The summer is (allegedly) starting and the long hot lazy days that lie ahead invite thoughts of holidays and relaxation. Schools start to wind down and parents start to think about keeping their children cared for and entertained during the school holidays.
The holidays can be a time of significant stress for both parents and children. Sadly, there will be some households where just keeping children fed will be a struggle. Tensions which are eased during term-time, when breakfast clubs and school meals are available, spring back to the surface. Summer therefore can be a time when the mental as well as physical health of parents and children can suffer. For people who experience a loss of mobility, the summer months can strengthen a sense of isolation as others head out for the delights of picnics, outdoor games and walks. It is commonplace now to see and hear media stories about the mental health crisis in our country, particularly with regard to young people.
This is why I am calling for us all at St. Paul’s this summer to make ourselves more aware of both our own mental wellbeing and that of others. According to a resource published by the Church of England, one in four people will experience a mental health problem at some point in their lives. Feelings can start off small and grow larger and larger until they become overwhelming and prevent us from functioning normally. Those who find themselves in that situation can often find it difficult to reach out and seek the help they need. Sometimes people around them lack awareness of how isolating it can be to suffer mental distress. Unconscious stereotypes of mental illness can reinforce negative attitudes towards sufferers. Because signs of mental ill health are often invisible, people find themselves thinking “Why can’t this person just pull themselves together?” or “Why don’t they ever seem to get better?”
When we looked recently at the story of Jesus healing a man with ‘demons’ we saw how isolated this man was, shackled inside a cave, out of sight of any community. His nakedness symbolised the ‘shame’ of his condition. Many of us recognised in this story our own experience of loved ones whose condition has caused them to cast off their clothes and behave in ways that are unpredictable. That helped us to realise that we are still able to love the person within the prison of their illness. In the Bible story recounted by Luke, Jesus starts the healing process by asking the man’s name. He enters into dialogue and shows that he values the man for who he is. He builds trust and offers friendship and community to someone who is on the outside.
After we had looked at Luke’s story, we watched a short film in which sufferers living with a variety of mental illnesses shared some of the things that had helped them survive their condition. Three common factors emerged: the need to be encouraged to talk, the need to be listened to openly and without judgement and the need for friendship and patient, long-term support. Whilst we as a church must not imagine that we can ‘fix things’ for people, I do believe that we can offer a listening ear, encouragement and the sort of friendship that values people for who they really are, whatever their condition. This can sometimes ask hard questions of us but ultimately helps us to be who we really are – people who bear the image of Christ, called to bring healing to those in dark, lonely places.
There are many resources available to us to help us become more aware of the issues – a good place to start is the mental health charity Mind – its website can be found at mind.co.uk
If you would like to talk to me in confidence about any difficulties you may be having, please do not hesitate to ask me to visit.