Can the church help with mental health?

Many people have remarked that the prolonged lockdown is damaging to people’s mental health.

It is good sometimes to ask questions of ourselves: Do I feel lonely? Does life seem to have no purpose? Do I feel excluded from the happy bustle that most people seem to enjoy?

People with all kinds of mental illness or anguish are usually advised to seek a counsellor.

The natural world and gardening are now seen as good medicines for mind as well as body, but it is seldom realised that the church, too, has much to offer in this field.

The church can provide the friendship and relationship for which so many seek, not only within the fellowship of the local church, but in the friendship that Christ himself offers us. He is the unseen presence and constant pillar of support for all his followers whom he calls his friends.

The church teaches us that our purpose is to love God and to love our neighbours as ourselves. Here we have a never-ending reason not only to live, but to live life to the full.

For the many people who suffer handicaps or disadvantages in life, the church at her best offers support, comfort and encouragement – the spiritual blessings that we all need.

The church is there for all, including those who suffer abuse, whether physical, mental or spiritual, or who regard themselves as failures or misfits in our over-competitive society.

Such victims may experience a welcome, understanding and support from the church, which can be a rock for the oppressed and marginalised in our society. This also goes for the many who experience breakdown in their relationships.

We are all broken to a lesser or greater degree, and so need the invaluable ongoing support that Christ offers in and through his church, which can be a second family: “Come unto me, all ye who are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.”

What about depression? Surely our church with her gospel of joy and risen life is the perfect antidote to all such destructive feelings.

Part of this is the realisation that Jesus himself suffered depression even on the cross itself: “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?”

Bereavement is another cause of mental distress, when we suffer the death of a close relative or friend.

The death of Jesus’ friend Lazarus led to the shortest sentence in the New Testament: “Jesus wept.”

What better support could we be given than faith in Jesus, who wept for his friend and suffered an agonising death, but through his victory overcame death and opened the kingdom of God to all.

Christians have so much in their first-aid kit including prayer; God himself is the best listening ear.

Also in the church’s kit are the sacraments, which provide strength, comfort and reassurance. The need of mental health is a God-given opportunity for the church to offer what so many now seek.

Of course, there are many obstacles, including a general distrust of all things “religious” and sinful failures in ministry, so widely reported.

But it may well be that one of the best provisions for mental illness is to come to church, or in times of lockdown to join in church life via telephone, email and zoom.

The Rt Rev Tony Foottit, retired Bishop of Lynn