I still believe… World Mental Health Day 2021
On Friday night I slept rough in central London. Apart from the fact that it wasn’t really that rough, we had sleeping bags and even access to portable toilets. Along with a team from my church, we joined 50 or so others to raise some money for GlassDoor; a charity that supports the homeless in London.
My reflections on the night were largely that; it is impossible to have a reasonable nights’ sleep on the streets: The traffic in the city never stops and is punctuated by regularly by sirens and supercars. It seemed inevitable to me that anyone long-term rough sleeping would see drink and drugs as a necessary sedative against the night and that their mental health would be the most obvious early casualty.
This years’ World Metal Health Day carries the theme, ‘Mental Health in an Unequal World’ and helps us to consider the hidden emotional costs of deprivation, poverty, isolation and prejudice. We often assume that long term mental illness is a causal factor in the above, when in fact it is a product of them. According to Mental Health Foundation, “Children and adults living in households in the lowest 20% income bracket in Great Britain are two to three times more likely to develop mental health problems than those in the highest.”
Having seen the combination of poverty and trauma on the Grenfell site in 2016 through my work with the Healing Minds Team, I feel passionately about the need for integrated services. It seems impossible to impact mental illness if we are not also impacting the causes of mental illness, especially the isolation that is generated through growing societal inequality. Covid has extenuated these divisions further and poorer communities are facing disproportionate psychological and social impacts.
This may all sound rather pessimistic, if not conspicuously lacking resolution, but I believe that there is still reason for hope. Last night I was talking to the Colombian government about an integrated suicide prevention strategy, spearheaded by 16,000 churches and 26,000 church leaders. They proudly identified their ‘Department for Religious Affairs’ as a unique means to meeting the needs of local communities across the country. Here in the UK Our 42 Anglican Diocese and countless parish churches, alongside churches of all denominations continue to provide a mobilized army of compassionate volunteers who are seeking to address the very issues that underpin mental illness, be that the plight of prisoners, the homeless, the elderly, vulnerable families, the bereaved… I still believe the church is the hope for the nations. Our Patron, The Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, Bishop of London, shared with me, “Mental health issues weigh most heavily upon the communities that already carry the greatest burden of debt, poverty and disenfranchisement. The Christian church has a pivotal role to play in positively impacting individuals' wellbeing, as well as helping address the inequalities that so often contribute to poor mental health.”
In a very professionalised world, it can seem daunting to know where to start. In some instance churches defer to heavily towards professional partners because of the training or organisational burden. And yet there is something that we can all do to make a positive impact on mental health in an unequal world: connect.
One of my favourite psychologists; Peter Fonagy suggest that, ‘Adversity turns into trauma when the mind experiences itself as being in isolation.” This helpfully demonstrates that community has a fundamental and preventative role to play in trauma prevention. Fonagay goes on the say, “The best possible treatment for trauma is not professional but social”.
Very important work is undertaken in innumerate areas of need by appropriately skilled and trained volunteers and professions, but let’s not lose sight of the simple medicine of welcome. Jesus himself identifies the virtue in Matthew 25:35, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me in.” The decision to build bridges between unequal communities and to offer unconditional welcome is in itself a healing enterprise and one that could have life-changing ramifications for those who are already experiencing mental ill-health.
We pray that as you make a difference this year, we will be able to continue to resource you and your churches to support those in mental distress. Thank you again for all you do to befriend, encourage and welcome.
Will Van Der Hart, 10/10/2021