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Listen to the voices

How should Christians respond to the growing epidemic of mental ill health? By Michael Manning

Hand - Unsplash

One in four of us will experience mental health problems each year.[1] There is evidence that some groups, such as young women, are even more at risk.[2] In such an individualised culture it has been difficult for people to accept that there may be something in wider society that is making us sick. But the problems proliferate. Something is wrong.

Broadly speaking, problematic attitudes can be grouped into two areas.

First, there are those for whom mental health problems don't really exist. They are a symptom of a cowardly society unwilling to just get on with it. Because a broken mind is harder to spot than a broken leg it's easier for people to dismiss the symptoms as the whining of people who just can't be bothered to get out there and succeed. It's their own fault. The Christian gloss on this is the continued pressure and guilt that people feel when they are told to just pray about it, give it to the Lord and trust...and then still struggle. These attitudes are on their way out; the sooner the better.

The second area is that which treats mental health as a medical problem. The problems associated with this are far more subtle. Mental health has spawned a vast array of specialisations to treat a growing number of disorders. For too long, however, any such treatment was intensely medicalised. The response of under-funded and over-stretched mental health services was to prescribe drugs, lots of them, and to keep on prescribing. While medication has a place in many treatments far too often people found their symptoms merely masked by addictive sedatives. Managing the problem replaced any attempt at recovery or healing.

Recently mental health services are recognising more and more the holistic nature of mental health and the benefits of non-medical and non-pharmacological treatment.

Churches have a unique opportunity to offer a radical, wholesale approach to this epidemic. It's ironic to talk of demons in connection with mental ill health, summoning spectres of frenzied exorcisms and deliberate ignorance, but the language can be re-fashioned. There is a clear strand of Christian faith that critiques the hubris of a world that believes it has all the answers.

It should be obvious to followers of Jesus that any system that values people primarily for their economic productivity, that inculcates a profound sense of anxiety and discontent in order to sell products, and that then castigates people crushed by such systems because they cannot 'compete' in a globalised world, is deeply demonic.

It should be obvious to people called into a family where baptism washes away corrosive inequalities, racial and sexual divisions, and economic exploitation that mental health is indeed holistic. You can't treat bits of your life in isolation.

It should be obvious to people known from their beginning by the love they bore one another and a commitment to human flourishing that a society with pathological levels of loneliness and isolation will wound and diminish people. It does matter where you live and who you live with. It does matter having a purpose. It does matter being in relationships of mutual valuing and nurturing. It does matter that you can rest.

The demons still stalk the land, cackling at the ruin they wreak upon disordered, harried minds and lives, burrowing at the fractures in our psyche with all the apparatus of non-stop media and infinite acquisition. How different would it be if Christians took seriously the epidemic raging around us and decided to stand against those dominating, dehumanising narratives? What if we could invite people into a different sort of world, where they are loved simply as human beings, where their unique gifts are cherished, where they know they belong to a larger family, where the slow, dirty, desperately hard work of loving people begins to efface some of the confusion and the wounds?

Sometimes the advice about mental health sounds rather like Jesus' words: take time to spend with those you love. Serve others. Do the things you enjoy and are good at.[3] Churches can be at the forefront of this war against the poisonous insistence that we should be individuals shorn of relationships because people are a burden, or that everything we do must be economically productive because it's the bottom line that matters, or that we must be always, always busy.

Nonsense. The followers of Jesus listen to a different voice, knowing that we are beloved, inviting others in to the open secret of the gospel.

For a wearied, worried culture and anxious, fretful people churches should feel like stepping into a world transformed. A new creation. Jesus' voice still beckons to us all, dwelling in darkness, to step out into the light.


[1] Mental health facts and statistics (Mind) 
[2] Key facts and trends in mental health update 2016 (Mental Health Network)
[3] Five ways to wellbeing (Mind)


Picture: Alexander Lam / Unsplash

Michael Manning is a co-ordinator of Graih (www.graih.org.im), a charity serving those who are homeless and in insecure accommodation on the Isle of Man. He lives with his family in a shared household and belongs to Broadway Baptist Church in Douglas

He is the author of No King, But God - Walking as Jesus Walked

Baptist Times, 21/10/2016
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