such as a national adviser, who is paid to give mental health a voice — who is the go-to person.

”It’s a real blindspot for the C of E. There is so much public aware­ness now about mental health. If we take the statistic seriously that one in four people have a mental-health problem — and it will be more in the C of E because of its open-door policy — then this has to be a prior­ity: wherever we go, this is what people want to talk about, much more than sexuality.

”We would encourage the leader­ship of the Church to have a stron­ger and more proactive presence in this area; and this includes coord­inating training at a national level. As soon as you become ordained, you effectively become a mental-health worker; yet there is hardly any training at theological college.”


THERE is, however, no shortage of work on the ground. In the diocese of Coventry, for example, an assist­ant curate and former mental-health nurse, the Revd Ali Hogger, has been licensed to serve part of her curacy running a mental-health charity, Keeping Health in Mind, which equips local leaders and con­gregations. The dioceses of Sheffield and Liverpool have both devised their own courses in mental-health awareness: “We get mostly Angli­cans on it, but also people who have no religion, or are from other faith groups,” says Emily Wood, the mental-health nurse who co-wrote the day-long course.

Some church leaders are using information and training offered by secular organisations, such as the increasingly popular Mental Health First Aid course; or from the many Christian charities working in this area. The Mind and Soul Founda­tion, for example, is an ecumenical charity for mental-health awareness which is now “swamped” with re­­quests, its director, Kate Middleton, says, “from churches, but also from corporate companies like PWC and Ernst & Young”.

Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation TrustTea and sympathy? The Hearing Voices project at Norwich cathedralThe charity was founded, and is now co-directed, by the Revd Will van der Hart, the Pastoral Chaplain at Holy Trinity, Brompton, after he suffered from anxiety and panic attacks. “I was a curate at St Mary’s, Bryanston Square, at the time, and was involved in the secondary re­­sponse to the London bombings. It’s easy to peg it on to one event, and to be honest I had probably struggled with anxiety long before, but it be­­came acute after 7/7.”

“When the charity was first started in 2005, we had to work really hard to get traction in the churches,” Ms Middleton explains. “There was a lot more fear, and people asking ‘Where’s the line where we pass this on to a pro­fessional?’ But now there’s much more recognition and understand­ing of the prevalence of mental-health issues, and that leaders need proper training.”


THE Foundation’s latest project, in collaboration with the Christian dis­ability charity Livability, has been to create a “Mental Health Access Pack” for churches. It is an online resource with clear downloadable information about the main mental-health conditions, as well as many links to further materials. Each con­dition includes a “What about faith?” section, with specific advice about how to apply Christian theology and scripture in ways that are helpful and constructive.

“Because, unfortunately, Chris­tians have been saying the wrong things for a long time,” Katharine Welby-Roberts says. She is the daughter of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and is using her profile to raise awareness of mental health as an ambassador for Livability. She has struggled with depression and anxiety since she was a teenager, and describes herself as “having had a nice life — it’s just that my brain hates me”.

”The intentions of Christians are almost always good, but the results of bad theology for people like me can be horribly damaging,” she con­tinues. “There will always be one person who brings up demonic attack, but the typical unhelpful re­­sponse is along the lines of ‘If you’ve accepted the love of God, then why are you depressed?’ — which is just a fundamental misunderstanding of mental health.”

She also speaks of how damaging constant offers of prayer for healing can be, which “put an awful lot of pressure on the sufferer. I don’t want to explain to people again and again that it’s not my lack of faith.”


A need for “high-quality psychological” tools: the Revd Will van der HartMR VAN DER HART was also on the receiving end of “over-spiritualising” responses from his Chris­tian colleagues during his period of panic and anxiety. “Lots of people said it was the devil attacking me. Other people in the church warned me off the work: they said I would get labelled ‘the mental priest’!”

He is now also the Bishop of Kensington’s Coordinator for Emo­tional and Mental Health at the Grenfell Tower fire site. He longs to see “Christian spirituality integrated with high-quality psychological tools”, and joined with a university friend who is a consultant psychi­atrist, Rob Waller, to set up their foundation. “It’s about combining good medicine, good psychology, and good theology. We know that psychiatry works and is fully com­patible with the Christian faith. It’s even better when they are used together.”

This does not necessarily mean that churches should be delivering their own mental-health courses, he says. “Some churches will wish to offer courses aimed at seeing change, and there are some available which can be great for outreach, such as www.llttfwg.com. But it should always be made clear that these courses are based on faith principles, or offering “life skills”, rather than claiming to be therapy. Therapy is delivered by therapists, who, like counsellors, are formally accredited and trained.”

Speaking at length about the work Mind and Soul does with young people, and notably the YouthScape project, Kate Middleton observed: “There is a crisis of mental health in this country, and, in this context, the Church can have a huge role. When there are waiting lists of 18 months for care, how can youth leaders support them in the mean time?”


MANY volunteers in parishes re­­cognise that the Church has its own unique part to play. “The Church can’t and shouldn’t try to fill in the gaps left by cuts in state provision,” Mr Jordan says. “We lack the ex­­pertise and authority. We’re not part of the structure, but that’s a good thing, because it means we occupy a different space, and we can do something different.”

There are many examples of churches thinking creatively about the “different space” the Church could occupy. Canon Andrew Bry­ant, of Norwich Cathedral, for example, has set up a partnership with a mental-health trust and has held several events for service-users in the cathedral, including a labyrinth with sessions on mindfulness and prayer, and a late-night tour using the building as a means of reflection.

He also realised the cathedral’s potential to be “a safe space for difficult conversations”, and now hosts annual forums that bring to­­gether service-providers and service-users — the first, “Black Dog”, focused on the stigma of mental health, and this summer’s “Hearing Voices” event was an opportunity to hear the stories of people struggling with long-term mental illness.

“We managed to get two chairpeople from the NHS trust sitting here, hearing the experiences of service-users. It was the Church playing the role of ‘connector’, facilitating creative conversations rather than the usual NHS feedback mechanisms.”


WRITING in Mental Health: An Inclusive Church resource, Jean Vanier and John Swinton agree that the “the tasks of the Church” are indeed “different (though comple­mentary) to mental-health profes­sionals. . . The Church’s task is to give people back their names. Men­tal illness diagnoses are sticky labels that don’t just name what we have but name what we are. The task of the Church as it meets with people experiencing mental illness is to model Jesus’s renaming of the dis­ciples: ‘I no longer call you mentally ill, a schizophrenic, bipolar, or any other destructive name. Now I call you friends.’”

For Mrs Welby-Roberts, this vis­ion of friendship and community requires more than “having a ‘Men­tal Health Sunday’”. It involves “actually finding out the needs of people in your congregation”. She also spoke of the need to improve access to opportunities for service, which could still be “problematic”: “the Church needs to use people’s gifts and strengths, and draw them into community. In my previous church, they really got it. I was on the preaching rota, but they would always have a back-up for the many times I was ill and wouldn’t show up.

“This is community where all that language about loving your neigh­bour, acceptance, and unconditional love is actually real.”


Mind & Soul Foundation: www.mindandsoulfoundation.org

I Thought There Would Be Cake by Katherine Welby-Roberts is pub­lished by SPCK (£7.99; CT Book­shop £7.20)

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