... on behalf of Corin Pilling: A guest blog for Mental Health Awareness Week by Livability's Corin Pilling

CUF and Livability have been working in partnership to support churches as they explore the assets in our communities before we engage in the problems that we face together. The reports Fullness of Life Together and Building Kingdom Communities invited churches to engage with question, ‘Is it primarily our role to meet needs, or to be building community?’

When it comes to our mental health, communities facing multiple deprivations take the hardest hit and for churches on the front line, crisis management is often the name of the game. Often members of our own congregations end in desperation when other support structures fail. How then, can an asset-based approach be of use when we’re in the eye of the storm - trying to manage the relationships between mental health teams, GP’s and other voluntary providers?

Beyond Crisis Management

In reality, building on strengths may need to happen beyond the crisis. The Mental Health Recovery Model is a framework which first looks to assets, recognising that people can and do recover from mental ill health. The Recovery Model also affirms that people have the capacity to live well with long-term mental health conditions, a narrative that complements an asset-based approach.

The Mental Health Foundation identifies the following helpful principles of Recovery:

  • provides a holistic view of mental illness that focuses on the person, not just their symptoms
  • believes recovery from severe mental illness is possible 
  • is a journey rather than a destination 
  • does not necessarily mean getting back to where you were before 
  • happens in 'fits and starts' and, like life, has many ups and downs 
  • calls for optimism and commitment from all concerned 
  • is profoundly influenced by people's expectations and attitudes 

These principles alone can help provide a broader context to developing good mental health and are a useful guide to view the topic, even for a non-professional. They are based on building on strengths, rather than merely viewing the person as a problem to fix. More information can be found here.

Churches Create Community

Churches have an important role in creating an environment where deeper relationships and meaningful activity provide a space for building good mental health.  They can often be safe spaces to grow new skills and exercise old ones. Creating the right routes to participation can play a significant part in developing wellbeing. 

Yet there’s a bigger invitation for the whole church community to develop a positive approach to wellbeing, moving the discussion to a wider forum so it is not only the preserve of those who might struggle the most but to a place where we all are ready to discuss wellbeing.  Livability trains individuals to run the Happiness Course to help communities normalise the process of talking about their own wellbeing. Using a strengths-based approach, the course helps groups discover what choices can lead to a richer and fulfilled life. Instead of tackling mental health directly, it provides a safe space to explore thoughts and emotions on the important topics of life.

A Healthy Theology

Our fundamental understanding of ourselves before God and each other has a huge bearing on how we respond to our mental ill health. Theology that affirms each person as an image-bearer is a key foundation to a healthy view of self. The common narrative of those suffering with mental ill health, is often a false sense of blame and responsibility for their situation. Erroneous views which connect poor mental health with moral weakness and sinfulness, need to be replaced by a deeper theology of the crucified God who stands with us in suffering.

In my own context where I see many who regularly experience poor mental health, there is a greater need to hear and experience the grace of God than admonishment, a corrective to the negative self-talk that many struggle with. For those in the depths of difficulty, to quote CS Lewis, an understanding of ‘what a wretched machine we are trying to drive’ is fundamental when starting to build a positive approach.

Building on Our Practice

We can all benefit from practices that help us exercise creativity, practice stillness, and connect to our bodies in positive ways.  If we were to look at our life together as church and identify our healthiest practices, what would they be?  Are there elements of our life at church that feel genuinely restorative or are we running ourselves ragged? What might be the win-win activities which lead to us restoring ourselves and offering restoration to others? I think of the Christian meditation group which extended to all in the community. Relaxing to run, and relaxing to attend.

Great strides have been made in shifting the narrative to help us all realise that we all have mental health. Yet, the reality is that many encounter a unique set of challenges to living well day to day. Let us challenge when we exist in crisis management and move to a Recovery approach. In turn, let’s widen our conversation, strengthening our theology and practice so that we all might thrive.

Coring Pilling is Deputy Director of Livability UK. You can follow him on Twitter @CorinPilling and @LivabilityUK