“Welcome Me As I Am”

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Just a short post today! I’d like to introduce my readers to a website I’ve just found, called “Welcome Me as I Am“.

It provides information and training resources for churches and chaplaincies on the subjects of mental illnesses and dementia. There is a free toolkit with resources for discussing mental illness and the church, information about mental health first aid, a guide for dealing with mental distress and some interesting prayers in the mould of Michel Quoist.

It looks excellent, and it’s great to see churches and denominations (Roman Catholic, in this case) engaging with mental ill-health, and offering a genuine welcome to their churches for those who are ill.

They also offer seminars as well as workshops in parishes – I assume they charge for these.

An interesting and useful resource for all churches, not just Roman Catholic ones! Please do visit:

http://www.welcomemeasiam.org.uk/

Unreliable Witnesses?

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“You are my witnesses,” says the Lord,
“and my servant whom I have chosen,
that you may know and believe me
and understand that I am He.” (Isaiah 43:10a)

“You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samar′ia and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8b)

It will soon be Pentecost, the great Christian festival celebrating the coming of the Holy Spirit on Jesus’ disciples, the power behind the great mission of Christ’s Church, to proclaim the Good News to all creation.

Christ’s followers are his witnesses – people who have seen and experienced his love in their lives, and whose duty and desire is to share that love with others, “for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:20) They witness by testifying of what they know and have experienced of God, his grace, forgiveness, and love. Both in their words and in their deeds, Christians are to witness to the truth of Christ’s divinity, his sacrifice upon the Cross, and his resurrection – to the love of God made known in Jesus. This isn’t a choice, or a specialist role, but part of what it is to be a Christian (Matt 10:18, 28:19; Mark 13:9; Luke 21:13; Acts 1:8 and more), and the testimony of Christians helps others to believe (John 4:39; 2 Thess 1:10). So, evangelism, bearing witness to Christ, is the duty of all Christians – but what does it mean to testify to the truth of Christ as a mentally ill person?

Continue reading “Unreliable Witnesses?”

6 Ways to be a Welcoming Church for People with Mental Illnesses

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This week, 1 in 6 people experienced mental ill-health. During this year, 1 in 4 people will be mentally unwell. [1] There are people with mental health problems all around us, among people we know, and those we don’t, in our workplaces, and in our places of worship. Mental health issues often come with a burden of stigma alongside the illness, and the employment rates for people with mental illnesses are low – only 45.5% of people with long-term depression or anxiety are in work, and only 26.2% of people with mental illness or phobias are currently working. [2] People with mental illnesses disproportionately suffer from social isolation, poor housing, unemployment and poverty [3] as a result of the stigma attached to mental illness.

As Christians, we follow a God who found his followers not among the rich, but among the poor; among outcasts, not the ‘respectable’; and who affirmed the equality of all believers as his friends, and his children. The Bible affirms that all have sinned (Rom 3:23) and all are offered salvation (Rom 10:12-13). Just as we all are equal before salvation, we are all equal afterwards – regardless of mental illness or wellness, disability or ability, or anything else about us, for:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:28)

As Christians, we seek to bring God’s lost children home to faith in him, and to encourage and build one another up (1 Thess 5:11) as we seek to follow Christ, day by day. Many Christians (and seekers) from marginalised groups have felt turned away, rather than welcomed by the Church, including people with mental health problems. These are my five suggestions as to how we, as a Church, can be more welcoming to people with mental illnesses, both those who are new to us, and those who are within us. I’ve put them together under the acronym PSALTR – Pray, Share, Ask, Learn, Talk and Relax.

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Pray

When we pray, how often do we include people with mental health problems in our prayers?

In my church, each service includes a time of intercessions, under the rough headings of “church”, “world”, “nation”, “region”, “those who are ill” and “those who have died”. In the last two sections, we will often pray generally for people who are ill, or who have recently died (and/or their loved ones) as well as for people whose names are on our church prayer list.

