Why talk about mental illness?
In recent years, stories and statistics in the media have highlighted concerns that mental ill health is affecting increasing numbers of people of all ages, and across all social and cultural groups. Whilst this increased awareness of mental health is to be welcomed, there is much still needing to change in society – in the ways we think about, and talk about, mental illness.
Mental ill health may include symptoms of stress, anxiety or burnout, along with medically diagnosed conditions such as depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders and addictions. Mental health services are under enormous pressure, and some people with more severe, suicidal or psychotic mental illness may find it difficult to access the support they need. Amongst our older population, social isolation, exacerbated by the pandemic, has increased vulnerability to symptoms of mental illness. And for those living with dementia, the reductions in residential provision for assessment, respite and long-term care mean that families provide care at home for longer, with the additional risks of stress and mental ill health for carers.
How do we respond to this situation?
One, very human, response is to think of mental illness as something that affects other people and not me. The possibility that I, or someone I love, may become unwell is frightening, and so we prefer to not think about. We may avoid people who are experiencing mental ill health because we don’t know what to say. The reality is that at least half of us will experience some form of mental illness in our lifetime, and the rest of us will almost certainly be affected by the mental ill health of a close family member or friend.
Traditionally, our science orientated Western culture has delegated the care of those with mental illness to the medical professions and the state – which may have allowed wider society to distance itself. With waiting lists growing, and the capacity of the NHS seemingly unable to meet the needs of everyone seeking support, perhaps this is the time for us all to wake up and think about how we can respond as individuals and as faith communities.
We may hold core values of compassion and love of neighbour, but what does this mean in practice as we meet our actual neighbours, or gather in our churches and other community groups? How do we walk alongside, listen to, and support those we know who are going through a difficult time? How do we begin to address the wider societal issues that exacerbate mental illness, such as stigma, shame, discrimination and exclusion? Can we encourage protective factors such as friendship, being part of a community, meaningful activity, and availability of people who listen and care? How do we face up to our own fears of what mental illness might mean?
What if…every faith community could be a safe place of welcome, where anyone could talk about feeling depressed, or anxious, or having a diagnosis of a mental health disorder? A place where they would be listened to without judgement, and receive thoughtful and appropriate support? Creating a culture where people feel safe enough to talk about mental illness is a first step on the way to building communities where shame and fear no longer keep people isolated.
Faith in Older People is shining a light on this issue by facilitating opportunities for anyone interested in joining the conversation. In 2021, a number of online seminars explored different aspects of mental health issues for older people. As part of this series, we offered a short zoom workshop ’Talking About Mental Illness in Older People’. Participants were invited to reflect on their own experiences of mental illness, whether personally, with family or friends, or in a faith community setting. We shared examples of the ways in which faith communities can respond, and ideas about how we, as individuals and as churches, can equip ourselves to be more confident in reaching out to our neighbours.
A second zoom workshop is planned for March 8th 2022, 1.30 to 4.30pm. This is open to anyone wanting to explore how we can all help to create positive and safe ‘mental health friendly’ spaces for our congregational members and our wider communities.
Dr Gill Yellowlees lives in the Scottish Borders, where she worked as a psychiatrist with the NHS Mental Health for Older People’s team until retirement in 2014. She serves as an elder in her local Church of Scotland congregation and has trained in spiritual direction with the Epiphany Group.