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Book club: Struggling with God by Isabelle Hamley, C. H. Cook and John Swinton

05 July 2024

Anne Holmes on Struggling with God: Mental health and Christian spirituality by Isabelle Hamley, C. H. Cook, and John Swinton

WHO doesn’t struggle with mental-health issues, whether directly or via a family member or friend? The three distinguished authors of Struggling with God are concerned about the relationship between mental-health issues and Christian communities. The book is divided into six chapters, each of which ends with a biblical reflection, prayers, questions to facilitate individual or group study, and pointers to further reading.

Our own questions also highlight themes for group discussion. The book is “for those who struggle, for those who come alongside those who struggle and for those who would like to come alongside but fear that they might do or say the wrong thing”. The authors would encourage all Christian communities to be part of the last group, informed by their book.

Mental Health Awareness Week was in May, and, in his regular column in the Church Times, Paul Vallely reflected on a sermon that he had heard about an autistic member of the congregation who remembered everyone’s birthdays and on the occasion of his baptism facilitated the coming together of a split congregation (Comment, 17 May). He praised the service on Radio 4 at the beginning of the week, led by the priest and poet Laura Darrall, with beautiful reflections by one of our authors, Isabelle Hamley, “who observed that the Psalmists are no strangers to the desolation of mental-health challenges”.

This juxtaposition of mental-health challenges and parts of the Bible is one of the themes of this splendid book, which I reviewed last year (Books, 15 September 2023). Another is the importance of challenging the stigma that can often attach to those with mental-health challenges and those who care for them. In the past, I have been a part-time NHS mental-health chaplain, and I have spent many years working as an individual, couples, and group therapist. I share the authors’ passion for tackling stigma, and welcome the challenge to Christian congregations to spearhead an accepting and sensitive pastoral approach.

Stigma “is based on the assumptions we all make about people and the way in which human beings tend to sort the world into categories”. While this categorisation is not damaging in itself, the problem can come when we apply this to human beings, whom we can never know completely. This can also affect the identity of the person with mental-health challenges, who may even self-describe as a diagnosis. I remember introducing myself to someone who had attended a hospital service, and, when I asked her name, she answered: “I am bi-polar.” She seemed to have lost sight of who she was as a person who happened to have an illness.

In more general psychological terms, we can split off aspects of ourselves with which we are uncomfortable and project them into others. If we know ourselves well, we are less likely to do this. If, however, we link this to prejudice and quasi-tribal affiliations, these group categories can obstruct clear thinking. The obvious extreme outcome of this can be seen in tribal war, when one group stigmatises another and wishes to remove it through violence.

The Revd Dr Isabelle Hamley, Principal of Ridley Hall, and one of the three authors of the book. She will be one of the speakers at the Festival of Preaching this September festivalofpreaching.hymnsam.co.uk

This is also described as binary thinking and can sometimes be present within psychologically minded professions. One example of this is the historical prejudice that has existed between psychiatry and faith leaders. Nowadays, pastors are more likely than in the past to have been trained to work collaboratively with mental-health professionals and signpost people appropriately; but there still examples of Christians’ blaming people for their illness, implying that, if they had more faith, they would be cured — something that the authors touch on in Chapter 2.

This is one of the reasons that mental-health professionals can be wary of working collaboratively with clergy and other pastors. In addition, there are those psychotherapists who have tended to see a religious faith as a defence or even a crutch rather than an example of their patients’ health and support.

Readers might find it helpful to know about the book Sadness, Depression, and the Dark Night of the Soul: Transcending the medicalisation of sadness by Glòria Durà-Vilà, a psychiatrist who was concerned about the possible over-medicalisation of sadness. Her qualitative research with a group of highly religious participants in Spain identified spiritual sadness, which might be the cooling of a religious vocation or concern about a relationship with God and described as the Dark Night of the Soul, as known in the mystical tradition of Christianity, something to work through with a spiritual companion.

Sadness might also have a secular cause, such as a bereavement, a severe illness or relationship breakdown. Sadness without an apparent cause would be more likely to be seen as depression and professional help sought. Medication might be prescribed as part of the treatment.

This distinction between secular and spiritual sadness brings us neatly back to the sub-title of the book, Mental Health and Christian Spirituality. The authors draw liberally on biblical material, notably the psalms, the Book of Job and the life and teaching of Jesus. They also consider St John of the Cross, the mystic who wrote of his experiences of the dark night, and his writings have found resonance with other Christians. Whereas some psychiatrists might see this as a spiritual aspect of clinical depression, others have noticed that the person “amid a dark night retains a positive approach to relationships with others, can still find hope and meaning, and wishes to recover in a way that the person with a severe depressive condition often does not”.

A collaborative relationship between thoughtful Christians and open-minded clinicians could do much to reduce the stigma experienced by those with mental- health challenges, and we can all contribute to this.

The Revd Dr Anne C. Holmes, a former NHS mental-health chaplain, works as a psychotherapist and SSM in the diocese of Oxford.

Struggling with God: Mental health and Christian spirituality by Isabelle Hamley, C. H. Cook and John Swinton is published by SPCK at £14.99 (Church Times Bookshop £13.49); 978-0-281-08641-2.

Isabelle Hamley is speaking at the Church Times Festival of Preaching in September. Listen to Dr Hamley in conversation with Sarah Meyrick in this week’s Church Times podcast. This is a monthly series produced in association with the Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature. Listen here.


  1. Are you aware of members of your family and friendship group who struggle with mental-health challenges?

  2. If so, have they or you been affected by the added burden of stigmatisation?

  3. Would you describe your Christian community as inclusive? If so, does that inclusiveness include those with mental-health challenges?

  4. Which of the psalms speak(s) to your understanding of God’s acceptance of those who struggle with despair?

  5. When St Paul wrote the words: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate” (Romans 7.16), he seemed to refer to an inner conflict. Can you relate to this?

  6. How can you help those around you, including members of your Christian community, to reduce the sense of stigma attached to any sort of disability?

IN OUR next Book Club on 2 August, we will print extra information about our next book, The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell. It is published by Tinder Press at £9.99 (£8.99); 978-1-4722-2388-3).


Maggie O’Farrell transports the reader to Renaissance Italy in her latest historical novel The Marriage Portrait. It is based on the true story of teenage bride Lucrezia di Cosimo de’ Medici, the inspiration for Robert Browning’s poem “My Last Duchess”, who died only a few years after marrying the esteemed Duke of Ferrara. In the book, O’Farrell reimagines the Duchess’s fraught final years, following her journey from the safety of her childhood home in Florence to the remote hunting lodge where her husband keeps her captive. Sections of the story are told from the first-person perspective, and Lucrezia’s fear that her husband is out to kill her is palpable.


The novelist Maggie O’Farrell was born in Coleraine, in Northern Ireland. The author is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and has written seven novels. The Marriage Portrait is her most recent novel. In 2000, her debut novel After You’d Gone received critical acclaim and won a Betty Trask Award. More recently, in 2020, her historical novel Hamnet (Book Club, 1 October 2021) won the Women’s Prize for Fiction with its success leading to a stage adaptation in 2023 performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company

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