Mental health is not something that happens to 'other people'

Credit - Jonathan Self

I have had many conversations around mental health, but one specific memory really stands out. The man I was chatting to was interested in how we could help "them to get better." I paused, having registered 'them.' As we talked, I attempted to move the conversation closer to home, to the idea that we should consider our own mental state as part of the process of supporting those with mental ill health. He said: "But I don't need to, I wouldn't fall into that trap". It was the end of the conversation, but one of a number of similar exchanges I've had that betray how many people view mental health.

The problem with this narrative is that it assumes that only 'those people' have mental health. I'm certain that we all have different ideas of who 'those people' might be. It's true that at any given time only a percentage of people will have mental ill health, but we all have mental health that we need to care for and look after if we are to live healthy and fulfilling lives.

It is now generally accepted that if you eat healthily, exercise and try to live a good lifestyle you're less likely to experience illness. There are of course illnesses that we can do nothing about – it is not the case that if we have a healthy lifestyle we will never get ill. But living well and caring for our physical health will help stave off preventable illness.

So, why do we not take the same approach to mental health? Why is it that we only really start to think about how we can care for our mental health when it begins to fail? At the point when we are the least able to take the necessary action to help us recover?

The reality is that we often don't really want to think about our own mental health in these terms. We don't want to consider the possibility that we might become one of 'them'. A person who can't hold it all together, who needs medication, who is weak...

It becomes a vicious cycle when we think about mental health as a 'them' thing. It becomes about others, rather than us. We might study it, or think about and discuss how we can become more welcoming and inclusive to those with mental ill health. But this way of thinking exacerbates the 'us and them' mentality. It leads to 'them' being a separate group of people, and by separating them with our language and perceptions we automatically become exclusive. We create barriers which make it harder to be truly inclusive because we don't really think about 'them' as 'us.'

Unfortunately, this mentality leads to an increase in stigma around mental health.

I have been asked more than once if I would get involved in a 'mental health-friendly church service'. But I'm not entirely sure what this means. We do need to create more welcoming environments for those with enduring mental health problems, however, we need to change the culture – so we are welcoming by nature, and not by design on one week of the year.

My work with Livability has included the Mental Health Access Pack; a resource developed with Mind & Soul to raise awareness on the key issues. We recognise that information is the beginning of the journey, and are currently consulting with church leaders and those living with mental health problems to explore the kind of conversations and training models to continue a culture change in church. This is as part of our commitment to helping churches become truly inclusive communities.

Seeing real change starts in a deeply personal place, For many of us, this involves confronting the fear that we will succumb to 'their' weakness. We need to change the way we speak, becoming more reflective and honest about where we are at, and we need to encourage others to do the same.

We are told in the Bible that our suffering leads to perseverance, character and finally hope. Engaging with honesty in our struggles increases our ability to love as Jesus loved us, accepting that there will be times when we will need to reflect on our own mental state, which in turn can enable us to love others who are often in a darker place than us. It will lend us empathy, and encourage us in the development of a non-exclusive community.

The reality is that all of us have, will have or know someone who has a mental health problem. It is not a rare thing, and we have to stop treating it like it is something alien. Also, as our physical health needs change relative to our circumstance, age and experience, so it is with our mental health. We need to be building open-minded communities that recognise that our mental health requires responsive care and must be considered for the rest of our lives.

Katharine Welby-Roberts is an associate of Livability, equipping churches to engage with mental health in their communities.

Livability is a national Christian disability and community engagement charity. It delivers disability services, community projects, education and training resources that promote inclusion and wellbeing, with the aim of tackling barriers in society to make community livable.