Plenty of people in distress come to Christian spaces—and not only those who are religious themselves. What can the church do?by Ben Ryan / July 7, 2017 / Leave a comment
A theology of mental health could help churches do the right thing. Photo: Pexel For some time now mental health has been an increasing priority for Christian groups in the UK. At a national level a string of bishops, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, have spoken out on the challenges of mental health and called for more government support. As part of the research for a new Theos think tank report Christianity and Mental Health: Theology, Activities, Potential we have also explored many activities undertaken by Christians in this space, ranging from chaplaincy within mental health trusts, to suicide prevention charities, and from small local volunteer projects to major national operations. But for all this Christian involvement and interest, is there actually a Christian theology for mental health? That might sound irrelevant, but in fact it is of paramount importance in making sure that Christian involvement in this sector is both authentic and effective. People (and they are by no means always Christian) often go to seek help from churches when in distress. One interviewee described the role of a priest or pastor as being “like the thick of the wedge”” it isn’t just the light or minor stuff that they are being confronted with, but people coming in off the street with very severe mental health needs. Unless Christians are confident in their understanding and approach to these issues there are real dangers in that position. The wrong advice can be very harmful. The evidence suggests that mental health is becoming a more prevalent issue in British society (one in four adults will be diagnosed with a mental health issue in their lifetime), and there is little hope that medical services will be increased sufficiently to meet all these needs. Civil society bodies are only going to become more important in supporting those with mental illness, it is critical that they understand the ground on which they are standing. More specifically, for Christians suffering from mental illness, a persistent challenge is finding the language to discuss their issues within a Christian context. This is a notoriously difficult process for mental health sufferers generally, as it is difficult to describe the experience of mental illness to those who have never shared the same experience. But for Christians seeking help within their own tradition, there has been a sense in which they lacked a register to discuss their health within the usual spaces. There is, accordingly, a need to find a theological way for the Church to get alongside and help more effectively those who are already looking to their faith group for assistance. There is material to build on for this. Although it is difficult to read today’s medical language back into the Bible there are passages which can speak to the experience of mental illness. For example, Psalm 88 is sometimes taken as a passage that speaks very closely to the experience of depression: You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths. Your wrath lies heavily on me; you have overwhelmed me with all your waves. You have taken from me my closest friends and have made me repulsive to them. I am confined and cannot escape; my eyes are dim with grief. (Psalm 88:6-9) The psalm goes on to include the line that “darkness is my closest friend” (Ps 88:18). There is nothing triumphant in those passages, but there is that expression of pain and abandonment that speaks closely to the experiences of many suffering with mental illness. There are also theological consequences for Christianity more broadly, which we are only beginning to explore. What does scientific evidence that particular mental illnesses warp a sufferer’s perception of reality and self-esteem mean for a religion that believes in responsibility and sin, and the need to ask for forgiveness to attain salvation? This raises the spectre of needing a whole theology and fresh pastoral approach that specifically addresses the issue of particular mental illnesses. To be effective in providing pastoral care some of these theological questions will need answering. These are serious challenges for Christianity as it seeks to get involved in this space. The good news is that there are plenty of reasons for hope. For one thing, previous research (including a previous Theos report Religion and Wellbeing: Assessing the Evidence) has shown that religion, particularly group participation in religious activities, can have a very positive effect on mental health. The foundations for involvement are also already in place, with a huge number of projects and activities already underway. The next step is to develop a theological and theoretical approach that ensures these activities are grounded in such a way as to be true to the Christian tradition, but also have the needs of sufferers at their heart.