Haydon Spenceley is an ordained Assistant Curate to the Emmanuel Group of Churches in Northampton. Haydon also has cerebal palsy and has written and spoken on a wide variety of issues around mental health, disablilty and faith. With one in four of us experiencing a mental health problem, Haydon explores why churches are vital in raising awareness and driving change in the local community.
I think we are in a better situation than we were a few years ago. There are more people in the public eye talking about mental health and being listened to than there has been in my memory. Hearing people’s stories can be one of the best encouragements others who have similar experiences can have.
That said, there is still much stigma about issues relating to mental health in our country and our society. It’s been good to see some politicians recently trying to do something about developing public discourse around mental health too. It’s time all of us as a society took our communal responsibilities to care for ourselves and one another seriously.
Mental health vs physical health
Lack of support for those with mental health issues, particularly compared to the support available to those with physical issues can, amongst other things in my experience, lead people to think that their illnesses and conditions are their own faults and their own problems.
We very rarely blame someone for having broken their arm or twisted their ankle. The consequences can be that people are diminished and demeaned, made to feel less-than or lacking in value because their root problems are unseen. Anything that can be done to avoid this happening should be done.
One thing we can do is to make people aware that mental health is something that everyone has. Some people’s is good and others is less good, similarly to physical health. This does not in any way affect their value, or whether they should be considered ‘real’ people or not.
Depression, for instance, as an illness can attack and affect any person at any time. Some are perhaps more susceptible to it but all of us have the possibility and potential to have ‘mental health’ issues. People whose issues are more obvious or affect them more deeply are no different to any others.
Any church which is led by people who are willing to be open and vulnerable about their own struggles, whether they be with mental health issues or other kinds of struggles, is more likely to be able to provide a space for the possibility of supporting their whole community. It is not just about supporting those with mental health issues, but about being an honest, open and lively community where all are welcomed into the family of God, including those with mental health issues.
It is also about enabling those who might be considered to be ‘struggling’ or ‘weaker’ to serve and lead as they are able and to show elements of God to those who consider themselves to be ‘strong’. As a loving and accepting community, the Church has the potential to be one of the only communities in our society which might be able to do this, not least in the power of the Spirit.
Energising the mental health conversation
I’m co-hosting The BIG Mental Health Day in London with Livability Associate Katharine Welby-Roberts, and I’m very much looking forward to doing so. Events like this can only serve to keep the issue ‘live’. Stories of our experiences are important, powerful and useful. We need to keep telling them, listening to them, respecting them, learning from them, and developing our behaviour as a result of them.
We need to ensure that our Church families are offering and seeking to be communities of hope with open doors and open arms to all who are seeking a home, particularly for those who may not realise they are.
We need to take part in the conversation. In fact one of the roles of the Church should be, in my view, to prophetically set the tone for the conversation and the life of the community in which it is situated. We need to listen, learn, welcome, pray, and see people drawn to God.
God does not value people according to their mental, emotional or physical capacity. All are precious to him. We should all be precious to ourselves and one another too.
The BIG Mental Health Day is a one-day conference on Saturday 10 October 2015 at St. Paul’s Church in Hammersmith, London.
Tickets are available to buy online here and you can follow the conversation on social media using #BIGMentalHealthDay.