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Health and the pandemic: Everyone can be a healer

30 April 2021

The pandemic has put professionals under huge strain. Here’s how churches may be able to help, Julie McKee reports


THE mental-health charity Mind has said that the pandemic has led to a record number of mental-health crises. Those, of course, are just the ones that are known about. Personal experience and anecdotal evidence suggests that mental-health issues now affect all of us, to some degree or other.

Media reports that have chronicled the plight of patients in hospital, together with warnings of surges in anxiety and depression from NHS and mental-health professionals, make it clear that there will be pressing pastoral needs in church congregations and the wider community. The sheer scale of the need is daunting. Fortunately, those already working on this issue in the Church show that a variety of responses can be made, ranging from the theological and liturgical to the practical, including partnerships with external organisations.

For Professor John Swinton, founding director of the Centre for Spirituality, Health and Disability, in Aberdeen, this work begins with not stigmatising those who present themselves with mental-health issues. Safe spaces need to exist in churches, where such matters can be talked about and explored.

“The first thing is to be informed,” he says, “and to understand something about what mental-health challenges are, and how they work themselves out in people’s lives . . . so that when somebody’s experiencing something within the community, it is not alien to that community.”

He points out that most people are not acutely unwell, even if, given the challenges of the past year, it is likely that all have been touched in some way or another. The mental-health issues most likely to be encountered in church are depression and anxiety, he says, “primarily because they are the most common things you have within society”.

Addressing such issues does not have to be the preserve of professionals. Just by offering friendship, Professor Swinton says, we are “creating a community which is open enough to be able to incorporate a variety of different ways of seeing the world; but it’s also a safe space for those who are going through difficult times”.


THE Chief Executive of the Guild of Health and St Raphael (GoHealth), the Revd Dr Gillian Straine, sees healing as part of the missional call of the Church, which also ties in to mental health. To that end, last November, she launched the project Healthy Healing Hubs as a resource for congregations and clergy.

The Revd Dr Gillian Straine

“The Healthy Healing community begins with the gospel call of Jesus, who said, ‘Go make disciples and heal.’ . . . If we take this call of our Lord seriously, then healing’s not just a specialism you do maybe once a month. If you show people that you care and that the Church can be a place of health and healing, then the Church will grow. . . We’re doing this as part of our core mission.”

Dr Straine is keen to counter the view that healing is just a case of “magic hands” on a physical body. “We ask churches: ‘In what way is God calling you to be a place of healing in your community?’ So, for some communities, that might be mass and a laying on of hands. . . For others, they might identify social deprivation, and that children are not getting fed in the school holidays; so their healing ministry is a lunch club in school holidays.

“For others, they maybe have a GP in their congregation who says: ‘We spend a lot of time talking to lonely people . . . and we’ve got a church hall; so let’s do something about that and get involved in social prescribing.’

“We start with the missional questions. If we’re going to talk about healing, what do we mean by healing? Does it mean just getting better, and, if so, why would you go to church and not Holland & Barrett? We’re talking about helping people to live well, and human flourishing.”

For churches who sign up to become a Healthy Healing Hub, there are resources and training to deal with mental health. Dr Straine says: “We also act as an umbrella organisation, and work with other experts in the field, such as the Mind and Soul Foundation, Sanctuary Mental Health, and TCT [Transforming Communities Together]. . . So we can point people in the direction of other experts as well.”

The other thing that Dr Straine thinks important is for church leaders to go to their local GP surgeries “and to engage with public health, to find out who their social-prescribing officer is for their local council, and open up conversations about the use of the church building in community-health creation”.


THE Revd Sarah Lunn has been involved in social prescribing for years, and can attest to its value as a means of engaging with mental-health needs in a community. A co-founder of the Listening Ear project in Temple Sowerby, Cumbria, (Features 13 Oct, 2017), where she had a room at the GP’s surgery to listen to “the worried well”, she is now Area Dean of Bellingham, Northumberland, and is seeking to build a similar service there.

The Revd Sarah Lunn

Over the years, Ms Lunn has spent much time speaking to NHS advisers, GPs, and officials, and says that the holistic model of churches’ and local services’ working together is now well recognised.

The model developed in Cumbria — adopted by other clergy and GP collaborations, and featured in the British Medical Journal, The Guardian, and on a Channel 4 series — could have even greater potential, post-pandemic. “It’s about us being part of what is seen as chaplaincy/social prescribing. The brilliant thing about the Listening Ear was doing it in the surgery. . . It was neutral ground; so I’m hoping we can get back to that.”

