Sermon preached at St Mary and St John Church, Trinity 18, Sunday 15th October 2017, by Fr Phil Ritchie
Sermon for Mental Health Sunday
Last Sunday we began a conversation looking at 7 lamps, 7 themes about our life together. We have spoken about Jesus as the word of Life who revealed God to us through his death on the cross and his resurrection. This week we turn to our 2nd lamp – health and healing, we are also marking world Mental health day which took place earlier this week. In this city, together with St. Michaels in Summertown, we are one of two Beacon churches seeking to explore how the Christian community can support the promotion of mental health for all and support those living through periods of mental health distress.
On Tuesday we marked world Mental Health day with a wonderful celebration of the Arts and crafts, a day when people from all over the city came to the Benson hall to demonstrate our solidarity with all dealing with mental health issues. Organised by Alice and her team is was a wonderful picture of what the community of the church can achieve with and alongside the wider community of people beyond these walls. In many ways the warmth, the humour, the caring and the camaraderie of the day reflected what we might believe to be a true understanding of what the community of the church might look like. The Beatitudes, which we have just heard, in a similar way, give us a little snapshot of what Christian community might look like. They sometimes speak to people like a kind of social justice manifesto but they are far more than this, they give us a picture of what Jesus is like, and call us into a deeper communion, to be a community which explores what it means to care for our neighbour, to be alongside those in distress. And further down the path they might help those in the midst of mental health issues to imagine what recovery might look like, what healing might look like and what it means to be on a common journey of discovery.
It seems to me that one of the great discoveries of recent times has been that mental health issues are a part of everyday life. Many people have known this truth for years, but now more and more people are coming to accept it: in any one year about 1 in 4 people will experience at least one diagnosable mental health issue and by 2030 the World Health Organisation forecasts that depression will be the single leading cause of the global burden of disease. But there is still a huge stigma around mental health and speaking about it, as we are doing today, is one way to challenge this stigma.
There are so many things I could talk about but one thing we wanted to focus on is hearing from the real experiences of people, so I want to begin with some quotes from the diary of someone experiencing what is called ‘clinical depression’. What this person writes is not a manual of what to do or what to think, it is the record of how someone felt, what they thought and, like the beatitudes, it’s a text which can help to point us towards being better neighbours, better listeners:
“When you feel bad you feel sad towards others and it reflects in them…cheerful because cheerful, glum because glum”
And then the next day:
“Not looking forward to the day
Thinking of the future a lot…(Bleak)
Not feeling better
Didn’t eat lunch
Now had some cereal
How long will this last
Don’t love myself
Don’t feel anyone really cares much
Don’t want hospital treatment – I am a survivor
Others say they are but this is real survival
Have written to say I can’t come this evening
I do hope they understand
Getting through this patch is all I need to do
Must stop repeating myself – my memory is not as good as it was. Can’t remember what I’ve written.
Many people suffer depression, its understanding it that needs to be seen and the more people understand that it is a problem the better…
I have experienced deep depression and thank God if it improves with age. I am not to blame for much of what goes on in my head. What is it that keeps me ticking over?
The street is such a mean place to be even if you are well…I have this constant fear feeling that things get worse if you let them. We all have it in us to make things better…”
And a little later he writes after reading a book or going on a course:
“Change how you feel by changing the way you think.
There is always a temptation when we hear someone’s thoughts or opinions that we should interrogate them, work out exactly what they mean, make suggestions about what they need to do.
One of the most important things I learnt on the Mental Health First Aid course I went on a couple of weeks back was to listen and communicate non-judgmentally. One of the videos we were shown on the course was of Pat Deegan. Pat was diagnosed with schizophrenia but the worst of it for her was being told that she won’t ever recover. She said the diagnosis was given to her in a way which seemed to diminish her humanity. The fact the she had friends, skills, degrees all seemed to disappear before this diagnosis, it felt like she was being told to retire from life, to give up.
Pat decided, I will become Dr Deegan and I will change mental health and this became for her a survivors mission – although she was careful not to say to her doctors “God has called me to change mental health in this country”, but it became for her a vision around which to organise her recovery. We need meaning, purpose, a need to move – we can’t build a recovery around a vacuum. Recovery is about changing our lives not changing our biochemistry. Communities like this one can become a place where meaning and purpose are celebrated and recovery affirmed.
But we need to be careful talking about recovery too easily, the way some Christians talk about resurrection as if the cross never happened. It is so important to grasp that recovery is a journey not a destination. Recovery needs to be holistic – its about all of us, body, mind and spirit. And, centrally it is not about returning to where we were before as if nothing has happened. Lastly it needs planned support – this community can act as part of that support – not in a professional sense, we are not health professionals, but in the human sense of being neighbours, listeners, encouragers, people on the Way.
There are still some striking statistics about mental health. 75% of people with diagnosable mental illness receive no treatment. Suicide is the most common cause of death of men aged 20-49. These are frightening figures but they also translate into the everyday lives of people we know and people we love. 16 people a day take their own life in the UK – I am trying to learn a new language, a kinder language, we can’t say commit suicide anymore because a crime has not been committed. Being careful about how we speak, recognising how we speak and having the humility to be corrected is the beginning of a journey into a greater understanding of mental health and well being. Since the Grenfell tower disaster 16 people have tried to take their lives as a result of the effects of that night – suicide is about mental illness but it is inextricably linked to real events, real people and real situations.
It seems to me that part of the Christian response – if we can talk of such a thing – to periods of mental distress, is about being with people on a journey as God came to us in Jesus, about a radical inclusivity which we see reflected in Jesus, and maybe more challengingly the attempt to speak of hope in the face of great sadness and distress. Dignity and respect are at the heart of this whole process.
We never know who we are talking to and the first calling is always to listening. I met a couple who live locally on Friday who were filming in church and we got talking. It turned out their son has a diagnosis of schizophrenia. I listened as she talked about him, in fact it was his 18th birthday that day. They knew that for years he has been desperate to get a Tattoo and as his 18th came near they were nervous about what he wanted, how large it was going to be. But on Friday he said mum I just one two words on my arm – Be yourself.
Listening, being alongside, encouraging, it is so much more about being than doing, in order that people can be themselves. We mustn’t be glib about recovery but we are still a hopeful people, and part of recovery for all people is the recognition that life changes us sometimes in painful and diminishing ways but that life after such experiences can be a deeper reality, and bring with it a profound sense of what it means to be human. This community here on the Cowley road is called to be a place of human flourishing. Not a finished product but people who are part of a continuing process of healing which we are never finished with in this life. A people who know the meaning of Jesus’ words: Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.