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Church of Ireland General Synod: Clergy offered support for mental health

13 May 2022


A speaker at the debate on mental health and well-being

A speaker at the debate on mental health and well-being

CLERGY in the Church of Ireland are being offered support for their mental health and well-being in a new initiative enabled by funding from the Benefact Trust. It is part of the Church’s MindMatters project, and will be available free of charge to all clergy for three years.

Only one fifth of Church of Ireland clergy and lay members surveyed about mental health in May-June 2021 thought that the Church provided them with good support. Making the announcement, the Bishop of Meath & Kildare, the Most Revd Pat Storey, said: “For those who lead and pastor us, it is vital that there are enough resources to keep them healthy and well.

“As with many professions, clergy, too, have felt isolated and powerless throughout the pandemic — many feel that their very raison d’être was removed. The Clergy Assistance Programme seeks to give clergy a place and a space to explore their own well-being, and is intended to supplement and not to usurp the pastoral care of a diocesan bishop.

“We hope that this will be a successful contribution to better support and care for those who watch over us.”

Key features include a 24-hour telephone helpline offering practical information and emotional support; a weekday medical-information helpline; and up to six face-to-face counselling sessions, per issue, per member of the clergy, including applied cognitive behavioural therapy techniques. It embraces crisis management and critical-incident support, and there is an online health and well-being portal. The programme also extends in part to clergy spouses and their dependants.

Dioceses and parishes are currently being invited to submit applications for seed funding for local mental-health promotion initiatives to address themes such as stigma. Mental-health training is being rolled out to clergy and pastoral carers, free of charge and delivered online by Action Mental Health. The Church is also seeking to recruit mental-health champions to help promote positive mental health in communities on the island of Ireland.

Mental-health issues could be a double whammy, Bishop Storey said, “feeling under the weather, and then feeling guilty because we do”. Robert Dunne, safeguarding officer for the Church of Ireland, described the positive characteristics of mental health as “feelings of purpose and contentment, happiness, love, satisfaction, joy — avoiding self-blame, having positive self-regard”, as opposed to “an experience that feels like dead of night.”

But faith could be an amazing resource. “We have an amazing opportunity to do something important on mental-health now,” he said, commenting that the Church of Ireland was already “punching above its weight all the time” because of its committed volunteers, infrastructure, communication, and passion. “We can make a real and sustained difference in our communities.”

Rebekah Fozzard, Representative Body project manager, said that an in-depth understanding of attitudes in the whole Church of Ireland was needed. The programme could enable an external baseline study to find measurable, meaningful data; promote private links between church and community; and enable front-line workers to support mental health in their communities.

Issues such as stigma were not unique to people in the Church, she said: it could “leave people feeling bullied, discriminated against, left out, and sad — the key to which is awareness and inclusion; the message that it’s OK not to be OK.”

Canon Paul Arbuthnot (Cork, Cloyne & Ross) reminded the Synod that faith had often been used to propagate conversion therapy, and hoped that the group would acknowledge the damage that that could do. Professor Frank Dobbs (Connor) spoke of the invaluable help of parish nurses. Two half-time nurses had been appointed in his parish before the lockdown, and their mainstream support — particularly in Portstewart, and on the Ulster university campus — had shown them to be irreplaceable.

“Parish nurses are able to pray with people and listen to their spiritual as well as physical concerns. Mind, body, and spirit should be a triple diagnosis,” he said.

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