WHY IT’S TIME TO GET REAL ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH IN CHURCH
A generation of largely male church leaders, of which I am a part, has usually ignored mental illness or, if it pays any attention, questions why people’s minds are in a mess when they should be more than conquerors at every turn.
The idea persists that faith in God should drive fear and anxiety away like morning mist and so if the mist persists as daytime fog, it must be our fault for lacking trust. I am sure God does deliver us from some emotions. In 1 John it says: ‘perfect love casts out fear’. God can be trusted to deal with the things that overwhelm us. But it is a denial of reality to tell people they simply have to pull themselves together.
In the last few weeks we have undergone a vast experiment in our mental health, as if we have been part of a strange laboratory test. We have been shut up in our homes, our jobs have been threatened or lost, we have been deprived of human contact and warned of an invisible illness that, if we only watched the news, might lead us to believe it kills everything in its path. Surveys show the spike in mental illness in the midst of the pandemic. Once felt, it is not easy to wrestle free of the grip of feelings like anxiety, panic and fear.
We cannot offer pastoral care to people if we deny what they are going through and should walk at their side through the valley of the shadow of death, not shouting at them to hurry up from the hills above. This calls for slow, deliberative empathy.
The historian Margaret MacMillan says that shared crises are often followed by a spirit of generosity towards those who have suffered most. If so, then proper attention to the welfare of children and young people in particular should be a component of a good recovery for us. We know, because the data shows us, that mental illness jumped in Generation Z in the years before the virus. But the peculiar circumstances of the lockdown seem to have deepened these trends.
The honesty and openness with which younger people speak about mental health is refreshing. Above them are generations who continue to speak in hushed and imprecise tones about ‘mental breakdowns’, as if those who become ill this way have failed to cut it in a competitive world and must be pitied or reviled. We are immersed in a deceitful culture that demands perfection from people, who mostly pretend everything is just right in case anyone might think the worse of them.
It is likely that when Generation Z inhabits public power in a few decades’ time, they will make mental health a political priority rather than an add-on. But why should they have to wait so long, when we know what needs to be done now?
I would encourage us to read between the lines of scripture. What is not being said, but is calling out for our attention? Those who wrote down the stories our Bibles are made up of did not reveal much of what was going on inside people’s heads. It just wasn’t the ancient house style. But all kinds of things would have been.
The Book of Psalms is a psychiatrist’s couch full of testimony about feelings. It is crowded with people who feel they are drowning and that God, in the words of the Phil Collins song, is not lending a hand. St Paul himself at one point says: ‘we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself’. These are not the words of someone living a victorious cycle of Pray. Convert. Repeat. and we should put them alongside his promises about God’s capacity to deliver us from destructive feelings.
To minister effectively among the emotions people feel, we should listen to what we are being told, for it is in being listened to that people feel loved and are more likely to experience God’s love for themselves. We fret that each generation may be less aware of the Gospel than the next, but rarely make listening our first step. If we had, our minds would all be the better for it.
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