How do you think that faith communities and society as a whole can better respond to mental illness?
Mental illness is a serious problem affecting millions worldwide. 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience some sort of mental health problem during any one year  and yet mentally ill people are some of the most stigmatised and discriminated against, with 9 out of 10 mentally ill people reporting that stigma and discrimination have a negative affect on their lives.  People have found themselves excluded from jobs, housing and, lately, welfare benefits on the grounds of their illnesses, and the media frequently reports mentally ill people in terms of their danger to society, and focus on violence, when in fact mentally ill people are more likely to harm themselves or to be harmed by others.
Church-going Christians do not live in a vacuum – we are all shaped by the society around us and may hold the same sort of prejudices as those outside the church. Yet the Christian churches have had a long history of upholding the rights and demanding justice for those who are oppressed, those who are suffering, and of changing society as they do so. I’m thinking here of campaigns such as those ending slavery, child labour, and improving the lot of the poor through various measures. As Christians, we can inform the wider society if we stand up for the mentally ill, whether within or without our churches.
There are several ways in which I think faith communities could help when working with the mentally ill – many of these also apply to the wider society. They are:
- Theology. We need to reflect on our theology of suffering, and rid ourselves of the notion that mentally ill people are to blame for the suffering they endure. While we know that some illness are, at least to some extent, caused by the lifestyle of the person involved, we also know that mental illness can strike anyone, from any race, class or background. We also know that there seems to be a complex interplay between life experiences and genetics at work in the development of a mental illness – life experiences generally meaning trauma that has happened to the person rather than things they have done. It is deeply unhelpful and causes great pain when we tell a person with depression, for example, that they are being punished by God, that they are a greater sinner than the mentally well person, or that they lack the faith needed to be cured. We do not, as a rule, tell people with cancer that they are being punished, nor someone with paralysis that if only they had enough faith they would walk – we understand that those conditions may be healed by God instantaneously – if he so chooses – but that we should not expect that it automatically be so, nor blame the person when we have failed to affect a healing for them. We know of many cases in this world where the innocent suffer – child death or abuse being the most obvious – and we need to deal with the questions this poses, where it is very obviously not appropriate to say that God is punishing them for their sin. I believe in a God who loves us, and who hurts when we hurt, and I do not believe that God gives intractable, painful illnesses to us – although I do believe he can bring blessings out of those curses.
- Show compassion. This follows on from the previous point – showing compassion to the suffering is something close to the heart of the gospels, and to Jesus’ words. Part of showing compassion to a mentally ill person is to be loving and gentle even when they are being, frankly, a pain in the rear. I know that when I am ill I can try to push people away, waiting for people to reject me because I think that I deserve it. It can be hard to be around someone who is depressed, because it is hard to stay cheerful in the face of gloom and suffering. Sometimes we have to make a special effort with people who are ill, because they have limited control over themselves at that time. I believe that if we lived Jesus’ words about doing to others what we would have them do to us we would find it easier. Of course, in terms of practical suggestions it should not be the responsibility of one person alone to support those in need – but that of everyone. If one person tries to bear up the one who is ill, then they may fall, finding themselves unable to bear the strain, but if a whole congregation supports the ill person and those who minister to them particularly, then it is more likely to be successful.
- Learn. Learning more about mental illness, the different types, treatments, and so on, can be invaluable. Learning, not just from books and websites (although these can be very good) but from talking to those people who are suffering, particularly if they are well and able to talk about their conditions, can give a valuable insight into the condition.
- Caution. There are dark shadows in the lives of quite a few mentally ill people – shadows caused by abuse, violence, and so on. Nosy or thoughtless remarks can trigger memories that that person does not want to have, as can actions. I knew someone once who, when unexpectedly given a hug, reacted not with pleasure but with a flashback to being sexually abused as a child. Be careful.
- Talk. A church can ensure that people with mental illnesses feel welcome. Speak about it from the pulpit, have written material on your church’s mental health policy available in church and on a website. Make it clear that you welcome the mentally ill. And talk among the present members – 1 in 4 means that many people will be suffering themselves. If we make it clear that people are welcome, that it is OK to talk about mental illness, then we are opening our arms to some children of God who others may reject.
- Local help. Perhaps making your church available for the use of a mental health support group, or having a special service for people who suffer mentally, or taking on chaplaincy work with the local mental hospital. These are ways that we can show that we really care about the mentally ill. If you run a service, consider the special needs of the congregation – they may have trouble concentrating, people may need to leave the service at times, and more. I have written on this subject here: 8 steps to a mental health friendly church and I wrote also about psychiatric chaplains and also about the use of liturgy. Supporting mentally ill people in the community by linking them up with advisers on welfare, employment rights, housing, food banks and so on may make a very practical difference.
- National help. There are campaigns going on to reduce stigma – such as Time to Change. There are also a variety of petitions  and protests going on about the impact of welfare reform on the disabled in general, and some about the impact on the mentally ill in particular.
In general, my advice to my own church would be to try to get the word out that disabled people are welcome, and that mentally ill people are also welcome. I once attended a church which was very mental-health friendly, and whose services were simple, broken into manageable chunks, where it didn’t matter if you smelled funny, talked to yourself, wept, complained, contradicted the pastor, left in the middle, whatever – they made it clear that each and every person was welcome. We did the chaplaincy at the local mental hospital while I was there, and indeed that is how I started regularly attending church. When I first went, I was still so depressed after leaving hospital that I could barely communicate, but it made a big difference to me that there were no expectations on me, I just had to be there, and I felt welcome and wanted. I think that if the churches were to become safe havens for the mentally ill, if we could show people like me that Jesus loves them – that we love them, if we could meet their hunger for God, and be friends in a time of need, and people to stand with them when they are ill, then if we show that we respect and value the mentally ill, we can have an impact, can be spokespeople – and help people who have mental illnesses to speak for themselves – in the media and in the wider community, and try our best to break the stigma that surrounds these illnesses.