Between hope and lament: creating safe and welcoming churches for people with mental health challenges

Corin Pilling, UK Director, of Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries, speaks to participants in its new free online course for churches.(Photo: Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries)

Sanctuary UK has launched a brand new course during Mental Health Awareness Week to support churches in their response to growing mental health challenges. 

The research-based course has been developed in consultation with mental health professionals, theologians, and
people with lived experiences of mental health challenges.

It's being made available to churches completely free of charge and is endorsed by Sanctuary's patron, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who has recorded a film to coincide with the launch in which he speaks candidly about his own experience with depression.

Corin Pilling, Director of Sanctuary UK, speaks to Christian Today about the culture shift he would like to see in churches around mental health, and why it's so important that they are places of safety and welcome. 

CT: Do you think that the pandemic has compounded mental health issues in society?

Corin: Without doubt. We've seen some major changes during these last two years and been through collective trauma. We're still a long way from the level of recovery that we need and whether we previously experienced a mental health challenge or not prior to the pandemic, we've all been impacted by recent events.

Add to that, the fact that we're not yet in a place where things are completely stable or predictable because it's only in the last few months that we've been able to make plans with any real expectation of those things actually going ahead. That might feel like a small thing but it's actually really important in terms of how we manage our energy and wellbeing, whether it's a holiday or a visit to friends.

CT: Which groups are you most concerned about?

Corin: The biggest impact of the last few years has been on those who were isolated from others and those who had previously experienced a mental health challenge. For some, it's been difficult because they haven't been able to access support services in the way they normally would. And of course, young people have been greatly impacted and are experiencing increased anxiety, depression and eating disorders. But wherever we are with our mental health, there will always be big challenges when things change significantly from our norm.

CT: We can think of mental health as something that exists outside the Church, but as Justin Welby said in his video for the series, people experiencing mental health challenges are in the Church.

Corin: That's exactly right and experiences will be different, but all of us will experience loss or bereavement or other life challenges that make us feel like we're languishing. Whichever way our specific circumstances might differ, we often need similar things. We need a bit of space and understanding and people who can speak into our lives and be affirming and encouraging.

The course is free of charge.(Photo: Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries)

When you're down, there is massive value in being in a community where people are hopeful and celebratory but if we're creating environments where people don't feel like they can be themselves when they're feeling very difficult emotions, and that this is somehow not allowed in this space, then we're not reflecting the full breadth of human experience that we see not only in our own lives but in the Bible. Think, for example, of Lamentations where we see God's people crying out because of their suffering and anguish.

The question for the Church is: can we be communities that handle both of those things - being both hopeful and lamenting places? Because that's what creates safety for people going through that, and it's how we can be communities that really own up to the way that life is.

CT: Mental health is quite a complex area. How can churches engage appropriately with it?

Corin: People could feel wary given the breadth of experience contained within mental health challenges, but that breadth of experience is also something that mirrors all of us, so while engaging with this topic could seem overwhelming, when we engage with it together as a community, then it need not be. If we are to be a community where everyone can feel not only welcome but be able to partake in it, then that's much more achievable when we look at this issue together. We all have a role to play in responding to mental health and it's about being ready and willing to talk about our own experiences, while also listening to experiences that are different to our own - and in a way that is informed by our faith.

CT: What do you sense clergy are feeling about engaging with this issue?

Corin: One thing that's really important to say is that we're not placing an extra burden on an already exhausted group of people, because when we're talking about wellbeing, it is those who are leading our congregation that are really central to how we respond. When we respond and equip people together, then that takes the weight off those individuals.

There are going to be situations where people might need extra support or where they are on a waiting list. They might perhaps be struggling in their recovery or new issues are surfacing. What will make the difference for that person is if the church, as a result of doing this course and having this conversation, is able to provide appropriate support.

We're not talking about specialist support - it's not about being a mental health expert or professional - but making sure that the church knows enough to support that person well, so that they feel surrounded by people who care for them.

CT: Why is it important that the Church be part of the conversation around mental health?

Corin: In the Sanctuary course, we hear from Simone, a woman of faith who also has schizophrenia. That isn't a story that gets heard very much because these kinds of conversations tend to happen in the back rooms - which, of course, is appropriate to the care and support needed for that individual.

But having said that, there are still high levels of stigma around mental health issues and I hope that we will lift the lid on that in a really concrete way, not just with a headliner that says we should talk about mental health, but really recognising the importance of talking about it in a way that is true to our faith and congruent with the community we would like to become and which people can be part of.

It's the kind of response that means everyone can be involved and which brings together all those different strands of the people we know who are living with these challenges. It also means thinking theologically about what God thinks of it, what we can draw from the Bible and our faith tradition, and combining that with really good and accurate information from mental health professionals.

CT: It may surprise people to watch the video and hear the Archbishop of Canterbury talk openly about how he suffers from depression. How can we be there for our clergy too when it comes to their mental health?

Corin: There's real power in the most senior clergyman in the Church of England naming his mental health challenge and yet we recognise that within the context of a parish congregation, it can be a very difficult thing to do if you feel vulnerable as a leader. There is also huge pressure on our leaders because we expect an awful lot from them, but at the end of the day, like all of us, they'll have been through struggles and difficulties.

We need to give each other some grace in this recovery time from the pandemic and while leaders can choose whether to share what's going on with them or not, it is my hope that every leader has a safe space to be able to do that if they want to, and to be prayed for and fully supported, because it can be very difficult. We do need to be careful about assuming that people should share, but equally, we need to make sure our communities have an appropriate level of safety where clergy can share what it's like to live with a mental health condition.

CT: What do you hope churches will get out of doing this course together?

Corin: I hope that it really moves us beyond the idea of simply being aware of mental health challenges and how they impact lives, to a place where we are enriched by understanding and learning together and where our relationships are strengthened through this. Sometimes it's hard to share and we don't always have the language, but we need to give people permission to talk about their experience and for others to really listen and know what they need in order to feel supported and how they can be prayed for in the most helpful way. That would be a real culture shift within our congregations - not just a conversation but a real shift in how we view each other and do life together. There are still a number of places in society, our churches being one of them, where we struggle to do these conversations well. By doing the course together, communities can feel more confident to talk about these issues well, and in a way that feels comfortable and right in terms of our faith background.

The Sanctuary Course is available online and completely free of charge.