When asked this question, or somethings similar, I often begin with a story.
A friend of mine went to his GP with some unusual symptoms: difficulty sleeping, chest pains, feelings of stress in situations that wouldn’t normally be stressful. (At one point he thought he was having a heart attack.) After a check-up, his GP said that his symptoms pointed to anxiety and depression, and he was prescribed anti-depressants.
This came as a surprise to my friend. And, as a person of faith and a senior member of his church, there were several things that made this diagnosis difficult. They included the stigma surrounding the term “mental illness” that persists in many parts of society, including faith communities. Then there was the question of how to reconcile faith in God with the mental distress he was experiencing. Would taking medication represent a lack of faith? Would his experiences with mental ill health affect people’s ability to trust him?
He went and spoke to a leader in his community, who, thankfully, was able to reassure him. My friend was able to begin taking the medication, alongside other supports, and saw a great improvement. He’s now shared his story widely within his church, which has helped raise awareness of mental health. In fact, since then several other people have spoken publicly about their own journeys with mental ill health.
An asset, not a disadvantage
At FaithAction, as a national membership body for faith-based charities and places of worship, we sometimes find ourselves speaking “on behalf of people of faith” in meetings with health and care policymakers. We get asked about the kinds of inequalities and disadvantages people of faith experience when it comes to mental health.
When our time comes to speak, however, we are more compelled to describe the positive difference faith can make than the inequality it may bring.
Three things from my friend’s story above illustrate this positive role for faith:
- First, we see that well-placed and timely words from a trusted faith leader can be extremely powerful. They can be the difference between someone accessing the help they need – be that medication, assistance with referrals or appointments, or simply a listening ear – or suffering in silence.
- Second, the public sharing of experiences with mental ill health can be immensely helpful in cutting through stigma and changing perspectives, perhaps especially where this comes from someone in a position of leadership. As we have seen, when done right, this kind of vulnerability and honesty can help create a space of safety and understanding within a community.
- Third, there are positive physical and mental health impacts of being a part of community (in the case of my friend, a church community). Evidence shows that those who have access to good social networks and support are more resilient and likely to recover when unwell. Not only this, but many faith groups run programmes of support and advice complementary to statutory offers, like social prescribing.
Our conviction that faith should be recognised as an asset, not a disadvantage, led us to launch the Friendly Places campaign in 2014. By signing the Friendly Places pledge a faith group makes a commitment to be a place which welcomes or supports those struggling with their mental health, whether they are experienced at this or just beginning on their journey. We offer accompanying training to faith communities looking for practical tips and suggestions for making this happen.
Steps to being a Friendly Place are often simple – what we might normally associate with being hospitable. But we find that, so often, the simplest practical change – like keeping a free row of seats at the back of a gathering for people who are late, or who may need to slip out unnoticed if they feel overwhelmed – can make a massive difference to people feeling included.
Over 300 organisations and places of worship have signed the Friendly Places pledge to date. And many have spoken about the impact signing has had on how they do things. One rabbi said it helped him realise that his role was not just to lead prayers but to look around the room and see how people are doing and, if necessary, follow up with those who are absent, out of care. One Gurudwara had their whole security team trained, in recognition that these were often the first people to welcome new visitors to their centre or notice if people needed help.
Mental health issues are common. We know that 1 in 4 people are likely to experience difficulties with their mental health at some point during their lifetime, meaning that, if you are part of a church, mosque, synagogue, or other faith community, you will almost certainly know somebody affected. Added to this, with the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbating stress and mental ill health, loneliness and isolation on the rise, and a cost of living crisis threatening financial security, our communities are perhaps facing more reasons to feel the burden of stress, or anxiety.
Now more than ever, then, faith communities have huge potential to be safe spaces, as well as communities of prevention and healing. At their best, faith centres and places of worship are spaces where people are listened to, where there is an ethos of pastoral care that addresses the “whole person”, and where people are willing to go the distance, walking with individuals through life’s ups and downs.
Policy and Programme Officer