Faith in Mind [Book Review]
Why did you write Faith in Mind?
I work as a chaplain in two NHS mental health hospitals and an eating disorder centre. I am often asked about faith. Some want to reconnect with a faith held some time ago. Some ask for a Bible. Some people discover an experience of God while in hospital. Some have reached rock bottom and know that change is essential.
I felt I wanted a resource which both brought comfort to those suffering and was also an introduction to faith and Bible reading. It was therefore written with a slant to people who are struggling with mental ill health. I wanted the chapters kept short and wanted illustrations to complement the text. It is not easy to concentrate when so ill.
How could you empathise with those mentally unwell?
I have lived experience of mental ill health. Around ten years ago I was off work for three years or so with illness. It was a desperate time and the world of seeing community teams, psychiatrists and taking cocktails of medication, became a familiar one to me. It was difficult being in such a public role. I had been a Church of England vicar and in parish ministry for some twenty years. My illness and the effects upon the church community were very public. With leaving a vicarage, there was no other obvious home to go to. There was the loss of role, reputation, income and home. Illness brings much loss.
These were very grey, emotionless days. It was hard to climb out of bed and get dressed. I remember not being able to move when a community nurse wanted me to sit down. My brain was overloaded and there seemed no space for it to give the signal for my legs to move. I think it was the culmination of stress upon stress. I believe the words ‘enjoy’ and ‘I am looking forward to,’ disappeared from my vocabulary. It was a time when there were no tears and no laughter. Everything was just kind of emotionally grey. It was hard to carry on.
Have you always had mental health struggles?
My first brush with mental problems, as far as I recall, was when, aged 20, I saw the horror film The Exorcist. This was a very fearful experience for me. I was terrified I did have beliefs, in fact I had been confirmed in church and I took this film seriously. It is very hard to live with that level of fear for long and this seems like the beginning of my own experience of depression. I have come to believe that fear is behind much mental ill health. I think we are created for love, security and wholeness, not excessive levels of fear. Does such exposure to hugely fearful experiences damage us mentally?
During stressful times I had some mental health blips over the years, but these were only a small part of a largely happy and fulfilled life and ministry. However, after leaving a very loving community after nearly 14 years as vicar and moving to a church where there were problems, I had a serious time of mental illness.
What led you into chaplaincy?
I did recover and, after a month of tears as I began to recognise myself again, I wanted to find work. Sadly, I had little confidence in trying to lead a church again. I couldn’t risk coping with the same stresses so I looked for change. I trained as a coach and these skills have been so useful. Then a position in hospital chaplaincy came along locally. It was lovely to be back in such a pastoral ministry again. I began working part-time and still enjoy not having evening commitments.
I still like to preach and teach occasionally across different denominations and there is chance to lead appropriate services in the hospitals.
My faith in Jesus is central to my life. God has been my rock for over 40 years through joy and pain. I think the suffering times have been the most formative. That terrible fear way back was overcome by trusting in Jesus’ great love and power. I do want others to know this wonderful relationship of love, through faith, in Jesus. Within the NHS, my work is patient-led and I am there to listen. It is sometimes in that place of suffering that people reach out for new meaning. I am glad to have Faith in Mind as another resource to help people find God’s love and therefore a rock of fresh understanding and purpose on which to stand for the future.
Steve Tash, 09/02/2021