“I am God, and I am saying something profound and powerful to you, and you need to listen…”
This is what came to me as I handed out some medication on an acute admissions psychiatric ward. Yes, I was handing it out, not on the receiving end of it. If you’ve worked in mental health care, or have been a user of mental health services, then you’ll know that this isn’t a joke- many of those who receive mental health services have questions about, or issues with, God. They may think that they actually are God, or hearing the voice of God, or they may have had unpleasant or terrifying experiences either in faith communities, or because the nature of their illness means they struggle to distinguish reality from hallucination. Or they feel so low, it’s hard to believe that any God would countenance such misery. Somehow, for some reason, God comes up a lot in this world.
So rewind a few years, and I’m that nurse at drug round time. For a while I’d been noticing that, at work, people I cared for had big questions, but no-one to ask. They wanted to talk about God, about faith, sometimes their own and sometimes a faith they’d heard about but never experienced. They wanted someone to take them to church, or to pray with them when they were sectioned and desperately unwell. But there was no-one. The chaplain was an amazing man, but there was only one of him to meet a vast ocean of need. And those of us who were there, day after day, trying to bring calm and healing in the chaos, could not and should not talk about our own faith, if we had one, or offer our own prayers. I for one had an increasing unease about this, and began to ask what God wanted me to do.
At the same time, I was also a church goer. And in church I also began to notice that a lot of people were struggling with their mental health. Similarly to those on the ward, they also had big questions, about suffering and seemingly unanswered prayer, about why some in the congregation avoided them, or said clumsy things. And they also had no-one to ask for answers. Some told stories of the vicar who had told them to read the bible more. Or the well meaning church friend who had prayed for them, and then asked, exasperated, “aren’t you better now?”. Others had struggled in silence for may years, smiling in the pews but broken inside and too afraid to let the cracks show.
So I listened to what I thought God was trying to tell me, and realised that I had an insight which could help to bridge the gap that seemed like an un-passable chasm, between mental health care and the church. As a student nurse I had worked at the Bethlem Royal hospital, the first mental hospital in Britain, the original ‘Bedlam’. This hospital was founded by the Priory of St Mary of Bethlehem, where monks, people of faith, cared for the mentally unwell, those on the edges of society, those rejected by family and friends. Mental health care began in the church; Keeping Health in Mind was born as a way for the church to reclaim this work that somewhere along the line has been lost.
Our core beliefs
We knew that a listening ear, somewhere to go to talk about mental health and the meaning of life was key; somewhere to break the silence. We called this place ‘Freedom’, from Galatians 5, “it is for freedom Christ has set us free”. This came from hearing similar stories, of people feeling trapped and imprisoned by their mental health problems, unable to talk about them. Freedom has offered a drop in at a museum, in a café and in churches so far. Volunteers with lived experience of mental health problems, either their own or someone they know, offer a safe place to talk, have a cup of tea, and find prayer and understanding. This is something any church could do; with one in four people having a mental health problem at some time in their life, and with mental wellbeing increasingly pressurised, it is something that all church communities will have to deal with and have a way of responding to.
We also knew that information and good teaching about mental health were essential for faith communities, so we produced ‘A Brief Guide to Faith and Mental Health’. This contained descriptions of mental health problems people may have heard of, such as depression and schizophrenia, the treatments available, and prayers for each one described. We knew that ignorance about mental health was a major issue in stigma, and the booklet sought to address this. We were amazed at what happened with this simple piece of work, which has been jointly published with our local NHS mental health trust, and won an award from the city council. I am regularly told that the prayers in it have been invaluable when people haven’t been able to find their own words to say to God, either about their own illness or that of someone they care for.
Fast forward now to today. We have three core beliefs at Keeping Health in Mind: that all people should be free to belong, free to grow and free to worship. We hope to reduce stigma and to raise the profile of mental health by offering resources to the church and encouraging local churches to be promoters and protectors of good mental health so all can belong. To this end we offer a bible based coping skills course, the LIFE course, combining biblical wisdom with practical skills, enabling all people, however their lives have been impacted by mental health problems, to grow and to function more effectively.
Mentally Healthy Churches
We have recently developed a mentally healthy churches charter, giving churches the opportunity to publicly declare their intent to include and support those who struggle in this way, freeing them up to become members of the worshipping community. Jesus came that we may have life in it’s fullness; good mental health is an essential aspect of this, with Jesus’ church leading the way in providing a place to ask questions, and with God’s grace begin to find some answers. Free to Worship Charter