1 Feb 2019 • From the Clergy
Mental health issues have, over recent months, become a hot topic. There is a new openness and a reduction in the perceived stigma attached to acknowledging mental health problems.
February 4th – 10th 2019 has been designated children’s mental health week and so this is a good time for us to consider this matter and to ask, in particular: What is the Christian response to mental health issues? The immediate and short answer is of course, exactly the same as the Christian response to any form of human suffering: To meet it with compassion, with prayer and, where possible, with the appropriate practical action.
Now this in itself raises questions. To begin with, there is shift away from describing people as “suffering from .…” and referring instead, to them “living with ….”. However, you only have to visit a home and hear somebody with dementia crying out for help, or to read Evelyn Waugh’s autobiographical novel ‘The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold’, to know that, on some level, mental health issues involve suffering – both for the individual and for their loved ones.
I am by no means, an expert in this field, but I understand that the early stages of conditions such as dementia can present as forgetfulness and an inability to make decisions or organise oneself – causing frustration and distress for all concerned.
Then there is the question of what constitutes a mental health issue. With more research, more openness and greater awareness, the field has widened significantly. We now recognise, far more readily and sympathetically than previously, depression, post-traumatic stress and conditions such as dementia.
Help and support is available. The problem comes when the condition is not recognised or when attempts are made, deliberate or otherwise, to disguise the truth from even our nearest and dearest.
And there remains the thorny question of when does something become an illness? The goal-posts here are not constant.
Take, for example, Joan of Arc. We now refer to her as a saint whose heavenly visions were disregarded, but in her own time, these visions were denounced.
What would have been Mary’s fate had Joseph disbelieved his dream and forced her to publicly announce the “parenthood” of her baby? At worst, she’d have been condemned as a blasphemer; at best written off as a mad woman.
In Mark (3:21), Jesus himself was accused of having “gone out of his mind” or of being demon-possessed, which was common parlance for mental illness.
At various points in the Gospels, most famously Luke 8 (the story of Legion and the herd of pigs), Jesus encounters people suffering with mental illness. In each case he meets them with characteristic gentleness and kindness, offering comfort and healing. In the case of Legion, though, He also issues a challenge. The healed man is not to go with Jesus, but to remain in his own neighbourhood, witnessing to all that has been done for him. Is there a model there for us too: To meet and face up to mental health issues - our own and those of our loved ones and not try to run away from, or hide and deny their existence?
We live in an aging society and one of the challenges this creates is the increasing number of people with dementia. Statistics show that currently in the UK 850,000 live with dementia and this figure is expected to reach two million by 2051. So, what can the Christian response be? To begin with, we can try to understand something of the condition and there is plenty of literature available to help us with this. Only when we have some level of understanding, however basic, can we hope to offer support to others. Then perhaps, as a church, we could explore the possibility of developing a “Dementia Friendly Church” along the lines suggested by the Dementia Action Alliance.
At the same time, we must remember that mental health issues are not exclusive to the elderly. For there to be a “Children’s Mental Health” week indicates that this also affects younger people. Many children and young people feel under immense pressure from various sources; fall victim to bullying or abuse.
There are countless situations which lead to mental illness of one sort or another. We cannot be expert in them all. We cannot solve everybody’s problems. But as Christians we can - and must - both individually and as a Church, be alert to the needs of those around us and be ready to respond with informed love, action where practical and, above all, with prayer.