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Mental health needs communities  

10 May 2019

More funding is welcome — but churches still have a part to play, says Rodie Garland


AFTER much talk about “parity of esteem” for mental and physical health, mental health is finally becoming an official priority for health planning and spending.

The NHS Long Term Plan, published in January, sets out how the extra £20.5 billion that the Government promised the health service in 2018 will be spent (News, 8 February). It makes a raft of commitments, which include a ring-fenced fund for mental-health spending, which is set to grow at a faster rate than total NHS spending; a redesign of community mental-health services; and a significant expansion of help for children and young people.

This is welcome. But, while local areas now have the task of working out what the Long Term Plan means in practice, communities can only wait for the funding to reach the front line.

Austerity has caused cuts to some local services and raised thresholds for treatment in others. The result is that churches and faith-based charities are seeing higher levels of mental-health need among the people whom they serve. “Many people come to us with mental-health issues because they have nowhere else to go,” says a member of FaithAction, who runs a drop-in centre for vulnerable women and children. “It’s great they feel that they can turn to us — but we don’t have the skills to support them.”

This complaint is typical: our members, who are grass-roots faith-based organisations involved in social action, frequently cite mental-health issues as top among the health concerns of those with whom they work. These organisations are seeing higher levels of need, as other local services have disappeared, while at the same time their own resources are squeezed. This is backed up by the think tank the King’s Fund: its December 2018 review reported eight out of ten NHS trust finance directors as saying that funding pressures had led to longer waiting times for people who needed mental-health treatment.

WHILE it is clear that the effects of the funding boost for mental health cannot come quickly enough, the Long Term Plan also recognises that communities themselves have an important part to play in preventing ill-health. It commits the NHS to partnerships with voluntary-sector organisations, recognising that these provide support for vulnerable groups, often in innovative ways, and that they serve groups that mainstream services struggle to reach.

We cannot know whether those who wrote the Long Term Plan had churches in mind when they envisaged this kind of partnership, but FaithAction has long argued that faith groups have a particularly valuable contribution to make in supporting mental health.

Many reach out to those who are isolated — for example, through parent-and-toddler groups, shared meals, or foodbanks. They often have trusted leaders and longevity within, and expertise on, their communities. As well as physical assets such as buildings and transport, they tend to have highly motivated volunteers, alongside an ethos of care for others which takes seriously the idea of going the extra mile. What’s more, for individuals, faith can be an important part of health and well-being — a resource to draw on to stay well or to recover from illness.

ALL OF this means two things. First, our health and care services need to recognise the assets for mental health that churches offer not only to their congregations, but also to the whole community — and help them increase their skills where appropriate. In the current cross-government drive to tackle loneliness and roll out social prescribing, churches need to be on the radar of those mapping the sources of support available in their areas.

Second, churches and church leaders need to educate themselves about mental health. The well-known statistic that one in four people will face a mental-health issue means that there should be no place for stigma surrounding mental health in the Church — and that includes among church leaders, who are no more immune than anyone else. This does not mean that we all have to become mental-health experts: it means learning some basics about mental health — the Mental Health Access Pack for churches is a great start — and knowing when and how to help someone access professional support.

It also means making it acceptable to talk about mental health in church. It is vital that the Church seeks to navigate the tricky path between a purely medical model and an over-spiritual approach (“If you just pray more, you’ll get better”).

At FaithAction we have started to address this through our initiative “Friendly Places”, which offers tips on being a more welcoming and supportive faith community, and a growing collection of resources. One of these is a guide from LifeLine Church, based on its learning from walking with its own community through the realities of living with mental-health issues.

The Church is not exempt from having to deal with issues of mental health — but it is also expert at offering love and hope.

Rodie Garland is Policy Adviser at FaithAction. www.faithaction.net

Mental Health Awareness Week runs from Monday to Sunday. www.mentalhealth.org.uk/campaigns/mental-health-awareness-week

Mental Health Access Packs for churches are available at www.mentalhealthaccesspack.org

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