How the Church went from hero to zero on mental health

It's symbolic of a wider shift across the Church.

New Wine – one of the largest Christian festivals of the year – has developed a 'health and well-being' seminar stream tackling topics such as stress and anxiety, depression and insomnia.

The major evangelical gathering, spanning two weeks in July and August and attracting thousands to the Bath and West Showground in Somerset, joins other charismatic festivals such as Focus in Hampshire in having a major focus on tackling mental illness in their teaching programme.

Will Van Der Hart, founding director of Mind and Soul and one of the stream's high profile speakers, tells Christian Today this shift in attitude is a recent and ongoing one.

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'The Church is definitely starting to take mental health much much more seriously. I think it's a trend in the world as well,' he says after speaking to a packed marquee on the dangers of perfectionism.

'We've been knocking on the door of the Church since 2006 to say this is really, really important.'

But it is only in the last few years that church leaders have started to realise the importance of addressing mental illness.

Christian leaders often lack knowledge in the area and fuel stigma either by their ignorance or by over-spiritualising mental health problems, he says.

'There were lots of assumptions,' he says of his work speaking to pastors. 'Either that mental health was a demonic condition which could be resolved by some sort of spiritual activity or they were a manifestation of some sort of spiritual ill-discipline – depression was laziness, anxiety was the sin of fear.'

A recent report by religious think-tank Theos found that although a variety of Christian initiatives aim to tackle mental illness, 'they are often highly localised, small scale and under the radar'.

Van Der Hart explains this was not always the case.

Will Van Der Hart is a founding director of the Mind and Soul Foundation.

'The Church over the millennia has been the most precious and fabulous place to receive mental health in care in the world. The monastic traditions were the first asylums,' he says.

'Without the care of the Church those with mental illness would have had far harsher if treatment at all.

'What we have is incredible legacy of mental health care in the Church.'

Unfortunately, he says, the Church withdrew from the ground with the arrival of psychological studies in the form of Sigmund Freud, Carl Yung and the advent of psychotherapy. 

Now, although Christians suffer from mental illness to the same extent as the rest of society, their prospects are actually worse because they are more reluctant to see their GP, more reluctant to receive medication and more reluctant to enter into psychotherapy.

Studies such as that by Theos have repeatedly found 'religious belief aids resilience in responding to traumatic events and leads to faster recovery from mental health problems' and Van Der Hart says the Church's accepting and welcoming environment is a place of healing for people with mental health issues if the stigma is removed.

'You wouldn't say to someone, "You are a virus." But you do to someone, "You are schizophrenic."

'You wouldn't say to someone, "You are a cold." But you might say to someone, "You are a depressive." That's a statement of judgment.

'We've got to end that. That's a statement of disease not a statement of personhood.'

The Church is often willing and enthusiastic about tackling poverty, without making the connection that so many of its roots are in mental illness, says Van Der Hart.

'If you are looking for ways to help the poor, start with mental health.

'If you really want to address the problems of society we need to address the problems of mental illness.'

Theos' reports makes clear it is an initial inquiry and calls for more research and funding to 'encourage, inform, shape and amplify the Christian response to current mental health problems'.

With no prospects of the speed of life or the levels of family breakdown declining – two key factors in rising levels of anxiety and depression – it is more imperative than ever the Church enters the field.

One in four adults in the UK have been diagnosed with at least one mental health problem over their lifetime and in 2014 alone one fifth of people in the UK aged 16 and over showed some symptoms of anxiety or depression. The problem is not going away.

Teaching like that from New Wine is a start. But it must be just that – a start – and not seen as sufficient initself.

As Theos' report concludes: 'Mental health is now a major public issue, raising further the question of what Christians are doing to address these issues and how effective their efforts are proving.'