Far from their home

Every week or so, we see a story on the BBC about mental health patients being sent hundreds of miles away to distant 'facilities' for 'care'. Reasons are offered for and against, but the assumption seems to be that this should not happen. However it does - so perhaps a better question to ask is, "How we can help?"


The Christian faith is very familiar with what it means to be far from home. From Adam and Eve being cast out of their first home, to the Israelites in the Old Testament usually being anywhere by Israel, right through to the modern day and refugees escaping religious extremisim. Home is a heart destination in the Bible - a relationship and a community - and. yes, ultimately in heaven. Yet it seems to be that exile is the 'new normal' for many people of faith and advice is given. For those fleeing, there are encouragements to keep up with patterns and traditions that remind them of home. For those receiving, the question is asked: how did you care for the widow and sojorner [traveller] in your midst? This list of 22 Bible verses about this is from the Sojoourners Magazine. More recently, Mahatma Ghandi said, "A nation's greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members." 

Why travel the extra mile?

Perhaps we can assume for a moment that the people designing mental health services do not actually want people to be out of touch with their nearest and dearest. I know some of them - they are nice people. Instead, they planned to build a hospital with enough beds (but it didn't work out, or they closed beds to try and improve community services so people could be treated at home (but it didn't work out) or the population increased because of urbanisation (and no-one provided more money for more beds). There is a mismatch between the number of beds needed and the local provision and this is a constant tension for people who work in these hospitals. Please pray for them.

Sometimes, there are good reasons NOT to go to your local psychiatric unit. Here are three:
  1. You may need specialist care that is only required by a small number of people. This leaves you with a choice - to have average care locally (people will try their best) or go to a more distant unit for the expertise. One example from my home in Scotland is psychiatric beds for mentally-disordered offerders who require the highest levels of security akin to a Category A prison. There are only about 150 Scottish and Northern Irish men needing this at any one time and they are all treated at Carstairs where there is a critical mass to have the best doctors and psychologists and nurses. Female numbers are even lower and at the moment have to be looked after at an English facility. Is this unfair and gender biased - or just a consequence of the small numbers. 
  2. You may benefit from a [temporary] move away from home. People with chronic mental health problems are surround by systems [a psychological term] that have adapted to this. There may be the best intentions of love  and care, but the person cannot change [get better] unless the system also changes. Systems are hard to change - so sometimes it is easier for the individual to have some space to change while those around them prepare to get a different person back. This is what everyone wants - it's just how you get there.
  3. You may prefer to be anonymous in a more distant unit, rather than among people who you might know and visited by people who see you at [what you sometimes think is] your worst. Whilst generally I believe that people should have more visitors in mental health hospitals, not less - for some, anonymity is what they wish for and they may choose or ask to be cared for further way. This is routinely available for mental health professionals who need admissions - but arguably this should be available for everyone.

Making home happen

How many churches do you know of who routinely visit their local mental health unit? There is no point in getting on our high horse unless we are actually going to take the opportunity to visit people who are close by. Could your church volunteer - it doesn't need to be anything spiritual, but could be practical like befriending, helping with the garden or making sure the magazines are less than five years old?

And, if there is a 'tertiary' [specialist, filled with people from far away] unit near you, have you asked how you can help. How can you make these sojourners into your land feel welcome. How can you make home happen for them. How can you keep the rituals going, the songs going, making them feel as though they belong?

And, if you can't do either, can you pray? Can you intercede for those who often have no-one to intercede for them. Can you pray that they might know both the loving arms of the Saviour and feel this from His people here on earth. 

We can moan about the problem - or we can be part of the solution...
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