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Mental health and faith: how churches can help to lift the lid and relieve the pressure

04 May 2018

As Mental Health Awareness Week approaches, Johanna Derry looks at the help churches can offer


Mental-health problems are thought to affect one in four people

Mental-health problems are thought to affect one in four people

STORIES about mental health are making the headlines more than ever before. In February, it was the turn of the clergy.

In a survey published by the Church of England and the Church Urban Fund, clergy reported that mental-health problems were now one of the biggest social issues that they were encountering. The proportion of the senior clergy who think that mental health is a serious issue in their community rose from 40 per cent in 2011, to 60 per cent last year (News, 9 February).

The national co-ordinator for Inclusive Church, Ruth Wilde, says: “Depression and other mental-health conditions are incredibly common: ‘one in four’ is often quoted. It’s vital for churches not only to embrace and accept people who suffer with mental illness, but also to actively educate congregations. Then we can fully and effectively support those who experience mental-health conditions, and their family members.”

The director for community engagement at the charity Livability, Corin Pilling, defines mental ill-health in broad terms as a mental or behavioural pattern that causes suffering or poor ability to function in ordinary life. “There’s a wide variety of situations and conditions that fit under that umbrella,” he says. “But, as you think about the breadth of that definition, it would probably be true of many of us at some point through the course of our lifetime.”

In November 2012, the C of E launched the website Mental Health Matters to provide churches with help and resources on mental health. It also provides links to mental-health charities and diocesan resources. (The diocese of Chester’s publication 1 in 4 provides help­ful advice on how churches can set up and run mental-health support groups, for example.)


OTHER work is taking place at diocesan level. Norwich has been offering the internationally recognised Mental Health First Aid Course, delivered by the YMCA, to parents, carers, and anyone who works with young people. It teaches them how to spot the early signs of mental-health disorders, and provides self-help techniques that they can pass on.

Lichfield has worked with Livability to develop and pilot a six-week small-group Bible-study resource on faith and mental health, “Lifting the Lid”: it is now available online for any church group. Southwell & Nottingham has also proposed appointing mental-health guides in every parish to provide better help for families in gaining access to care and support services available in their area.

Guildford diocese has appointed a health and well-being adviser, Suzette Jones, who is a registered mental-health nurse. “I recognise where there’s need for help, and respond; I run training sessions for clergy, pastoral assistants, church workers, and volunteers; and I oversee a diocese-wide pathway of care, linking people to local services and church-based groups,” she says.

There is a network of support for indi­viduals and families in every community, Ms Jones says, but the information is not always easy to locate. “Finding out about the ‘pathway of care’ for local and county services, where professional help can be found, and how to access it, is important. Know you are not alone, and get as much understanding of the illness as possible,” she suggests.

She recommends that all carers and family members seek professional support, besides joining a carer support-group. “It’s really important to look after yourself. Take time to do things you enjoy, find people to talk to — many churches have ‘authorised’ listeners — and let off steam. Don’t forget to laugh: that’s OK.”


THE community aspect of being involved in a church, Mr Pilling believes, can play a poten­tially crucial part in people’s hopes for recov­ery. But if churches are to be as helpful as possible, they will need to move beyond having just Sunday services, and provide additional ways of making meaningful relationships.

“The recovery approach sees four principles as important: health, home, purpose, and com­munity,” Mr Pilling says. “That framework is a helpful lens. A very high number of people living with mental ill-health who are part of our churches often find themselves at the crisis-intervention stage. We don’t often see the context of what brought people to that point, and they can become a problem to fix rather than a person to welcome.”

Taking a wider view of a person’s well-being means not just paying attention to a crisis, but getting to know these other aspects of their well-being: what their home life is like, what support they have around them, and how they are meaningfully included.

Emily French (not her real name) is married to a man who struggles with depression. “Having faith and relationship with God undoubtedly helps us, but it hasn’t made us immune to historic struggles with depression.

“My husband doesn’t want to see a doctor, and I haven’t always known how to help him. I’ve felt isolated at times as a spouse, not knowing how to cope when he says he regularly struggles with life.

“We did speak with church leaders, but I’m not sure they really understood. They pray, though, if we ask, when we’re having a difficult time. Having them and other friends we can text to pray when the depression seems acute does seem to make a difference. Being part of a church community where people can be open and honest with each other, without being judged, is vital.”

The head of advice and information at Rethink Mental Illness, Laura Peter, says: “Caring for someone with a condition can put a strain on your own mental well-being; so com­munity support provided by churches can play an important role. . . The act of taking the time to stop and listen — even just having a chat over a cup of tea — can provide a brief break.”

Mr Pilling says: “Many families look like they’re floating like a swan on the surface, but underneath they’re working very, very hard. They might not know exactly what help they need, but if we can be brave enough to ask, and to have conversations, we might start to recognise what that might look like.”


THERE is no one-size-fits-all approach for an individual or family affected by mental ill-health. The effects of psychosis caused by schizophrenia, for example, pose a different challenge from that of a depressive low brought on by bipolar disorder. “It’s OK not to understand someone’s condition immediately; and much of their behaviour might be confusing. It’s really important to have patience during this time, and to listen to what they say are their needs,” Ms Peter says.