Mental illness is often hidden, and people may not wish to be in a named prayer list if they are suffering. One way to increase the visibility of mental ill-health, and to signal that the Church sees this as an illness like any other, is to pray regularly for people with mental illnesses and those who care for them. Like all people who are unwell, mentally ill people stand in need of prayer, and naming mental ill-health in among our prayers for those with the ‘flu, with heart problems or other illnesses is one way to lessen stigma. Be careful, however, with language – do not give the impression that mentally ill people are being punished, are afflicted with demons, or are different to other ill people, which would have quite the opposite effect!

The formal prayers of the Church are one way in which we can support those around us who are ill, but not all of us lead intercessions. We do all pray, however, and offering (not demanding) to pray for those who we know to be mentally unwell is good, as is asking for prayer when we ourselves are not mentally well.

Share

Church should be a place where we can share our troubles in life and receive the support of others. I recall being startled once, when I mentioned I was having a bout of sciatica, when lots of my church friends rushed up to pray for me all at once! That was lovely – and it would be great to get to a point where we could reveal we are struggling with depression or anxiety as easily as that, and receive prayer as readily as that.

One way to do that is to be open ourselves. While there’s no need to go telling everyone the instant I meet them that I have a mental illness, many people in my church know that I have bipolar disorder. One way of combating stigma is that openness – I have no idea what stereotypes people may have had about bipolar people, but I do know that stereotypes get broken down by getting to know the people behind the stereotype. As a result of my being open, I have had a number of people inside and outside my church who are mentally ill come to talk to me, feeling that they too can be open about their health.

Specifically when it comes to church leaders and preachers, it is more helpful than you know if you share any struggles you’ve had with your mental health, or even just mention it sometimes. Statistics from the US (which are borne out in my own experience in the UK) show that mental illness is a taboo topic in the pulpit, with 66% of pastors speaking about it once a year, rarely, or never.

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I’m not suggesting that mental illness should be mentioned in every sermon, or shoehorned into sermons where it isn’t appropriate, but a powerful way of acknowledging that mental illness is an illness like any other, quite common, and not shameful, is to mention it regularly. A particularly powerful weapon against stigma is if a church leader can talk about their own experiences of mental ill-health, if they’ve had them. Clergy are disproportionately likely to suffer from mental ill-health [3] and, dare I say it, I’ve found that being open about not being well is a good way to maintain good mental health. That said, not all clergy may want to be open, and there may be fewer clergy able to talk about their own experiences of mental ill-health because, certainly in my own church, people with mental illnesses are less likely to be ordained. (I’d like to see that reconsidered, but that’s for another post).

Nevertheless, openness from us as individuals is one way to normalise mental illness, to express it for what it is – a family of common illnesses, and nothing to be ashamed of. The support of church leaders in talking about mental ill-health is an important one, but so is that of the rest of us.

Ask

As with all disabilities, we go wrong when we make assumptions. We may think that Mrs Smith won’t want anyone else to know she has depression, or that Mrs Jones’ schizophrenia means she would find it too hard to be a Sunday School volunteer, but we won’t know unless we ask them. All of us have some stereotypes in our heads, which we may not even be aware of, but everyone is different, ill or well, and we need to ask rather than make assumptions about what people need, or can do. One constant sadness for many people who are mentally ill is that theirs is a “no casserole” illness. Where people will organise food, or shopping for someone who has broken a leg, they don’t think to ask if someone with depression would like the same. Likewise, people often forget to ask if someone who is mentally ill would like to be added to the church prayer list, or reach out to ask if they’d like to be included on a church trip. These are all ways to help support one another – if that is what the person wants. So ask!

In a wider sense, asking how people are and listening to what they say are important. Asking, for example, how someone who is a carer is doing, if they are looking after themselves, or gently asking a widow how she is doing, not just after her husband has died but for a long time afterwards might be a lifeline to someone. We should aim for a cultural change, so that we can be open with one another about ways in which we are suffering, able to talk about our problems and both offer and accept help.

