This week is Mental Health Awareness Week. Simon Perfect, Assistant Churchwarden, considers the roles that churches play in supporting mental health.
When I was a teenager I developed an eating disorder. It began after I got braces; I wanted to cut down on sugar to improve my teeth. But it quickly became an obsession with healthy eating. I started to become extremely conscious of food, avoiding any which I thought of as unhealthy, and combining this with rigorous exercise. I became underweight and overly body conscious. One day I misread the label on a school sandwich and went on a long walk during my lunchbreak to burn off what I mistakenly thought was a huge calorie intake. Birthdays would involve me trying to avoid eating cake, or else gorging guiltily before heading out to burn it off again.
Eating disorders are mental illnesses; the obsessive thought patterns and behaviours are an attempt to exert control over something at a time of high stress. I was never formally diagnosed, but my obsession with ‘clean’ food fits the pattern of orthorexia – a proposed but not yet clinically recognised disorder. Thankfully I received the help I needed (a doctor telling me it was okay for me to put on weight) before my condition became too dangerous, and I was gradually able to leave the mental stranglehold behind. But many of the estimated 1.25 million people in the UK with eating disorders (25% of whom are men) suffer for a lot longer than I did, sometimes to the point of hospitalisation or even, tragically, death.
This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, and so is a time for sharing stories like this. It’s by sharing our stories that we normalise conversation around mental illnesses and mental health more broadly.
This is, after all, something that matters for all of us. Covid and lockdowns swung a wrecking ball at our collective mental health. Mental illnesses are increasingly common: 17% of adults experienced depression last summer, up from 10% pre-Covid; and referrals to NHS child and adolescent eating disorder services almost doubled in the first year of the pandemic. Beyond formal illnesses, many more people are facing mental challenges. We face an epidemic of loneliness, with 7.2% of adults saying often or always feel lonely. And the cost of living crisis is biting our minds as well as our wallets: 28% of adults say the crisis is having a negative effect on their mental health. In the words of Archbishop Welby (who has talked frankly about his own depression), “we have a national case of PTSD”.
This is a conversation for everyone. Therefore it’s also a conversation for Church. What are churches doing to support people with mental health challenges?
The answer is a lot, in informal and often unseen ways. Churches and church leaders are often on the frontline of mental health support. In a 2020 cross-denominational survey of 1,050 churches, 29% of respondents (and 42% of urban respondents) said their churches offered support for people with mental health problems. Most of this is informal support – befriending and signposting to professional mental health services – though a minority of churches also provide more direct support, such as activities to help tackle addiction. The National Churches Trust roughly estimates that UK churches’ activities on mental health support cost £26.9 million a year, and would cost the government anything from £20 to £116 million to replace.
On a national level, church institutions are talking more about mental health and have produced resources for making mental health a part of church life. The Church of England, for example, has produced special liturgies with prayers and bible readings that focus on themes of lament and mental fragility.
So mental health is an increasing priority for many churches. But the landscape is patchy. Last year Theos, the thinktank I work for, did some research into the attitudes of churchgoers (across denominations) regarding mental health. We found that many churchgoers don’t feel comfortable sharing their mental health challenges with their church. Churches may be doing a lot to support people with mental illnesses, but quite often this isn’t explicit – many churchgoers feel that mental health is rarely talked about in their church, and that churches need to do more to make people with mental health problems feel included. And while progress has been made in reducing taboos around mental ill health in church, particularly around anxiety or depression, issues like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder remain stigmatised and poorly understood.
Among some Christians, moreover, there’s still a tendency to see mental illness as rooted in a person’s own spiritual failings, as a punishment for sin, or even as the result of external spiritual forces. These attitudes can be deeply damaging emotionally and spiritually, particularly if expressed without nuance or if used to discourage people from seeking medical help.
For me, Church should be a place where all of a person – all of our brokenness, messiness and fragility – can be held, carried, and brought to the foot of the cross. Where we walk alongside those with mental health challenges, and provide space for sharing stories and listening. Where we don’t overlook people with mental health problems and leave them at the sidelines, but invite them in to the centre of our Eucharistic life together. Where they are not seen as individuals to be tolerated or problems to be fixed, but as persons to give and receive love – persons we deeply need.
At St James’, I believe we are doing much of this already – much more than most churches – and we should recognise this as one of our unique strengths. But we mustn’t be complacent. What more can we do to open up conversations about mental health among our community? What kinds of spaces, and training, do we need to allow safe conversations to flourish? How can we make it easier for people to form friendships at church – particularly those who are lonely or struggle with social situations? How can we get better at telling others that we are a place of and for the broken, the messy, the fragile? What barriers do we need to overcome? If you have ideas, do get in touch.
Let me end with these words from Christopher Newell, which I invite you to meditate over this week.
Come and bring your hidden places.
Come and bring your hurting spaces.
Come and eat with hearts that break.
Come and drink, new worlds to make.
Come and feast, your vision spread.
Despair and hope connects the fed.
Jesus says, ‘come!’
If you are concerned about your mental health, the Mental Health Foundation lists the details of services and organisations that can help you.