On Sunday morning we started a series focusing on issues of social justice. As I said in a previous post, this is clearly something which is already very much on the heart of Stoneygate Baptist Church, and so I hope this will be opportunity for us to reflect on where that passion has come from and why it is so important and where it is ultimately heading. Each Sunday, we will be taking our cue from an awareness day in the coming week, and as today (October 10th) is marked as World Mental Health Day, that set the theme for our service.
The first thing to say about mental health is that we all have it. We often speak of mental health as though it is synonymous with mental health issues, but just as we all have bodies and so we all have physical health, whether good or bad (or "fair to middling" as my Yorkshire husband might say), we all have minds and so we all have mental health. And so it is something we should all be aware of, not just out of concern for the one in four who will be diagnosed with a mental illness at some point in their lives, but so that we can care day to day for our own mental wellbeing.
The second thing to say is about why I am approaching this as a social justice issue. There are biological and chemical and very individual circumstantial factors that lead to mental ill health, but there are also societal reasons. Poverty and isolation can cause anxiety and depression, homelessness can lead to a vulnerability which opens the doors to addiction, social media pressures can play a role in eating disorders and self harm, poor funding for mental health services and a lack of understanding and empathy can exacerbate conditions by preventing proper treatment. And because there are societal causes there can and should be societal solutions. A fairer and kinder society won’t eradicate mental illness, but it will lessen it and destigmatise it and ensure that the right help is there when it is needed.
Our first reading was Psalm 42, and I chose that psalm because it is one of many pieces of scripture that expresses despair. There are other psalms we could have turned to. We could have read of Job’s grief and confusion as his life fell apart around him. We could have heard Elijah’s wish for death as he fled from Jezebel. We could have looked to the prophets who wept for the destruction of Jerusalem. We could have wondered if it was depression that led the Teacher of Ecclesiastes to declare that life is meaningless. We could have asked if the darker moments of Paul’s writing and the recklessness with which he often went about his ministry are suggestive of a condition such as bipolar disorder. And we could have seen Jesus in extreme anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Of course not every negative emotion is indicative of mental illness - often they are natural reactions to difficult times - and we don’t know on which side of the line many of those biblical figures were on. The Bible doesn’t often speak of things like anxiety or depression, but of troubled souls and broken hearts. They may or may not be the same thing, and we shouldn’t be too quick to conflate them, because if we do that to ourselves or others we can dismiss what is serious or exacerbate what is passing. There is a world of difference between being a bit nervous and having a panic attack, and we do need to understand and acknowledge that difference.
I do however think it’s important that we recognise just how much of the Bible is given over to expressions of difficult feelings. The scriptures promise that there is peace and joy to be found in God, but they are also realistic about the fact that there are many things that get in the way. There can be a lot of stigma around mental health, and perhaps nowhere is that more the case than in the church, but our tradition has also made space for vulnerability and given voice to the full range of human experience, and it must continue to do.
My previous church has a history of writing its own music, and for a time their niche was writing songs of lament and doubt, because they recognised that they are the songs that don’t often get sung. Psychiatric practice has recognised for a long time that we need to express what we feel most deeply. The scriptures have known it for even longer. The church has sometimes forgotten it. We need to take our cue from the Bible and find spaces in which we can sing our songs of lament of doubt, literally and figuratively.
I said earlier that one in four people will be diagnosed with a mental health condition at some point in their lives. That means that statistically speaking, mental illness is or has been a reality for some of you reading this, and so I am very conscious of the fact that this is not an academic discussion for all of us. I hope that hearing mental health talked about so openly in this forum will ultimately be a positive thing, but I am aware that it may also be a difficult thing, so at the risk of sounding like an episode of EastEnders, please do talk to someone if that is the case.
You may notice that I said us in that last paragraph, and I did that deliberately because I am one of the one in four. I experienced a major depressive episode when I was eleven, I struggled with OCD for a time as a teenager, I left university at nineteen because I felt I was on the verge of a second depressive episode, and I still struggle with anxiety. Through all of that I have experienced healing, not as full cure but as the ability to cope. In the worst of my depression I gave up on God, but fortunately God didn’t give up on me, and it is as I have learned to be more honest in my prayers that things have got better. Passages like the one we heard earlier, but most particularly Jesus in Gethsemane, have been really important for me in that. Jesus was the most perfect human and he still struggled, and it comforts me to know that those feelings are part of being human. They’re a rubbish part of our experience, and I believe they will not be part of our life in the kingdom, but at the moment it is okay not to be okay. It doesn’t make us less of a person or less of a Christian.
