As I sit writing this, I’m working on tying up the last few loose ends for my part in the Mental Health Access Pack – an online pack of resources launching FREE next week in conjunction with Mind and Soul and Livability. We’re passionate about informing and equipping local churches across the country and encouraging them to GET INVOLVED with issues of mental and emotional health in their community. Why?
You’d have to work pretty hard to avoid all the mentions of mental health in the media these days. With rates of mental ill health rising amongst people of all ages in this country, and well publicised struggles and failings in the services designed to treat them, several people have described the current state of mental health as a ‘crisis.’ But is this something for the church to get involved with? Isn’t it better left to the doctors and professionals, even if they are struggling to cope with the demand?
We all have ‘mental health’
Perhaps one of the most common misconceptions in this area is that ‘mental health’ issues are those that affect a small minority of us – people who are very severely and often alarmingly ill. Not helped by the various ‘mental health patient’ costumes that spring up each halloween, or by reports that stigmatise and poorly describe the reality of mental health conditions, many people develop an understanding of them that is completely wrong. Just as we all have ‘physical health’ – we all have ‘mental health’. And just as we can have moments in our life where our physical health drops for a time, so too our mental health can move up and down.
The parable of the house built on the rock or the sand in Matthew 7 tells us many things but one key thing that we might miss is that whoever we are and whatever we do, storms will come. There will come moments in our lives when it throws more at us than we know how to deal with. ’The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house’ the account goes (Matthew 7: 25&27), but it is what happens next that is different. When our emotions seem to go crazy and we fear losing control or simply not comping with the onslaught that is hitting us, the question is whether we will be able to remain standing after the storm has passed. Mental and emotional health problems are not things that happen to an unlucky group of people who are ‘not quite normal’ – they are things that could happen to any one of us. And that as the well known statistic reminds us, will indeed happen to one in four of us at some point in our lives.
What do you do when the lights go out?
At those times it can feel like the lights in your life have suddenly been switched off – like you have been plunged into darkness. Suddenly knowing where to go or what to do next becomes incredibly hard. People need support, good advice and help navigating the very tricky world of accessing help. If we become physically unwell we all know where to go for help, but would we know how to help someone for whom the problem was emotional rather than physical?
“He brought them out of darkness, the utter darkness, and broke away their chains.” (Psalm 107:14)
One of the features of our emotions is that when they become very powerful, they can feel all consuming and we start to feel out of control. We may be driven to consider or do things we never would have thought ourselves capable of – and see ourselves behave in ways we would never normally behave. ‘My face is red with weeping, dark shadows ring my eyes’ said Job (Job16:16NIV) – but those who have read his story will know that his comforters didn’t bring much comfort. Many people will have had similar experiences where people from the church, or friends with faith have responded in ways which may be well meaning but which have been very hurtful and harmful. We need to ensure that our support and comfort is better prepared, more theologically accurate and definitely more helpful than theirs was, bringing people out of darkness rather than pushing them deeper into it.
What can the church do?
What can the church do in such times and such places? Here are three things I’d encourage:
1 – Offer comfort
In fact, giving comfort to those in need is a very key part of what we are called to do on this earth. ‘Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort’, says Paul (2 Corinthians 1:3) . And importantly, he carries on: ‘…who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.’ Our call is to offer comfort just as we have been comforted ourselves.
Mental and emotional health problems are increasingly common. The stats speak for themselves. 17% of adults in England meet diagnostic criteria for at least one mental health condition. The same number will seriously contemplate suicide in their lifetime. 1 in 10 young people are struggling with self harm. As many as 1/4 of teenage girls say they have an eating disorder. 40% of parents admit their biggest worry for their kids is their mental health. Whatever the reason, our 21st society is struggling emotionally. And the church is standing on the frontline, offering something different – some kind of hope in this darkness.
We know that whether or not they have a personal faith, people turn to the church in troubled times. We need to be ready to support them – whether that is practically, helping direct them to where they can find help, emotionally, offering support an a listening ear, socially – helping them to make links and friendships with people who know what it is like to be in their position or spiritually, helping them explore answers to some of the Big Questions of life. We can help people with things like how to manage stress, how to get that work:life balance right, how to find perspective in life. We have the time, the energy and the compassion to listen.
2 – Hold hope
One of our strongest responsibilities to people who are struggling emotionally is to carry hope for them. People who have been ill for a long time, and who may have experienced several treatments which have not brought the freedom they perhaps promised may find themselves literally sucked down by despair. When you are in the tunnel, and darkness surrounds you, it can be too hard to hope that somewhere ahead there is light. Our role is to hold on to that hope for people, walking with them in the darkness so they can hold on to our hope for them.
“Where then is my hope— who can see any hope for me?” (Job 17:15 NIV)
We must recognise that people who have been struggling with emotional and mental health problems often have been unwell for a long time. They may have experienced very painful things in their life, and have often been through more than one episode of emotional ill health. Some have struggled for years, and feel that the professional mental health services have ‘given up’ on them. We can bring hope – not just hope for a better future, but hope in terms of how we value them as people right now. Suffering with a mental health problem does not make people worthless or failed. Welcoming people as valued members of our church family shows them hope in a real, practical way.
3 – Be light
How do we bring light into the darkness of emotional and mental health problems? We do not need to be clinicians – though we may be able to help people find support from them. We do not need to have all the answers – though we may be able to help people look for them. We do not need to be able to take all the pain away, though we can help by being with people in their darkest hours.
“You, Lord, keep my lamp burning; my God turns my darkness into light” (Psalm 18:28 NIV)
Instead we need to be willing to make time for people, to value them and make them feel listened to. We need to treat every person as an individual created, loved and cherished by God. We must help them to experience the truth that they do not need to earn this love, or make themselves worthy of it. We need to be ambassadors of this love, bringing it to them where they are in life. We must not be calling to them from where we are – but be willing to go with them through dark places, walking alongside them and offering them shelter, support and relief when they have no more strength themselves.
“Friends love through all kinds of weather” (Proverbs 17:17 The Msg)
Because perhaps the most important truth about mental health disorders is that they are not hopeless. Recovery is often possible, and good treatment helps many thousands every year get back on their feet. Those who have survived suicide attempts often talk about how in spite of how devastated they were at the time to wake up, just how achingly glad they are that they did not succeed. We can help people walk through their darkest times – their stormy times, when the rain is torrential and the wind howls. But we also have the wonderful privilege of sharing their great times, their sunny times. As the church we are not only there in times of ill-health – we are still there when things are better, still there throughout people’s lives, constant and – if not as dependable as the God we worship, hopefully something approaching that!
“Each one will be like a shelter from the wind and a refuge from the storm, like streams of water in the desert and the shadow of a great rock in a thirsty land.” (Isaiah 32:2 NIV)
Perhaps the most important thing isn’t about what we say or what we do – it is the being there, living through whatever life is throwing at people, and sharing what God has blessed us with with the people we meet.
Emotional and mental health conditions are incredibly hard when you are caught in the middle of them. They can come out of the blue, spiral up and take control before you even have time to catch your breathe. They can sap hope and energy and leave you feeling defenceless against what they hit you with. They can trigger stigma and negativity from those closest to you so you no longer know who your friends really are. But we can offer people shelter in these stormy times. We can help them find the things they need to get through the difficult days.
Ultimately, I believe that what we do really can make a difference.