She is currently involved in an online, cross-deanery course on pastoral care set to be run in the diocese of Newcastle. Among other things, it will focus on listening better and safeguarding. After the course, those attending it will see what the appetite is for what is possible in the area. “There’s such a need for this. . . The openness is there — although there will be some practices that just don’t want it.”


ANOTHER church that has formed a partnership with local services is Christ Church, West Wimbledon. In 2014, a group of volunteers from the church set up a bereavement-support service and advertised in the area. It is signposted at three GP practices.

The service continued throughout the pandemic, and, apart from a few periods when they had to rely on phone calls and Zoom, it is now back operating out of two of the surgeries, where they have a room one day a week to meet those seeking support.

At a time when professional services are particularly overstretched, it has been invaluable, Chris Larkman, its founder and one of its 12 volunteers, says.

All bereavement volunteers receive training, and are supervised by a professional counsellor. It is made clear that volunteers are not counsellors, but are there to be alongside people to receive their grief.

“We’ve been supporting people who’ve had difficult times going through the death of their loved ones, because they haven’t been able to see them in hospital, and the funeral hasn’t been as they would’ve wanted; so there’s additional unfinished business that we’ve been working with people on,” Mr Larkman says.

“People continually say how useful it is to talk to somebody outside their own family and friendship group. It doesn’t take a huge amount of people’s time, and yet just being prepared to listen to people talking and empathising and understanding what they’re saying . . . it’s very powerful.”

The success of the service, and the needs that it meets, are such that a similar group could have applications beyond the main focus of bereavement. “There may well be mileage in having a parallel service available to talk through some of the mental-health challenges that people have faced in lockdown,” Mr Larkman says. He is happy to pass on lessons learnt from the experience of setting up the service.


DR STRAINE is positive about the impact that congregations could make. “In this pandemic, coming out the other end of it, I strongly believe that churches can offer something so unique and so important: they can offer places for people to come and tell their stories — about what on earth has been happening behind these closed doors; about their fears.”

In terms of how ordinary churchgoers can broach the topic of mental health, she suggests: “Churches can do so much, simply by having the confidence to ask: ‘How are you?’ and listening to the answer.”

GoHealthA healthy-healing-hub training day in St Andrew’s Cathedral, Inverness, with an ecumenical group of church leaders  

On a theological level, Professor Swinton speaks of the value of Christian lament. “Lament itself is a way of articulating your pain in a prayerful context. . . The thing about lament is, it enables you to be honest in your prayer life; so that’s helpful.

“Something like CBT [cognitive behavioural therapy] is also to do with realigning your thoughts and your thinking . . . but so is contemplation and prayer. It’s a way of reassuring yourself and others that good thoughts are possible.”

Liturgy and worship, too, can provide a rhythm and a stabilising counterpart to the chaotic events of these times. They can be used sometimes as a way of addressing specific issues. Professor Swinton recalls one church that he visited where somebody with depression devised a service based on the theme of depression.

“Afterwards, of course, many people within the congregation who had depression came forward, because they felt safe to do that. . . So people had always been there, but they hadn’t been released to engage in that creative process of liturgy building.”

A recent lecture given online by the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, seems to corroborate the part that church leaders and congregations can play. “In seeking to lower the barriers to honesty around mental health, it is incredibly important that we model leadership which is characterised by the willingness to acknowledge our own vulnerability.”

Dr Straine says of the Church, post-pandemic: “We need to be bold. This is a huge opportunity for us to talk about Jesus in a deep way, and to welcome people who’ve been scarred by what they’ve gone through.”

At the very least, Christians should be confident in offering to pray for people. “My experience is that no one’s ever said ‘No, thank you.’ We shouldn’t be afraid. . . It’s one of the most healing things we can do.” 


Support and training

  • Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries offers resources and courses for small groups and communities on faith and mental health, including the impact of Covid-19. sanctuarymentalhealth.org
  • GoHealth runs the Healthy Healing Hubs project, including providing membership, training and links to external organisations. gohealth.org.uk
  • Mind and Soul Foundation offers free online educational resources for churches engaging with mental health, including planning services. mindandsoulfoundation.org/
  • Transforming Communities Together offers Bible studies and access to mental-health first-aid training. Churches can also sign the “Friendly Places Pledge”, making a commitment to welcoming those struggling with their mental health. tctogether.org.uk
  • Raynes Park Bereavement: churches interested in developing their own volunteer listening service can email Chris Larkman at raynesparkbereavement@gmail.com.

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