Dr Rob Waller, a consultant psychiatrist and director of the Mind and Soul Foundation, emphasises the availability of resources outside the Church, from the local authority, and charities such as Mind and the Carers Trust. “Mental illness can be a lonely experience; so having supportive friends and family is vital. If people know the basics about what helps, pastoral care in churches can be excellent.”

Mind, for example, provides a comprehensive guide to almost 30 types of mental-health disorder on its website, including anger, body dysmorphic disorder, depression, eating problems, and phobias, among others — explaining their symptoms, treatment, and where to get help.


OFFERING families, and individuals who are struggling with mental ill-health, spaces to talk and find support from a faith perspective is the raison d’être of the charity Being Alongside, the Association of Pastoral Care in Mental Health. Gail Cotton is the acting chair, and, together with her husband, started one of the charity’s support groups 31 years ago.

”There used to be a lot of fear about mental health, and also a feeling of real helplessness,” she says. “We’ve seen a move towards ‘recovery church’, helping people to recover; and, for those who might have to live with an issue, to acknowledge that, and help them manage it.”

The key to their support group, she says, has been to provide a space that is welcoming and non-judgemental. “It’s a place where people can express their feelings about what’s going on — even angry feelings. They can find some­one who’ll pray with them, and walk alongside; someone who’s got time for them, and who values their spiritual life, too.”

The charity is keen to support the formation of other groups. It is a national organisation, and existing groups can affiliate themselves to the association, which can also support people who wish to set up their own local group.

In Hampshire, Debbie Sutton runs the Good Neighbours Network of 120 local support groups. It evolved from work that the dioceses of Winchester, Portsmouth, and Guildford were doing in the county.

“Several of our groups offer a sitting service so carers can take a couple of hours off,” she says. “We also recommend that people explore what groups the mental-health charity Mind offers: the Church doesn’t have the monopoly on doing good, and the more that Christians work as part of other organisations, the better.”

In Houghton-le-Spring, County Durham, members of the congregation of St Michael and Angels run Space 4, which offers five drop-in sessions throughout the week for people to call in and talk.

“The original idea was to help people with debt issues,” says Christine Britcliffe, who over­sees the drop-in. “We started a credit union, and offered budgeting advice. It soon became apparent that, while debt and poverty are issues in our area, isolation was a bigger problem.

“Sometimes, the Church can be afraid, because people might be talking about suicidal ideation, or behaving strangely, and feel they need training. But just being alongside people can [sometimes] be enough,” she explains.

“All we need to do is be with people, and be accepting. They’re not their condition: they’re a person. Mental-health services will focus on the condition, their safety, and risk assessments. I’m not saying we should be reckless, but, fundamentally, we’re not treating people: we’re just offering hospitality.”

“The model of recovery draws on everybody’s strengths,” Mr Pilling says. “It doesn’t say ‘What’s wrong, and how do we fix it?’ It asks: ‘How do we strengthen this person’s ability to stay well?’ and ‘How are we part of that together?’ When you look at it that way, it’s not just about dealing with mental illness, it’s about building and being healthy church communities together.”



Rethink Mental Health’s Advice and Information Service 0300 5000 927






Barry Stott didn’t know how to help his wife with her depression. Discovering a church-based mental-health support group changed everything



FOR almost three years, my wife would barely leave the house because of depression. She wouldn’t even go to the doctor’s. She’d say, “I’ll be all right.” But I could see her slowly going further down. I wish I’d been able to get her to the doctor’s, but, when I mentioned it, we’d invariably argue, and I was trying to keep things on an even keel.

It was really hard, and it started to affect me. If there was a “do” anywhere, I went by myself. I wondered why she didn’t want to be with me. It got to a point where she’d go to bed, and I’d sit downstairs and think: “What am I doing here?” But I knew I couldn’t leave, because we’ve got a son with ADHD, Asperger’s, and dyspraxia. And I love my wife to bits.

We moved from Sunderland to Houghton-le-Spring, and one day she decided she wanted some books from the library. On the way in, we saw Space 4. People asked us if we wanted a cup of tea, and were very nice. The next couple of times we went to the library, it was the same. At the time, we were on a limited budget, and, in the end, I said: “I don’t have enough money to pay you for tea.” They said “It’s free; come in any time you like.”

A couple of weeks later, my wife said she wanted to be out of the house more, instead of being a recluse. I thought: “Great, we’ve cracked something here.” It took time. But then she lost her sister — she was only 55 years old; she died of breast cancer — and my wife’s depression started to come back.

She went to the doctor, and was given anti-depressants to help her sleep. But she was with­drawn — even when going to Space 4 she was quiet. Three clergy from St Michael and All Angels Church come to the drop-in, and she was able to talk to them. It seemed to lift her again, which I’m eternally grateful to them for.

Now, there’s barely any keeping her in the house, and I am over the moon. My wife was confirmed in October 2016, and that’s been a help as well, being involved in a church. We see them now as family, and she’s always got someone to talk to there if she needs to, as have I, which is fantastic. Nobody judges us for what we’re feeling.

My wife and I are volunteers at Space 4, now. I feel like I’m doing something: giving, not just taking. I have got a sense of purpose, because people need me, and I can help. I can listen and be non-judgemental. That helps me as well.

Everybody feels low sometimes. It’s how you come through it that matters. People need a safe place to go. Being part of the church now, as well as Space 4, has done me a power of good.

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