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Mental-health stigma needs to be removed, Archbishop Welby tells Irish conference

27 October 2023

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The Archbishop spoke of the value of his own trusted monthly prayer and support group

The Archbishop spoke of the value of his own trusted monthly prayer and support group

THE Church has not dealt well with mental-health issues in the past, often moralising over them and stigmatising sufferers, the Archbishop of Canterbury told a Church of Ireland conference, “Mind Matters”, last Friday.

He had been due to speak in person, but addressed the conference by video link from Jerusalem. Archbishop Welby spoke of his own experience of depression before reflecting on why, in a prosperous world, mental illness had become “endemic, systemic, and long-term”, and suggesting steps to be taken to combat this.

The first step was to reduce the stigma of mental-health issues, he said. “Transparency and openness help people learn that mental-health problems are an illness, not a sin,” he said. “It’s not contagious. You can’t get it when you shake hands and share the Peace on Sundays.”

The strongest defence was to be found in “the communities around us, the families, friends, and colleagues that support us. . . There is no resilience in isolation. We are, biologically, evolutionarily, and necessarily, creatures of community.”

The Archbishop spoke of the value of his own trusted monthly prayer and support group. He urged proper support and appropriate supervision for clergy, particularly when they were dealing with mental health or extreme pastoral situations. Faith could also be a great support in times of mental-health difficulty, he said.

In an interview with the Archbishop for Radio 4, the Irish actor and film director Gabriel Byrne had talked about the Church as being the House of the People. “If the Church was the House of the People, it could be that space where people are welcomed and comforted,” Archbishop Welby said.

“It would mean that we are a new family — one where we can insulate each other somewhat against life’s knock-backs and pains: a Church which is a space for people with mental-health issues, where people can be sure that God has not abandoned them, and the Church will not abandon them.”

The Archbishop identified several factors causing such widespread mental illness. First was a breakdown in community life in the global North, which meant that there was “no scaffolding to hold us up or offer us stability when things inevitably go wrong, or we face tricky periods”.

The world was encountering novelty, uncertainty, and uncontrollability in new ways: a high-stakes election coming up in the United States; Russia’s ongoing war with Ukraine; the beginning of a new, devastating war between Israel and Hamas in the Middle East.

He also referred to emergence from the devastation of the pandemic, the cost-of-living crisis, and the death of Queen Elizabeth II, which had signalled the end of an era that most had known all their lives. Globally speaking, the impact of the climate crisis had caused many to fear for the future.

“Periods of high stress are extremely demanding on our physical and mental health; so it is no wonder we are seeing people suffering from burnout, chronic stress, and exhaustion, as well as more serious mental-health issues,” he said.

A Mind Matters survey published in December 2021, as part of a three-year initiative to promote mental health, had found that 46 per cent of clergy questioned in the Church of Ireland thought that the Church was not doing enough to support their mental health. “Clergy are present with people during the most stressful and painful periods of their lives,” Archbishop Welby said. “They are also on the front line in responding to parishioners who are experiencing mental-health issues; so they need to recognise the signs and symptoms and signpost people to appropriate support.

“They are alongside their parishioners during loss and bereavement; they hear people’s deepest anxieties and fears; they live with the most vulnerable and ostracised in society. The emotional burden is heavy; it is the greatest privilege of my life, but it takes its toll without adequate support and self-care.”

Clergy also found themselves in a place in the West where the basic assumptions about the world had been jettisoned: “The values for which they stand are no longer trusted. They are constantly under attack for the perceived or actual sins of the Church. And, of course, there is the ultimate insecurity of the future of the Church, including here in Ireland.”

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