Over the past few years, it’s been impossible to ignore the growing conversation about mental health. We’ve heard that 1 in 4 of us experience a mental health issue in any given year or that our post-pandemic world will face a ‘tsunami of mental health problems’.
Mental health is an issue that cannot be ignored – least of all by the Church. With this in mind, Kintsugi Hope, a Christian mental health charity who want to see a world where mental and emotional health are understood and accepted, worked alongside Christian think tank, Theos, to survey the attitudes towards mental health within the UK Church. We know the challenges of the pandemic have changed the landscape and we wanted to be sure that we were responding directly to the needs of our communities.
The survey produced some surprising results. Over 40% of the 1000 regular churchgoers we surveyed had experienced a mental health issue at some point in their lives; this represented a far greater proportion of the population than the 1 in 4 statistic represents. This could in part be because those who have experienced mental health issues would be more likely to engage in a relevant survey, but it’s also apparent that negative mental health affects more people than perhaps we realise.
The survey was also really encouraging to us that respondents overwhelmingly agreed that the UK Church has the potential to help those experiencing mental health issues. It’s a reminder for us that the message of the Church is called ‘good news’ for a reason – not that it takes away the pain and suffering – but that we are called to comfort others with the comfort we have received. (2 Corinthians 1:4)
A key issue that emerged through the research was that we sorely need clarity on the language we use about mental health and illness. As campaigner Nathan Filer points out: ‘There is no uncontroversial language when talking about mental illness.’ We found the language of the mental health continuum to be a useful tool to tackle this; pictured below it allows us to see both that mental illness does not necessarily mean someone is always suffering, but also that emotions such as anger, sadness and disappointment are a part of the continuum of mental health and not just a sign of mental illness.
One of the most sobering findings was that whilst the Church can help – only 35% of respondents agreed that their church had been supportive of their mental health, with the remaining responses concluding either that their church had been unsupportive or responding neutrally.
This was perhaps unsurprising when we consider that 91% of church leaders had received no training on mental health issues, either in their ministerial training or in their continuing professional development. As we move forward, we believe that this urgently needs addressing so that church leaders and congregations can have the confidence and knowledge to respond to those struggling with their mental health.
We also found that 56% felt their church rarely or never speaks about mental health, and that stigma against mental health issues is still present both within the Church and the wider community.
In order to change this, we desperately need to name our position on mental health. Throughout history, the Church has needed to make its position plain on the social issues of the day; from the abolition of slavery to the Black Lives Matter movement – and the same is true for mental health. Because the truth is, faith does not make us immune to struggling with our wellbeing. We see this in scripture, as people such as King David, the prophet Elijah and Paul express their wrestles with emotions. This is not to say that we are diagnosing them with mental illnesses, but that their expressions of anger, despair and struggle are a part of the human condition and can be brought before God in prayer.
Kintsugi Hope can help churches open up conversations. Simple things like including mental health conditions and local services in our intercessory prayers or using the Psalms to pray through different emotions. Kintsugi Hope have the resources to help you set up a Wellbeing Group. Whatever it is, it matters that we do not remain silent.
We need to talk about mental health in our churches, but we need to do it with sensitivity and understanding. This means that both leaders and congregation members need to be equipped to better understand mental health issues, whether that be through theological colleges, Mental Health First Aid or through our own Mental Health Friendly Church Training (for more information email [email protected]).
Rachael Newham (@RachaelNewham90) is the Mental Health Friendly Church Project Manager at Kintsugi Hope and the author of two books; And Yet and Learning to Breathe.