Mental Health and the Christian response: personal reflections from a Catholic layperson:
World Mental Health Day is coming this Saturday, 10th October. The theme this year is Dignity. Thinking about this from a Catholic perspective, Christ is present in all who suffer and our faith shapes how we respond. As a lay Catholic I want to share, in this post, some personal reflections on the question ‘What’s a good pastoral response to mental health issues?’ I also share a few thoughts on some good Christian mental health resources.
There’s a lot of silence around mental health generally. When I see someone I haven’t seen for a while and ask how they are, they might be quick to tell me they’re recovering from a (possibly obvious) foot injury as a result of their latest extreme sports holiday, but it’s unlikely someone will be as quick to say they’ve been suffering with their mental health. Whilst there’s always potential to debate statistics (such as those quoted on this website) they do show that mental health difficulties are very common. I think this commonality can sometimes be difficult to appreciate because generally people don’t talk about their mental health. I think it’s due to this silence that I’ve sometimes found myself thinking that if someone has a strong faith they’re somehow immune from mental suffering. This is a misconception. We just need to look to the Saints to find many faithful Catholics who endured periods of mental suffering – St John Vianney, St Faustina and St Elizabeth Ann Seton (see her image above) to name just a few.
Why, as a Catholic, is the question of pastoral care and mental health important to me? I’ve found, through being actively involved in parish life, often leading small groups and other initiatives, that people have shared various mental health issues with me. I’ve often found myself with the question of how can I best respond. In my experience, helping create a welcoming and inclusive environment has often proved an important part of someone’s recovery or helped ease their suffering, sometimes in very small but significant ways. This is especially important if somebody’s unable to take part in parish life for any period of time due to their health – that they know they’re still just as much a part of the parish.
When I reflect on what a good pastoral response to mental health issues means, I believe that it involves having a good understanding and awareness of mental health and supporting someone in their faith journey. On two specific occasions when suffering mental health issues due to a prolonged period of significant stress, I found the pastoral response I received unhelpful. Whilst it was hard to see at the time, I now believe this was largely due to a lack of knowledge and understanding about mental health. I think supporting someone in their faith is especially important if I reflect on my own faith journey which was a difficult one. Largely due to the silence around mental health issues I didn’t generally share my suffering with friends. At the time I hoped and prayed for a miracle cure and a dramatic change of events to take away the stress I was suffering – neither happened. God seemed distant and silent. Paradoxically I had a strong inner conviction that the Catholic Church would provide a source of healing. This proved true as I found a sense of peace, joy and hope despite my sufferings and a greater acceptance of the cross these brought. It felt like a long journey which I was able to persevere on through grace.
There are some good Christian resources on mental health. The Mental Health Access Pack ‘Helping the church support those struggling with mental health issues’ is a resource for all Christian denominations which I think helps provide a very good pastoral framework. It includes endorsements from the Most Reverend Bernard Longley, Archbishop of Birmingham, and Baroness Sheila Hollins who is Catholic and has been a President of both the Royal College of Psychiatrists and British Medical Association. The website helps raise awareness and understanding about mental health conditions by giving a brief overview of common conditions with links to find out more. It offers practical tips and guidance about what to say to best help someone who is suffering in some way with their mental health, whilst explaining that pastoral care doesn’t take the place of trained healthcare professionals such as the doctor, professional counsellor or psychologist. The website also stresses the importance of Jesus’s example of inclusion – I personally think there’s always potential for us to challenge ourselves on this to help ensure our parishes and the Catholic groups we belong to are inclusive. If we think they are inclusive is this just because we feel we fit in?
The Mental Health Access Pack has been developed in partnership with Mind and Soul which is non-denominational. Mind and Soul explores Christianity and Mental Health and is potentially an excellent resource for developing a good pastoral response to mental health issues. I’m conscious that Mind and Soul hasn’t been developed within the Catholic Church and many of the contributors aren’t Catholic. There’s a real joy and strength in Christian unity and the many ways we can journey and grow in faith with other Christians through our shared beliefs. However this can, at times, be a source of pain (sadness) due to differences in belief. It’s my personal view that if someone doesn’t have a good knowledge of the Catholic faith, they might not fully appreciate the differences between Catholicism and other Christian denominations and also potentially lose sight of the depth of teaching and spirituality within the Catholic Church. As a Catholic I believe this teaching and spirituality can enable people to go deeper in their faith and be a real comfort and strength in times of suffering. Some examples include the Sacrament of Confession, which can give those overwhelmed by feelings of guilt or shame healing and guidance, Catholic teaching on the meaning of suffering (it’s important to remember we shouldn’t seek to increase or prolong our own suffering) and Catholic practices such as Eucharistic Adoration, praying the Rosary, devotion to Our Lady and reflecting on the lives of the Saints and asking for their intercession. (When praying for healing it’s important to remember that God also provides healing through the healthcare profession.) So, helping people to grow in their Catholic faith, maybe in very simple ways such as inviting them to a prayer meeting, is also very important.
To return to the work of Mind and Soul, it uses psychological principles with the key focus being education, encouragement and enabling people ‘to meet God through a holistic approach to mental health which incorporates the spiritual and psychological’. I believe this work is extremely important and much-needed. I personally think there’s great potential for more Catholics to become involved in the work of projects such as Mind and Soul – maybe even to build on, in a Catholic context, the excellent work which has been achieved so far. A particular strength of Mind and Soul is the openness of many contributors about their own mental health issues. Their individual contributions have a depth of compassion which I don’t think would be possible in the absence of suffering. The many resources on the Mind and Soul website help provide a greater understanding of a wide range of mental health issues which I think is essential in ensuring sensitivity and compassion towards anyone who is suffering. There are also resources on the site dedicated to helping church leaders (in the Catholic Church this is more specifically Priests and those working for the Church) look after their own mental health with a particular focus on avoiding burn-out. Mind and Soul also provides an important faith companion to enable anyone who is suffering to journey with the God of compassion and understanding.
http://www.mentalhealthproject.co.uk/ The Mental Health Project has been developed to support the Catholic community further develop pastoral support for mental health. It includes links to many resources including the Mental Health Access Pack
http://www.mentalhealthaccesspack.org/ Phase 2 of the Mental Health Access Pack will be launched on 10th October
http://www.mindandsoul.info/ Explores Christianity and Mental Health and has links to many resources on different mental health topics and includes podcasts, testimonies etc. The site also has information about a conference in London on Saturday 10th October.
[Many thanks to the anonymous contributor for this guest post]