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Mental health: Will you stand in the mental health gap?

How churches can ‘fill the gap’ in children’s mental health support, by Ian Soars, CEO of Fegans

Throughout the Bible we are commanded to care for the widow (single parent) orphan (vulnerable children) and stranger in the land. Throughout church history Christians have stepped into the gap to ensure we do that in whatever way the social crisis present themselves in that era. By sheer scale, complexity, and perhaps most pertinently lack of solutions, the issue of the day is the vulnerability of our children.

Fegans is a 149-year-old Christian charity which provides professional children’s counselling and parent support services across London, the South East and Oxfordshire to more than 400 children and families every week. In recent years, Fegans has seen a sharp rise in demand for its services and the complexity of cases it deals with. 

This is reflective of the national picture, with Public Health England reporting that currently in the UK, four children in every classroom now has a mental health problem, yet 75 per cent are not receiving the treatment they so desperately need. That works out at two million children. Almost a quarter (23.9 per cent) of 15 years olds have a diagnosable mental health condition. 

The poor are three times more likely to be impacted than the rich, as grinding poverty, a decade of foodbanks and austerity take a terrible toll on our children. If your teenage daughter or granddaughter isn’t self-harming, statistically one of her close friends is.

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Fegans stands in this gap. We stand with schools and local churches to halt and reverse these trends in whole communities. We have partnered with churches to fund counselling and volunteer-led parenting programmes from families in their communities – usually alongside the school. There are now towns we work in where every child who needs help gets it and every parent at the end of their tether receives the care, support and, yes, love from their local church. Awkwardly, that is only true, as long as funds allow it.

In those towns the State is no longer the provider of key services; the church is. Fegans believes that the church – with proper clinical guidance and professional training – can play a vital role in responding to this crisis. The church has powerful social assets that the Government can no longer afford: it is present in every town, its people are motivated, local and engaged, it has buildings, services and expertise; and its second greatest commandment is to love its neighbour”. 

History shows us that Christians have responded nationally in such a way in the past. For example, when a group of vicars considered the abuse of children an outrage, they formed the NSPCC. Dr Barnardo, Lord Shaftesbury, James Fegan, and others, moved by Christian compassion, founded children’s homes, and The Clapham Sect campaigned for children to be banned from going down mines.

Matthew 5:16 reads: Let your light so shine before people, that they may see your good works and glorify your father in Heaven.” If we walk in obedience to His call to love the vulnerable in our communities, I believe that our nation will rally behind justice and mercy, and the poor and the vulnerable will be loved and ministered to. 

Case study: The Weald Family Hub

Practical ways in which Fegans says churches can help include funding qualified counsellors for vulnerable children in schools in their communities and finding volunteers from within their own congregations to be trained to support struggling families. This is a model which is working very successfully in Kent, via a project called the Weald Family Hub, led by Fegans in close partnership with Rev Hugh Nelson. 

Rev Hugh explains: The Weald Family Hub is a community response to the challenges of mental ill-health in our villages. We wanted to connect the community with people, projects and organisations that support young people and their families who are struggling with issues of mental health across the Wealden villages.” 

Initial funding for the hub came from the partnership between 12 churches and 12 schools in the area, and three children in each of the 12 schools are now benefitting from the subsidised counselling provided on the behalf of the Hub by Fegans. 

The headteacher of one of the schools has reported that the counselling is already making a real difference to a particular student: They are more resilient and have more strategies to support themselves. They are also less emotional and better able to think through the situation rationally, to reason and accept responsibility. It’s a very positive outcome to see such a change in this pupil and something that may well be a turning point for them for the future. It wouldn’t have been possible without the support of the Weald Family Hub.” 

Meanwhile, five volunteers from the community have completed their training with Fegans to deliver a 1:1 parenting support programme to local villages, and a number of families are already benefitting from this additional support. It is amazing to see this scripture coming alive in a very literal sense: The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners” Isaiah 61:1 – 3.

How can you help?

Funding counselling: Churches can fund half the cost of counselling, enabling schools to fully access qualified counselling for their most vulnerable children. 

Volunteering: Fegans is training church volunteers to support families in crisis, empowering congregations to be agents of change within their local communities.

Giving: Those who are able to can give of their finances to equip us to reach more children and families in poorer communities that cannot pay. Fegans is giving away more than £300,000 of counselling this year alone.

Prayer: Prayers are always welcome for us, but our heart is that the church as an entity steps into the gaps for its local community in a powerful and fresh way.

Let’s pray

Father, raise up a generation of men and women called to their community to be the Wilberforce’s of their town; to be the binder of wounds to those who suffer in our communities; to galvanise all of us to step into the gap for the widow, the orphan and the stranger in the land; to be the practical face, hands and heart of Jesus in our time. That you will know us and our works, that together we will be known not simply as Christians, but as your servants, passionate about loving our neighbour. We pray in the name of Jesus. Amen.

To find out how your church could partner with Fegans to provide much-needed professional children’s counselling and parent support services in your community, please contact Ian or Jo Wild on 01892 538288 or email joanne.​wild@​fegans.​org.​uk

About the author

Ian Soars is the chief executive officer of Christian charity Fegans, which has continually transformed mental health and championed childhood since 1870.

See more from Ian Soars

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