Mental health and the Church
From an interview on Radio 4
Dr Kate Middleton of the Christian mental health charity Mind and Soul, and Katherine Welby Roberts, the daughter of the Archbishop of Canterbury were recently interviewed on Radio 4 about mental health and their experiences in the Church.
Katherine started by talking about her own depression. "I was diagnosed age 19. I'm now 30, so 11 years ago. I was diagnosed with depression then, and as the years have gone by, anxiety has become a bigger and bigger issue for me. In those 11 years I've had three more serious kind of breakdowns, as it were - the worst being in 2012. It's been a bit of a journey, and it's been constant, really."
"When you're a vicar's kid, in the church you grow up in you're more likely to be noticed and heard and your issues be registered, because you can speak to your parent about that. So it was actually when I left home and my mental health deteriorated, and I kind of got involved in churches where my dad wasn't anymore the boss, that I kind of realised that actually church can be a very challenging place to have mental health problems, because a lot of people just didn't know quite what to say to you. You get those long pauses after you go forward for prayer and say, "Can I have a prayer for depression?" It's just kind of like a dead noise, as people kind of panic and go, 'I don't know what to say.'
"But then also, you get some amazing responses - people who've got personal experiences of it - and I find it's a very individual thing. There's been so much ignorance across society around mental health. So much stigma, so much lack of awareness, as it were, about what it means to have a mental health illness. People respond out of what they know, and often they don't know anything, so they respond out of guesses, and guesses rarely hit the mark"
Kate Middleton elaborated, "There are some churches that have quite an expertise, quite an experience in dealing with mental health and supporting people with mental health problems. But I think, increasingly, churches who are often very involved in community work and supporting the vulnerable, they are coming more and more into contact with mental health. So the level of understanding and of knowledge is rising. I think the church has an amazing opportunity here. Thinking about that family environment - the sort of culture of community which is so hard to find these days - and the church is perhaps one of the few places remaining where you get this diverse group of people thrown together because they have a shared passion. The chance to have a space where you can journey, generally do life together and go through the tough stuff as well as the great moments, and share that together."
She continued, "I think talking about mental illness is difficult for all of us because it's something, much as we would like it not to be the case, it is something that could happen to any of us. So there's always a slight discomfort for talking about difficult emotions and difficult experiences. We can be at risk of having a bit of a sort of perfection-focused model, a recovery-focused model. So, in the church, we conform to the trap of wanting to just pray for people and then if they don't get better straight away, that's a bit awkward. The challenge of long-term mental health problems is something that churches can struggle with. I think it's much easier to talk about mental health with that sort of perfection model of, 'Hopefully we'll all get to be perfect and better again.' It's difficult to accept the truth, which is actually that difficult emotions and challenging experiences are part of normal life, and we'll probably all have them at some point. In physical illness, more often they are things that can be resolved more simply. There's an operation or a medication, or an operation, or a process by which people get better. So perhaps the fact that emotions are always there does make mental health more of an ongoing challenge than physical health can seem to be."
Katherine confirmed, "I think having kind of not recovered, as it were - I've had good years and bad years - but having had poor mental health for my whole adult life, I've certainly found that people do drift away after a while because you're not better, you're not recovered, you're not whole again. It's one of my big hobby-horses, the idea of God being present within your suffering, even if your suffering doesn't end it doesn't mean that God's abandoned you or forgotten you. But often it can feel like people are suggesting that that is the case, or they're suggesting that if you haven't recovered then it's probably because you haven't prayed enough, or you haven't done enough, or you haven't understood things properly. Although I don't think that's often the intention that people have, I think it does make people uncomfortable when you don't recover."
What would your one thing be that you would ask churches to bear in mind, to help people like yourself?
Katherine responded, "I think to bear in mind that people in their congregation, even if you don't know it, will have mental health problems and, therefore, to be sensitive to that. To be aware of that, and to raise it. To be open from the front of the church, and as individuals within the church, about the struggles you face, because talking helps people to talk. The more that we talk about it, the more people will feel safe to talk about it and the more it will be brought into the light."
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