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24 April 2015

Mental health in the digital age - how can the Church keep up?

Mental health in the digital age - how can the Church keep up?

The young woman sat opposite me in my office, tears streaming down her face. She held in her hand a bracelet, nothing special it would seem, except that it represented her belonging to a secret online community of people who had pledged themselves to a deity called Ana – anorexia. 

It was the first time I had ever heard of such a thing – an almost religious community based entirely online, complete with the 'thin commandments' and daily' thinspirations'. The young woman told me how she had initially accessed the website for support – it presented as a help-site for sufferers of anorexia – but within a few weeks she had been contacted by the administrators and been allowed entry to the dark side of the internet. Suddenly, she had become part of a members-only community of those committed to their anorexia as a 'life-choice', rather than seeing it as a dangerous eating disorder. She swore allegiance to Ana and dutifully said her thin commandments out loud every day: "I will stay thin or die trying, and Ana will smile upon me."

As a Christian organisation dedicated to helping people live free from life controlling issues, we had just encountered a new enemy. Or, perhaps more accurately, the same enemy using a new weapon. My conversation with this young woman happened over 10 years ago and since then I have found little to alleviate my concern about the damaging effect that the internet and with it, the digital age, can have on vulnerable people.

The potentially destructive nature of the digital age is not limited to pro-Ana or pro-Mia (bulimia) websites. Having been involved in pastoral care in different settings for over two decades, I have seen a dramatic increase in the damage done to people's mental health due, in part, to the demand and the effect of the digital age. The rise and reach of online pornography is hugely disturbing and damaging, as is the plethora of ways in which strangers can access our children's lives. The cyber-bullying that takes place on a daily basis is costing lives and I fear that we are raising a generation of people who live their lives through social media – portraying happy, perfect lives while dying inside. A recent article featured in The Independent stated that support groups for online gamblers were struggling to adequately respond to the cry for help that was coming from those trapped in the world wide web of online gambling addictions – an industry that has hit the £2billion-a-year mark and boasts nearly one million addicts in the UK alone.

As someone who is old enough to remember a time when an apple was just a fruit and phones were just phones, I have an important decision to make. You see the digital age is not evil, wrong or damaging in and of itself. The internet – and the smartphones, devices and consoles that support it – is an amoral, inanimate tool that can be used by whomever knows best how to wield it. And therein lies our choice and challenge.The Church is largely led by my generation.Those between 40 and 60 years of age are the senior decision makers of our time, but when it comes to all things digital, on the whole we are lagging behind. Perhaps we have been ignorant or uninformed or unable to firmly grasp hold of the tool that has so successfully built these evil online empires, or perhaps we have simply been afraid? Whatever the reasons, we have to be willing to learn, grow and grasp hold of what is happening because the digital age is not here to stay – it is here to evolve. And therefore so must we.

Providing live-streamed church services should become the norm. Investing time, energy and resources into our websites, podcasts and phone apps should be a priority. In the cacophony of virtual sound that is the internet, the Church of Jesus must rise up and make herself heard. We can be change agents, spearheading the direction of flow – signing online petitions, hosting forums, writing blogs, articles and tweets around issues that matter.

Many are doing this already. For instance, mindandsoul.info are an excellent resource exploring Christianity and mental health with much of their work done entirely online, utilising podcasts, blogs and online articles to the max. Christian magazines and broadcasters are increasingly embracing their online audiences and I know of several churches that have more people watching their services online than are actually in attendance at the meeting.

But there is much still to do. Even within my own organisation, Mercy Ministries UK, catching up to the digital age is slow and cumbersome. We have plans to make our application process much more user-friendly by setting up an online application portal, supporting people via live-chat is still on the cards but has not been actioned yet, and I would love to have our 'Choices that bring Change' curriculum available by means of a 'virtual home,' dramatically increasing the number and variety of people we can help.

The world is moving on, and continues to do so at breakneck speed –the shapers of this new world – often the younger generation in their teens and 20s – are spearheading trends that affect us all. Their fluency in all things technical forces us to accept that though we may have had reservations about the digital age, it is time to remind ourselves that if we can't beat them, we must join them, to have any say in shaping it.

Arianna Walker is a speaker, a writer and the executive director of Mercy Ministries UK – a Christian charity that works in partnership with churches across the UK to provide residential care for young women who are dealing with life controlling issues.

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