This week, 1 in 6 people experienced mental ill-health. During this year, 1 in 4 people will be mentally unwell.  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.  People with mental illnesses disproportionately suffer from social isolation, poor housing, unemployment and poverty  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.
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.
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.
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  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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
 Mental Health Foundation Statistics
 TUC, Mental Health and Employment, 2017 (https://www.tuc.org.uk/sites/default/files/Mental_Health_and_Employment.pdf)