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27 October 2017

Mental health: does the Church have anything to say?

Mental health: does the Church have anything to say?

John Risbridger is minister and team leader of Above Bar Church Southampton, is on the Evangelical Alliance Council and has recently finished as chair of Keswick Ministries.

Poor mental health costs the UK economy up to £99bn and leads to as many as 300,000 people having to leave their jobs each year, according to the Thriving at Work report that was published this week. Anti-depressant drug prescriptions from the NHS have more than doubled in the last 10 years and in the NHS mental health provision appears to be in crisis. 

While the challenge of poor mental health is clearly a large and growing problem in our society, Christians have often struggled to know how to engage. On the one hand our silence has compounded the sense of isolation many feel when struggling with poor mental health; on the other hand, our easy (supposed) answers or immediate spiritualising of the issues has left people feeling profoundly misunderstood or even stigmatised. What is our role and is there a better way? 

Something on which all the experts seem to agree is that relationships and community are very important for our mental health. Therefore churches can play a hugely significant role, to the extent that they seek to be communities where relationships are authentic, where people do not have to hide their struggles but appropriate boundaries are also respected. Nonetheless we struggle to find a framework out of which to form our response.
I have noticed that when people are asked about mental health, they usually talk mainly about mental illness. My contention is that we need to begin by taking mental health much more seriously and that when we do, we find the Bible has much wisdom to bring. 

According to Genesis, we are created as physical, spiritual and social beings (2:7 1:26; 2:18) and we are created to think meaningfully (2:19-21), feel authentically (1:31; 2:8-9a) and act responsibly (1:28). Bringing these two together we can imagine a simple model of a three-legged stool in which the 'seat' -  the thinking/feeling/acting which constitutes our mental health and wellbeing – rests on the three-legged stool of our physical/spiritual/social make up. 

This simple but integrated model enables us to acknowledge the impact on our mental health of brain chemistry - since we are physical beings – while avoiding the reductionism that neglects the significance of spiritual and relational factors, since these are also part of our make-up. On this basis we can affirm the value of both pharmacological and psychological therapies while also offering biblical counsel and prayer to enable people to build a right relationship with God and healthy relationships with other human beings. 

More positively, however, it gives us a framework not only for responding to mental illness but also for nurturing good mental health (which is something we all need to do). You could summarise God's 'prescription' for nurturing good mental health in three simple steps: 

Take care of your body because God made you physical (e.g. exercise, diet, sleep, medicines when needed). 

Take care of your relationships because God made you social/relational (e.g. community, forgiveness, love, boundaries). 

Take care of your 'soul' because God made you spiritual (our identity, security and value anchored in a right relationship with God through the death and resurrection of Christ). 

It isn't rocket science or even neuroscience (!) but it is a starting point to break the silence and bring the gospel to the challenge of looking after our mental health. 

Photo: Daan Stevens