‘Strongest defence in mental health crisis is our communities’ – Archbishop of Canterbury
Archbishop Justin Welby addresses Church of Ireland MindMatters Conference.
“Transparency and openness help people learn that mental health problems are an illness, not a sin,” the Archbishop of Canterbury told the Church of Ireland’s MindMatters conference on mental health recently. He said it was important to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health issues and that sharing experiences of mental ill health helped to counter isolation and individualism.
Archbishop Justin Welby addressed the booked out conference, which was organised to celebrate three years of the MindMatters mental health awareness programme, in the Radisson Blu Hotel in Dublin from St George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem. He had been due to attend in person but explained that on the Wednesday before the conference (October 18), “after the destruction of so many people’s lives in Gaza [in the huge explosion at the Anglican–run al–Ahli Arab Hospital] it became clear that it was inevitable that we would come here in solidarity. It is relevant to what we are talking about today because what we are seeing is several countries in trauma. And there will be children in time to come that will be traumatised by loss of siblings and family,” he commented.
Talking about his own mental health, Archbishop Welby said that a few years ago he noticed he was feeling different. He had experienced bouts of depression before but this was different and he felt awful, he recalled. His daughter helped him to see that there was nothing to be ashamed of and getting help was the right thing to do. He began taking antidepressants and talking to someone. “It restores me from total emptiness to mere grumpiness – which is my normal state of being. I am, in Winne the Pooh terms, naturally an Eeyore. I was never going to be a Tigger, but my medication means I can happily Eeyore around,” he commented.
He began to think about how the Church had historically dealt with mental health issues. “The answer, we all know, is not necessarily very well. From the absurd suggestion that mental illness is a sign of lack of faith or the wrath of God, to the idea that if we just prayed hard enough it would go away. Often the church has moralised mental health issues and stigmatised those who are suffering, rather than offering them the gentle compassion and understanding that Christ offers them,” he stated.
Archbishop Welby referred to statistics published in Ireland and said that the high numbers of people experiencing mental health issues was perhaps surprising as, particularly in the Global North, we are living in the most prosperous period in human history. He acknowledged that there was better research, monitoring and treatment around mental ill–health in the Global North and that richer nations had access to and were encouraged to seek support. He also acknowledged that poverty, war and instability, faced particularly in the Global South contributed significantly to poor mental health.
But he said that in the Global North there had been a philosophical turn inwards, toward the self, which “has brought us to a place of radical individual autonomy and atomisation, despite technological advances that have made communication easier than ever”. The breakdown in community and in family and household life meant that there was no scaffolding to offer stability in difficult times. He also said there was generational trauma, experienced in Ireland through the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the Famine.
The book ‘The Hour Between Dog and Wolf’ by Dr John Coates suggests that the three biggest drivers of stress are novelty, uncertainty and uncontrollability. Archbishop Welby said this made sense from an evolutionary point of view. He observed that in the Global North, we are experiencing novelty, uncertainty and unpredictability in new ways: 2024 will be an election year in the US with particularly high stakes, Russia’s war in Ukraine is ongoing and there is the devastating war in the Middle East. There is also the cost of living crisis and the climate crisis and the aftermath of the pandemic and for those in the UK the death of Queen Elizabeth.
Citing the research carried out as part of the MindMatters project, the Archbishop said that the survey found that 46% of clergy think the Church does not do enough to support their mental health. He pointed out that clergy are with people during the most stressful and painful periods of their lives. He said this was a privilege but it took a toll without adequate support and self–care.
Clergy faced other issues, finding themselves in a place where the values for which they stand are no longer trusted and coming under attack for the perceived or actual sins of the church and there is the “ultimate insecurity” of the future of the Church, he added.
The first step to countering these issues was to reduce the stigma, starting with a willingness to talk about experiences of mental health, he stated. “What sharing does is counter the isolation and individualism I was talking about earlier. The times we are living in have revealed to us that the myth of our own autonomous control that technological and scientific development has given rise to is just that – a myth. From financial markets to viruses, everything we do and everything we are is interconnected. To be a human being is to be in relationship with other human beings. And so, the strongest defence when we face mental health issues is found in the communities around us, the families, friends and colleagues that support us,” he explained.
Faith can also be a great support in times of mental health difficulty. “There is the support of loving communities that we’ve discussed. And, more than anything, there is the promise of a God who is always faithful, always loving and always hopeful,” he stated.
“Positive mental health is a journey, not a destination, and a journey that we tend to travel very quietly,” Bishop Pat Storey reflected at the MindMatters conference. “And yet there can be healing,” she added, “so that’s why reducing stigma is the overall purpose of MindMatters. And we hope that in addressing issues around mental health, at the very least we’ll be demonstrating that it’s good to talk.”
Bishop Storey, who chairs the MindMatters project team and advisory group, added; “Often those who struggle with poor mental health feel like failures as people of faith,” she noted. “We feel we should be well, we should have joy. As a community of faith, we’re meant to have wonderful good news to share – and we have good news to share – but perhaps our good news is the courage to face another day. Perhaps our good news is the resilience to put one foot in front of the other. Perhaps our good news is our perseverance when we want to pull the duvet over our head.” She suggested the Christian response was through the comfort of the Scriptures, the fellowship of church communities and the comfort of God and his creation.