Learn

If someone tells you they have schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder, or any of the mental illnesses, what do you think? As I mentioned above, we all have stereotypes in our heads which can affect what we think someone who is mentally ill feels, thinks, or can do. So, if someone tells you they have a mental illness, learn about it. Bear in mind that all illness is a spectrum, so take diagnostic criteria as a general guide, not something set in stone. Someone currently in a manic episode of Bipolar I, for example, would present very differently from me, who has been “recovered” from Bipolar II for a decade. With that in mind, though, there are many good websites around, like MIND, the NHS website, or the Royal College of Psychiatrists which give good, general information about mental illnesses. The priority, though, is to listen to the person who told you about their illness, to learn how their illness affects them, rather than assuming what it must be like or consist of. Knowledge is power – and certainly knowledge from the person and/or professional bodies beats whatever detritus from TV and films may have got into our heads!

Talk

Time to Talk, the UK’s national stigma-busting day, has a good title. It is when we talk about mental ill-health that we can dismantle stereotypes and reduce stigma. Consider the change in how we talk about cancer – at one time, that was heavily stigmatised, and people would avoid naming it or talking about it. Now, people with cancer feel free to talk about their illnesses and receive support from others. We can hope for the same for mental ill-health – but to do that, we all must talk about it, making our churches places where people are comfortable talking about their illnesses, and where everyone else is happy to support them back to health.

The ways in which we can do that are really covered above: openness, mentions in services and sermons, asking people how they are, learning about mental illness, and sharing our struggles with one another. Being a loving and open community, in other words.

Relax

Finally, relax. Remember that even people with the most stigmatised disorders are still people, still children of the same heavenly Father. One of the most damaging stereotypes of mentally ill people is that we are violent – when actually, those with mental illnesses are far more likely to be the victims of violence. Sometimes, churches can be frightened of people who are very obviously unwell, and I’ve heard of people being asked to leave, and told not to return because of it. If someone is seriously unwell, the police have the power to detain people under section until they can be assessed by a medical professional. If someone is hurting themselves, trying to hurt others, or otherwise terrifying you, call them.

If, however, someone’s behaviour is odd, but not harmful, then that is the time to relax. Sometimes, mental illness makes people behave in odd ways, dress strangely, or just be a little strange in services. Understand that this isn’t deliberate, but a part of illness, and adapt to it – just as we adapt to children, people with dementia, and people with all sorts of disabilities.

We are all different, but we are all one body through Christ. That’s something I always try to keep in mind.

So, to recap, my 6 ways to be welcoming are: Pray for each other and for all mentally ill people; Share our own struggles, especially if we can do so in church leadership; Ask if people would like help and how they are doing; Learn about mental illnesses and how they affect the individuals we know; Talk about mental illness to reduce stigma and, finally, Relax in the presence of people who are different.

May we see more and more mental health-friendly churches!

References

[1] Mental Health Foundation Statistics
[2] TUC, Mental Health and Employment, 2017 (https://www.tuc.org.uk/sites/default/files/Mental_Health_and_Employment.pdf)
[3] http://www.brin.ac.uk/2011/mental-health-of-clergy/

Resources

Sainthood and (In)sanity

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All those who die in the faith of Christ are considered saints, but among the many faithful believers are some who are seen as being particularly close to God, who lived particularly holy lives. These men and women are seen as good examples for us to follow, as especially worthy of honour and, in some traditions, faithful people ask for their prayers, particularly in areas of which that Saint is the patron. There are more than 10,000 Saints within Catholicism, from all the ages of the Church, and from all walks of life.

If they lived today, some of those Saints might well be called ‘mentally ill’, rather than ‘holy’, but in this post, I’d like to take a look at a Saint who was judged by his peers to be mentally unwell, confined in a mental hospital – and yet still made it out the other end to be proclaimed a Saint by the Church. His name is St John of God.