I've put some ideas out there, and now for some suggestions. Social justice must be active, so what does any of this mean for what we do? Well we can work to eliminate the social causes I mentioned earlier, campaigning and donating and working for the kinder and fairer society I suggested will improve both mental health and access to mental health services. And taking our cue from the expressions we have heard in scripture, we can start by making it easier for ourselves and for others to talk. That may mean better educating ourselves about mental health, so that we are better able to express how we feel, and better equipped to hear how others feel. Or it may mean working for more awareness and less stigma, and for improvements to mental health services, so that people are able to access the treatment and support they need. There are a number of ways we can learn and campaign, and you will find a few places to go at the end of this post.
Our second reading was Psalm 23, and I chose that psalm because even though it doesn’t speak specifically about mental health or even say very much about how the psalmist is feeling, it does tells us that God cares for our wellbeing in every respect. Shepherds poured oil on the heads of their sheep so that bugs would slide off rather than burrow in, and the references to pasture and water and even a feast suggest the meeting of physical needs, so there is a sense in which the care the shepherd provides is very practical and material. But anointing has symbolic associations, and the pasture and water are places of refreshment while the feast is a cause for joy, so there is also a sense in which the care is meeting emotional needs. And the reference to the darkest valley, or the valley of the shadow of death, reminds us that this care endures through every trouble and crisis.
Again this is not the only passage I could have chosen to show that God cares for us in our distress. I started the service with some words taken from Psalm 34, but there is a later verse which declares that “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit”. And when Elijah was at his lowest point, God sent an angel to care for him until he was strong enough to travel, and then on the mountain of Horeb revealed Godself to him in a whisper and renewed his purpose. And when Job cried out against the unfairness of his circumstance, God spoke with him to shift his perspective. And when the people of Israel wept by the rivers of Babylon, God appeared to Ezekiel to tell him that they had not been abandoned in their exile, but God’s presence was still with them. The Bible doesn’t just tell us that it is right and good for us to talk about our mental health. More importantly, it tells us that God listens and responds when we do.
My undergraduate dissertation looked at the difficulty of saying both that God does not change and that God answers prayer. It was an area I was interested in because I think that sometimes we get so caught up in the idea that God is eternal and immutable that we make God fixed and distant, and we forget that the scriptures are full of accounts of God being present and responsive. God cares deeply about us and wants to work for our good, and that is never more true than when we are at our most fragile and vulnerable. As we heard in our first reading, deep calls out to deep as God directs his love to us by day and sings to us by night. I really can’t say this enough. We do not give voice to our troubles simply because it is cathartic but because there is always someone there who is listening to us and weeping with us and caring for us.
I know that is hard to square with so much suffering, and I know it is difficult to make sense of when we pray and nothing seems to happen. There aren’t any easy answers to that, and any tentative ideas I do have are perhaps for another time, but I do believe that God desires our wellness and wholeness, and I believe it with every fibre of my being. Ultimately that’s why I do what I do. I could have spent a lifetime denying or arguing my calling, but I want people to know the love of God, the love that will be a light in the darkness and a harbour in the storm, because that love is our hope and our assurance.
I mentioned earlier some of the things we can do as members of society to promote good mental health and care for those with poor mental health, but this is where we can start to think about the particular contribution we can make as members of the church. But first I do want to emphasise that I am not advocating a purely spiritual approach to mental illness. It can become bound up with our faith, but it has biological and chemical and circumstantial and social causes, it is not the result of spiritual weakness. So when it comes to management and treatment, there are things the church can do, and there is certainly a place for prayer, but specialist help through counselling and medication is also really important. When we get physically ill, we trust ourselves to God but also to medical professionals, and it should be no different when we are mentally ill. Seeking help does not deny what God can do, but recognises that God works through medicine as well as through miracle.
So with that caveat in place, I want to suggest that the church has something unique to offer, because it has God to offer. I hope it goes without saying that we can speak of God’s love as I have just done, so that others may experience the hope in hard times that knowing that love brings, and we can be a community of care, so that those who are struggling have a safe space where they can be vulnerable and find support, but I think we can also learn and teach the patterns of rest and refreshment, or we might call them the habits of self care, that God has blessed us with, and that’s what I want to talk a bit more about now. The idea of self care is not unique to the church, and there are plenty of other places we can go to get ideas about how to find healthy rhythms and balance in our lives, but I think the primacy that self care is given in the scriptures is extraordinary, even if we often fail to notice it.
