This week has seen the launch of a new website designed to equip churches across the UK to better respond to the needs of people with emotional and mental health problems. The rise in such issues in the community is well documented. Mental health is a key issue on the political agenda as we head towards the next election - as are the challenges facing the NHS services which support those suffering. The question is, what does this have to do with the church? Is there really a need for churches to become more 'mental health friendly'?
1 - Over 21 million people every year attend at least one church service. On top of this, we know that irrelevant of whether they have a personal faith, in times of crisis people often turn to the church. We see this clearly in the responses to terrible tragedies or terrorist attacks. We see it in people's reactions when the things they had depended on crumble. We see it in what people do when they don't know what else to do. 'I didn't know where else to go, and somehow I found myself here' said one Mum desperate to know how to help her daughter who was struggling with depression.
2 - Many churches are heavily involved with projects in the heart of their community. The Trussel trust, behind the launch of over 400 food banks across the Uk is just one example of a community focused charity born out of Christian principles and is widely supported by local churches. When churches work in their communities like this, they meet people every day who are struggling with what life has thrown at them and are at an increased risk of poor emotional and mental health. Mental health issues are more likely in those struggling financially, experiencing family breakdown, attending neither school or further education (NEETS) - all groups where many churches are involved. Add to that other community groups often run by churches where mental health problems are increasingly common - youth groups (1 in 10 young people in the uk will be struggling with self harm - figures which have been described as 'an epidemic'; many also struggle with disordered eating, and problems such as depression and anxiety), parent groups (40% of parents admit that mental health problems are their number one concern for their kids) and projects such as the street pastors network (1/4 of 16-24 year olds are drinking more than the recommended weekly allowance - a pattern of behaviour often linked with developing serious drinking problems) and you start to get a picture of just how often most churches encounter people facing mental health issues in the average week.
3 - Church is about SO much more than religion. The church often gets a bad press - you'd be forgiven for thinking it is all about boring services, very old hymns and a list of things you shouldn't be doing. The truth is far from this. The message of Jesus, far from being one about rules and religion, was one of bringing better life to people - often the very people who were easily missed or left out by the establishment of his day. This desire - that people should be able to enjoy what Jesus called 'life to the full' - is at the heart of the Christian message today.
So should the church really get involved in supporting people with mental health problems - or would they be better focused on signposting people to 'more appropriate' sources of support?
The answer is both - support from the church is never a replacement for professional treatment. However, the reality is that many people struggle to access that expert treatment. More than 1 in 10 patients wait over a year just to be offered an assessment for their mental health problem, and 1 in 6 attempted suicide whilst waiting. In fact only half of GP referrals for depression and anxiety problems in 2013 actually resulted in that person receiving treatment.
There is a tremendous need for additional support for those in need. The church cannot treat mental health problems but it can play a vital role in making sure people do not get forgotten or slip through the gaps in NHS services. As well as offering crisis care and making regular and consistent contact with people, the church can offer support that is practical (helping people access and attend appointments, helping with daily needs like shopping), social (forming friendships and opportunities to reduce isolation and get out of the house), emotional (listening and sharing tough times) or vocal (offering advocacy services and speaking on the behalf of vulnerable people when necessary).
With so many struggling with their emotional and mental health, it is essential that the church has a good understanding of mental health problems. Packs like this one - educating, resourcing and inspiring churches to get more involved with these very often forgotten people in their community, will play a vital role in making sure this is the case.