Life

ST.-JOHN-OF-GOD-1On 8th March 1495 a boy named João Duarte Cidade was born in Portugal. At the age of 8 he disappeared from his home, for slightly unclear reasons. One story is that he was so impressed by a visiting priest’s talk of adventure that he ran away with him, never to see his parents again. He ended up homeless in Oropesa, Spain, where he was taken in by a local farmer, Francisco Mayoral. He worked as a shepherd, and his benefactor saw John as a potential husband for his daughter – which John was less than keen on. At the age of 22, John joined a troop of passing foot-soldiers, setting off to fight in France. He was forced to leave his troop after a failed episode of guard duty. While he was supposedly guarding a large amount of loot, things were stolen, and naturally John was suspected of the theft. He was sentenced to death, but reprieved by an officer, and left the army to return to the farm at Oropesa.

John evidently liked a more exciting life than tending sheep, for just four years later he joined another troop, this time going to fight the Turks in Hungary. He was to stay with this troop for eighteen years. At the end of that time he found himself near his birthplace in Portugal, and decided to find his family. He couldn’t remember his parents’ names, but was able to find an uncle, through whom he found out that his parents had died. He had no reason to stay in Portugal, and so returned to Spain.

John was a soldier like any other, keen on drinking and gambling, but not particularly on religion. By the time he left the army, however, his interest in his faith had rekindled, and he had been on pilgrimage, and had resumed his prayer life. Working as a shepherd once more, this time near Seville, John developed a burning desire to go to Africa and free enslaved Christians there, and perhaps die a martyr’s death in the attempt. At once he set out for the Portuguese colony of Ceuta, on the northern shore of Morocco. On the way there, he befriended a Portuguese knight and his family, who were being exiled to the colony. When they arrived, the knight and his family first had their money stolen, and then became ill, and John nursed them, and found work in order to provide for them. A priest in the colony advised John to return to Spain, which he did, after seeing the knightly family receive pardons.

Conversion

When he arrived back in Spain, John spent some time wandering, hoping to see what God wanted from him, and then settled into selling religious literature in Granada. He had a vision of the Infant Jesus around this time, who both advised the move to Granada, and gave him the name by which he would become known – John of God.

59e5e4aa2aa78de107043f661dd82cd0--open-book-patron-saintsIt was on St Sebastian’s Day, 20th March, 1537 that John experienced a powerful conversion. He was listening to a sermon by the mystic and teacher John of Ávila when he was overwhelmed by his sins. He tore out his hair, beat his body and ripped his clothes, begging for mercy and repenting of his sins. Naturally, the people around him thought he had lost his reason, and he was taken to the nearby hospital and committed to the wing for the mentally ill. There, he underwent the then-standard treatments for lunacy – being chained up, flogged, and starved.

John of Ávila came to visit him, advising him to tend to the needs of others rather than embracing personal hardships, and had him transferred to a general wing of the hospital. There, John of God helped care for the other patients before leaving the hospital to work among the poor.

Hospitaller

John begged around the streets of Granada to get together the money to rent and furnish a house in which to nurse the poor and sick. At first, he had no help, and nursed patients during the day, begging for the money he needed at night. He was known to carry patients into the house on his shoulders if need be, and his house was open to all – beggars, criminals, vagabonds – anyone.

Sant_Joan_de_Déu_1John experienced suspicion and stigma about his work – his time in the mental hospital was known – but, with time, others came to help him in his hospital. Priests and doctors offered their services, wealthy benefactors helped to fund it, and angels paid visits. The local bishop, Sebastian Ramirez, Bishop of Tui, asked to meet John, and asked him his name. John replied that once upon a time a child he had helped in a country lane had called him John of God. “Then John of God shall be your name always,” the bishop answered. The bishop gave John a habit to wear, to show he was acting with ecclesiastical approval. That habit became that of the Order that grew up around him – the Brothers Hospitallers of St John of God.