The first book of the Bible tells us that God rested and made that day holy. The second book of the Bible tells us that the holiness of that means that we too are to rest. When the fundamental rhythm of creations was set, space was made for time to stop. There are over six hundred laws in the Old Testament, and in the top ten is take a day off. Let that sink in for a moment. One of the most important things we can do is nothing. Because humans don’t know when to leave a thing alone we made this command a chore, but Sabbath rest is both a gift and a necessity. A gift because it is precious and beautiful and should bring us joy. A necessity because our very nature in the image of God means that we need to rest as God rested. Taking time off or time out is not selfish or lazy, and it’s not a means to end to make us more efficient, and it’s not our last resort when we’re burnt out. It is part of the primary goodness of creation, and it’s part of how we keep that creation good. Sabbath practice will not prevent mental illness entirely, but it will promote better mental health generally, and so that aspect of our tradition, that gift of God, is something vital that we can offer the world.
And of course we can pray. We can pray for ourselves in moments of crisis, pouring out our hearts and recalling the goodness of God as a certainty of goodness to come, just as the psalmist did. When I was pregnant with my little one, I experienced a week or so of paralysing fear that my history of depression left me vulnerable to postnatal depression, but I finally admitted my concerns to my husband and he reminded me that God and family had walked me through it before and God and family would walk me through it again. That prayer of sorts was the reassurance I needed, and I held fast to it throughout the months of my pregnancy and the difficult times of early parenthood. But we don’t only pray in moments of crisis. We ought to pray always and in all things, so that it becomes a habit that sustains us and restores us through good times as well as bad. A number of years ago I learned the examen, the prayer of consciousness associated with Ignatian spirituality, which is a way of reflecting on the day in the presence of God, asking the Spirit to guide our thoughts. I don’t pray it as often as I should, but it always brings a great sense of calm and perspective, which I know is essential to my mental health. [I would love to teach the church the examen at an opportune moment, but for now here is a guided examen on YouTube.]
We can also pray for and with others, for their wellness and wholeness. This must of course be done with a great deal of sensitivity, because it is easy to use language which appears to blame people for their illness, or which seems to promise healing if only they believe strongly enough. It is probably clear from what I have said about self care that we do bear some measure of responsibility for our mental health, but there are aspects of it that are beyond our control, which is why we need help, and the added shame or guilt of feeling like it is our fault and we should just pull ourselves together is incredibly harmful. Likewise faith can be a steer or an anchor through troubled times, but it is not a sure guard against mental illness, and healing may not always look the way we expect or want it to, sometimes being more like management than miracle. So prayer might simply be a lifting of the person before God, asking for them to know peace and joy.
Mental illness deeply affects our society, and it seems to me to be an act of justice, a bringing nearer of the world God desires for us, to do what we can to improve mental health. Through education, through campaign, through sabbath, through prayer.
This has only really begun to scratch the surface, but if you want to do some more thinking in this area, you will find some links to blog posts I wrote for my previous church at the bottom of this post, along with the information I promised earlier. But here I leave you with a prayer we used on Sunday.
O Lord our God,
for those whose lives are strained and stressed, hear our prayer and pour out your peace.
For those whose hold on life is fragile, hear our prayer and pour out your peace.
For those whose illness makes them vulnerable, hear our prayer and pour out your peace.
For those whose families struggle to understand them, hear our prayer and pour out your peace.
For families and friends, nurses, doctors and therapists and all who seek to walk alongside the stressed and strained, the vulnerable and the fragile, hear our prayer and pour out your peace.
O Lord our God, for all whose lives are in turmoil through the effects of mental illness, hear our prayer and pour out your peace.
This blog looks at Sabbath and self care, with links to earlier posts on similar topics.
This blog looks at mental health and the church, again with links to other relevant posts.
Helplines for those struggling with mental health
Samaritans – for everyone
Call 116 123 (24 hours)
Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) – for men
Call 0800 58 58 58 (5pm to midnight every day)
Papyrus – for people under 35
Call 0800 068 41 41 – Mon-Fri 10am-10pm, weekends 2pm-10pm, bank holidays 2pm-5pm
Text 07786 209697
Childline – for children and young people under 19
Call 0800 1111 (24 hours)
The Silver Line – for older people
Call 0800 4 70 80 90 (24 hours)
Information about mental health
Mental Health Access Pack - from a specifically Christian perspective
Mental health campaigns
Time to Change - working to reduce discrimination
Young Minds - working to improve child and adolescent mental health