When it comes to mental health, prevention is always better than cure. Ahead of World Mental Health Day, Peter Larkum says the Church needs to help people foster good habits
Jesus said, “The thief comes only to steal kill and destroy” (John 10:10) and when I think about mental health illnesses, I often think about how much it steals from people’s lives.
Poor mental health impacts on our emotional and spiritual resilience, which means we become unable to enjoy life, or deal well with pain, disappointment and sadness.
Given that Jesus went on to say he came that we might have “life in all its fullness”, we need to acknowledge that good days and bad days are all a part of life. Otherwise, how would we be able to recognise the fullness of our emotional and psychological context?
Even if we have God in our lives and declare Jesus as our Lord and saviour, it doesn’t create an immunity to mental health illnesses. Why? Because mental health is just as much a part of our lives as physical health.
Most of us have experienced a common cold. Others will have broken a bone. Some will have had surgery. A few will even have experienced miraculous healings.
NOW IS THE TIME TO OPEN UP THE CONVERSATION TO FIND WAYS TO PREVENT MENTAL HEALTH ILLNESSES
There are certain things we can do to look after our physical health. Eating well will boost our immunity and keep our weight in check. We can avoid dangerous sports and activities if we want to avoid the risk of breaking bones. Of course, we can’t avoid physical illness in life altogether. And it’s the same with mental health. There will be times when we’re feeling robust in our mental health, and there will be other times when we have the equivalent of a common cold, a broken bone or maybe something more serious and long-lasting.
So what can we do to look after our mental health better?
5 ways to keep your mental health on track
Moving your body can move mountains in your mental health. Endorphins boost your mood. Movement focuses your mind and gives you some relief from whatever is troubling you. You’ll develop new strength and stamina. Feeling stronger physically can help you feel strong emotionally to persevere through challenges.
Journaling gets your thoughts out of your head and poured into the pages of your notebook. It can be therapeutic and cleanse your brain of swirling thoughts. Interact with God and invite him into the raw truth of your situation. You might find it helpful to write some declarations. A declaration can remind you of truth forgotten in pain.
3. Read and learn
Understanding what you’re going through can be an important step in navigating through it. It might help to understand the different stages of grief, or the journey through disappointment. What does God say about our struggles? Waverley Abbey Resource’s Insight Series comprises bitesize books on 19 different topics, which guide you through anxiety, stress, bereavement and many other topics.
Music can be medicine to the soul. Soaking in Christian worship can soothe your soul with words of truth and healing music. Let the Holy Spirit, the ultimate counsellor, work through you and create the space for breakthrough. Soaking in his presence is always time well spent.
5. Speak to someone
Speaking out your thoughts and feelings unburdens your mind and soul. Whether that’s a friend, a trained counsellor, or a medical professional, having space to air your inner world helps mental wellbeing.
Mental health issues impact one in four people in the UK. Through the pandemic, we have seen this statistic rise, with 39 per cent of the UK population now reporting a deterioration in their mental health.
Five years ago, there were an average of 17 suicide crisis calls received each day in London. By 2020, this figure had risen to 37. Annually, calls increased from 8,030 in 2019 to 13,505 in 2020.
MENTAL HEALTH COULD BE THE NEXT PANDEMIC
There is little doubt that the pandemic has had an impact on the nation’s mental health, with many professionals concerned that mental health could be the next pandemic. Here are a few examples:
Young people – pre-Covid-19, 75 per cent of adults with mental health illnesses were diagnosed before the age of 18. So it’s clear that a significant proportion of these develop during childhood. However, mental health services for young people are currently oversubscribed and underfunded. Many young people are not receiving the help they need.
Workforces – pre-pandemic, 60 per cent of the UK’s workforce had never worked from home. Now only nine per cent of the workforce want to return to the office fulltime.
Could an enforced return to the office create overwhelming stress and anxiety in our workforces, or could prolonged ‘working from home’ have an impact on increased loneliness and isolation? We need to find a crucial balance, a new way of working that accommodates both home working and the office environments with the intention of reducing the stress and anxiety that a good proportion of the workforce are experiencing.
Home life – during Covid-19, there has been a significant increase in reports of domestic abuse, relationship break-up, loneliness and isolation. We’ve also seen an increase in suicide. Many people found lockdown unbearable, so how can we support one another through the experiences of the past two years?
5 ways to help others
“How can I help?” is a powerful question. Sometimes a person won’t know exactly what they need, but asking the question demonstrates your love and concern. It can be tough to reach out to other people if you’re struggling. Receiving a short “thinking of you” text message, or a call (even if it’s not picked up), can let somebody know that they are not alone.