Archbishop Michael Jackson observed that St Luke, whose feast day was marked two days previously, is the patron saint of physicians and painters. He described a situation in the Middle East in which hospitals were “in near–ruins” and the landscape was “dismembered”. Archbishop Jackson continued: “It’s always important for us to remember those who are enemies of one another, those who do not connect in body, mind or spirit particularly when they suffer.” These individuals and communities felt that they were “under intense and inalienable pressure”. With the images of hospitals and landscape in mind, he added that “it is our Christian duty to hold these two potential pictures together, and surely it’s timely for us to be holding this MindMatters conference now because what we all need to have and to share worldwide is the grace of sympathy and of empathy.”
Archbishop John McDowell’s reflection drew out what hope and love can mean in the context of mental health. He acknowledged that we have all had our “bumps in the road” whether in ministry or in personal life. Relationally, speaking as an identical twin, he remarked that the sense of connection between two people who have the same DNA “is simply a kind of heightened example of the sort of connection that we all have with one another.” Being available and reliable are old–fashioned virtues, the Archbishop said, but they’re what make the difference to someone for whom others haven’t turned up and haven’t stayed there to the end. People in difficulty need encouragers who have “hope in a reality beyond what they can see or touch” – a permanence on which we can lay our head.
Trauma and the Church of Ireland’s contribution to mental health were discussed during the first panel discussion. Archbishop Welby said it would be useful for clergy if there was a common statement by the bishops and archbishops that recognised that mental illness was an illness and not a sin and not cause for getting rid of them. There should also be clear signposting for support, he said and deaneries should be encouraged to recognise signs that people are struggling.
The conference heard from a number of projects throughout the island of Ireland which had received seed funding from MindMatters. In all 74 projects received a share of €350,000 in funding. Irene Hewitt from Derry and Raphoe spoke about St Columb’s Cathedral’s ‘Adopt a Grandparent’ project which saw children of the Sunday School adopt older members of their community to combat isolation.
The Revd Rob Clements spoke about the Kilternan All Minds Matter project. He said they set out to incorporate mental health into all areas of the parish and to have an open, natural and organic conversation about mental health. As part of their initiative they held a volunteer appreciation evening; ran a series of talks under the heading of mind, body and soul; created a wellness trail for children and toddlers; and introduced a ‘Tiny Teachers’ programme in association with the national school.
The Revd Terry Mitchell outlined how MindMatters seed funding had been utilised in the Diocese of Cork, Cloyne and Ross to organise a series of seminars designed to equip and support people. The events helped the people of the dioceses to come together in the wider community and share their experiences.
In a video contribution, the Revd Simon Genoe of Magheralin Parish spoke about their project, Gathering Together for Wellbeing which included the development of a wildlife meadow and a Psalm 23 garden. He encouraged people to offer a wellbeing Sunday as an annual event.
The Revd Ruth Elmes, now of Dalkey Parish, spoke about a project she ran in her previous parish of Tinahely and Carnew called Flush and Go aimed at demystifying the menopause and facilitating honest and open conversations. She gathered a GP, a pharmacist and a practice nurse to talk about women’s hormones and aging at the ecumenical community event.
Nicola Byrne of Shine (See Change) spoke about the importance of reducing mental health stigma. The charity runs the national Green Ribbon campaign to highlight the need for open conversations. Nicola explained that stigma is a social construct where we judge people and put a label on them. The impacts of this judgement is shame, secrecy, social isolation and a delay in getting support. She stressed that the use of language mattered and urged people to be aware of how their language affects those around them.
Andrew Bass of Benefact Trust, which sponsored the MindMatters project, said it was an honour to be part of a project which had impacted so many people. He paid tribute to the MindMatters team and Bishop Storey for driving the project and looked forward to seeking it develop.
The conference concluded with a panel discussion exploring the next steps for the Church of Ireland. Suggested areas were supports for clergy, supports churches can offer to their communities, becoming a kinder Church, the hope that people would go back to their parishes inspired and becoming more open communities.
A reminder that the Clergy Assistance Programme is in place to help to support mental health among leaders in ordained ministry. It is provided by Health Assured, the UK and Ireland’s largest independent provider of programmes of this type, as part of the MindMatters COI project. This entirely confidential service is available for clergy and their family members, is free to use, and provides a wide range of assistance. Key features telephone helplines – available 24 hours a day and seven days a week – offering practical information and emotional support; a medical information helpline, up to six face–to–face counselling sessions, up to six structured telephone counselling sessions, per issue, for a member of the clergy, or their spouse, and dependents (aged between 16–24 and in full–time education) and crisis management and critical incident support. You can contact Health Assured by calling 0800 028 0199 in NI or 1800 936 071 in RI. You can also access their online portal My Healthy Advantage with the code: MHA216687.
If anyone would like more information about MindMattersCOI, please contact Rebekah Fozzard – firstname.lastname@example.org or email email@example.com.