John of God caught pneumonia trying to save a boy who had fallen in the river. He died on 8th March 1550, and was found dead, kneeling before a Crucifix, his head on the feet of Christ. He was canonised (proclaimed a Saint) in 1690, and his Order (the Hospitaller Order of the Brothers of Saint John of God) now operates across 40 countries, caring for people with mental and physical illnesses.

The Saint in the Asylum

John of God’s story is an interesting one. He seems to have been a man of impulse from childhood onwards – running away with a priest, joining passing army troops, rushing off to Africa – a man who felt a keen emotional response to things, and who then followed through with that enthusiasm. His emotional response to John of Ávila’s sermon was obviously much more acute than anyone was expecting, leading to his being, effectively, “sectioned”.

54e47c3dfcb86ab06d9d2aa728efb856--catholic-saintsWas John mentally ill? It’s hard to say, though I think it’s significant that those around him and who knew him observed such a sudden change in his behaviour that they had him committed, yet we can see from other aspects of his life that he was evidently an impulsive man. What I do find interesting is that after his time in hospital, John was able to settle down, cease wandering, and spend the rest of his life in one endeavour – the healthcare of others.

One of the things I found from my illness is that it awakened me to the sufferings of others. I spent three weeks in a mental hospital, some years ago, and found that I left that place with a greater empathy for other people, and a heart for those who are mentally ill, or different to others. Perhaps something similar happened to John while he was in hospital, whether or not he deserved to be in there. His priorities were somewhat different when he came out – focussed outwards, not inwards, which is certainly something I found.

Another interesting part of his biography is that John experienced stigma as a result of his diagnosis. He had been in a mental hospital – he was a lunatic – and therefore experienced difficulties afterwards, even though he was quite sane. I’m sure lots of us have been there! Perhaps it behoves us – ill or well – to look at that feature of his biography and work harder to eradicate the stigma of being mentally ill, in the church, and outside it.

The main thing I take from the story of John of God is that here is a man who was certainly seen as “mad”, and who experienced the unpleasant treatment (medical and social) that comes from that – and yet who established something enduring. His gift to the world is an Order who seek out and look after the sick, and he himself is considered a Saint – someone worthy of veneration and emulation. Hope for all of us, perhaps!

Resources

From Madness to Ministry

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The Gerasene Demoniac

They travelled by boat that day, over the sea, and into the country of the Gerasenes, a pagan people. In this strange place, stranger things occur, and as they leave their boat, a madman greets them. He came from the tombs, for he lived with the dead. A strong man, no one could restrain him, he tore away the iron shackles and heavy chains they used to bind him. No one had the strength to tame him. Over and over, night and day, his screams echoed among the graves and upon the hillside while he cut himself with sharp stones.

From far off, he saw Jesus approach, and rushed towards him, flinging himself to the ground. “Why? What have you to do with me, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, stop torturing me!” for Jesus was ordering the unclean spirit from him.

“What’s your name?” Jesus asked.

“My name is Legion, for we are many,” said the spirits in the man, and they begged Jesus not to throw them out of the country. On the hillside, a herd of pigs were grazing, and the spirits pleaded, “send us into the pigs!”

So Jesus gave them permission to do just that. The spirits left the man, and entered the pigs, and all at once the pigs charged, down the hillside, and straight into the sea. Around two thousand pigs drowned.

The pig-herders ran to tell of what had happened. They told it in the town, and they told it in the countryside, and people came to see what had happened. There they saw the man, the one called “Legion”, and he was sitting, dressed and in his right mind! They were frightened, and when this man’s story was explained to them, they begged Jesus to leave.

And so Jesus prepared to leave the country. As he was getting back into his boat, the once-possessed man asked to go with him – but Jesus wouldn’t let him.

“Go home,” he said, “back to your own people. Tell them what the Lord has done for you, and how he had pity on you.”

And so the man went off, and proclaimed throughout the Decapolis what Jesus had done. And the people were amazed. Continue reading “From Madness to Ministry”