2. Send a surprise
An unexpected gift can be a lovely way to let somebody know you are thinking of them and that they are not alone. Flowers, a plant or a book they might like can be a huge support and brighten someone’s day.
3. Prophetic words
Encourage someone by calling out the gold in them. Take a moment to listen to God for that person, and send what you hear in a card or a message.
4. Equip yourself with counselling skills
Sometimes it can be hard to know the ‘right’ thing to say. That’s where counselling skills can be particularly handy in everyday situations. Whether it’s an introductory course or more intensive higher education, you’ll feel more confident in helping others after some bespoke training and study. Visit waverleyabbeycollege.ac.uk for more information.
5. Ask them to help you
Asking for help is hard. People generally feel more comfortable offering their help than asking for it. A text like “I’d really love some company for a coffee break today. Can you join me?” is much easier to respond to than: “Let me know if you’d like a coffee sometime.” Or ask for help putting up shelves, or fixing the shower. It helps establish a relationship in which you support each other reciprocally.
THE KEYS TO PREVENTION
We’re all familiar with the phrase “prevention is better than cure”. Now is the time to open up the conversation to find ways to better look after our mental health. How do we do that?
Changing the culture around mental health in an organisation (or church) requires us to understand how our mental health can change due to situations, circumstances and life experiences. The best way to change a culture is to educate everyone. That may seem daunting, but resources such as Mentality (peterlarkum.com/ mentality), an award-winning mental health video course, will give every one confidence to spot the signs of poor mental health, and take action.
Sometimes there’s no support available in a workplace. Or better support is needed. Are we willing to invest in developing this? We need to look at a holistic approach that incorporates first aiders, counsellors, exercise, mood monitoring apps, Employee Assistance Programmes, occupational health etc. It’s not about having the bare essentials. We actively need to increase our preventative measures. Analysis by Deloitte found that for every £1 invested in mental health prevention you would see a £5 return on investment. Think about what measures you could implement in your workplace, church or individually. You might consider: nutrition, exercise / movement, environment, mental health training, sleep and mindfulness.
Implementing measures to better look after our mental health is beneficial for individuals and churches, as well as business and wider society. It creates a solid partnership between colleagues and their businesses, which contributes to a physically and mentally healthy environment for all. For example, the cycle to work scheme reduces emissions, encourages people to be more active, while offering tax incentives to the individual.
We need to learn how to look after our own mental health. In order to look after my physical health I can become a member of a gym with the aim of losing weight. But if I focus on the wrong activities, I won’t achieve my aim. It’s the same for my mental health. If I don’t know what I’m trying to achieve to improve my mental health, I can spend hours engaging in the wrong activities.
WHAT CAN I DO?
As we head into winter, more people may feel the effects of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which is linked to a lack of vitamin D during the darker months. In these months, it’s key to be aware of the external changes that may affect your energy, mood and motivation.
Remember to get sufficient natural light by heading out during the daylight hours. Exercise at any time of day will help to boost your mood and mitigate the effects of SAD. We absorb vitamin D (which is important for absorbing calcium and keeping your bones, teeth and muscles healthy) from the sun’s rays, so you’ll top up your levels with a lunchtime walk, or try a vitamin D supplement.
It’s also a great time of year to get crafty and create. Knitting a scarf, designing Christmas cards, or cooking and baking can really help to give you a sense of achievement, motivation and satisfaction.
Continue to worship, even when you may not feel like it. Music can lift your soul and words of truth remind you of beauty beyond the dreary months.
If you’re somebody who struggles in winter, think about developing a strategy to help you through it this year.
You might schedule time to pamper yourself. Or stock up on healthy food to get you prepared to eat well and create some culinary masterpieces. You may find it helpful to journal your experiences and keep track of what works for you.
If winter continues to get you down, try speaking to a counsellor to help take the edge off these months, which can be so difficult for some people.
WHAT CAN THE CHURCH DO?
The Church can be seen as having these three roles: 1) a place for training, teaching and equipping people, 2) the gathering place of frontline workers who reach out and invite people in, 3) a hospital and a place of rest for those in need.
We need to train up a new generation of people with a pastoral heart, who are able to listen with empathy, compassion and genuine care. We need people in the community living their Christian lives as a testimony of hope for the hopeless.
MOVING YOUR BODY CAN MOVE MOUNTAINS IN YOUR MENTAL HEALTH
Can we cultivate an atmosphere and attitude in the Church so that it is a place to find love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, gentleness, holiness and self-control? Is it a caring environment, into which we can safely invite friends, family or colleagues who may be struggling?
Why do so many people look to meditation, mindfulness, yoga and other ‘tools’ to support positive mental health, rather than church? Let’s see if we can change that and empower the Church to lead the way in promoting good mental health.