Hannah Foster is Human Resources Director for the National Church Institutions and Trustee of Livability, a charity that promotes inclusion and wellbeing for all as well as providing care services for people living with disability.
Earlier this year some Church House Colleagues and I were at a meeting in Hitchin, Hertfordshire. The meeting happens once a year, and as part of the events we take Holy Communion together. We decided to go to the midweek lunchtime service at St Mary’s Hitchin. Slightly to our surprise this midday office contained hymns unaccompanied by music – slightly unusual in this sort of service. In the small congregation (doubled by our presence) was a young man with severe physical and mental disabilities and his carer. It was not obvious to us visitors how aware this man was of the meaning of the elements of the service. I was intrigued about this man, and afterwards asked how aware he was of the worship. “He loves the music – that is why we now have a hymn” I was told. The service and its singing had become an important part of this young man’s life and now this person had become an important part of the congregation. It turns out that much of the service have been adapted to include this man, and his carer. Is this not an excellent example of ‘loving thy neighbour’ within our Churches?
In this case we could clearly see both physical and mental impairment, and St Mary’s had done great work to ensure their worship was understanding of him. Sometimes that is a hard thing to do, particularly with mental health issues which might be temporary or long term and rarely visible.
A quarter of us will have a diagnosable mental health illness at some point in our lives, and most likely if you are fortunate enough not to have one personally, a friend or relative will. For older people the biggest contributing factors to mental health issues are discrimination, participation in meaningful activities, relationships, physical health and poverty. For younger people 20% may experience a mental health problem in any given year and 50% of mental health problems are established by age 14 and 75% by 24. Sadly, the situation is getting worse for many and worryingly studies of social media usage show that Facebook, Instagram and other similar networks can increase anxiety and depression.
Working for the common good must mean ensuring we embrace the breadth of our society and include all in Church life when they walk through our doors. However, knowing how to positively support and build community with those around us experiencing mental health problems is not always obvious. Today is World mental health day, as Christians it is a reminder that we have a responsibility to support those neighbours whose emotional wellbeing is impacted by anxiety, depression, addiction, dementia and other mental health illnesses.
So what should we do? Of course talking to, being understanding and empathetic to those impacted by mental health illness is the first step. But what does that mean in practice? This can be easier said than done, particularly if you have no experience of dealing with these issues. It might take a bit of courage but there is more practical advice to help too: Livability, a disability and community engagement charity of which I am a trustee and Mind and Soul, an organisation that explores mental health and Christianity, have developed the Mental Health Access Pack . This gives really helpful ways that Churches and Christians in the community can support and include the neighbours we are instructed to love impacted with mental health issues.
I do not know how the young man in Hitchin came to start going to that week day communion, but my observation was that the whole congregation was enriched by his presence and that of his carer. On this World Mental Health day I pray that those impacted by mental health issues know they are loved by God and their neighbours are enriched by knowing and supporting them.
Trustee for Livability and HR Director for the National Church Institutions.