Churches across the UK are rightly recognising that loneliness, isolation and mental health challenges are the priority issues for the people in their communities now and in the near future, with recent research by charity Allchurches Trust, highlighting their impact since lockdown.

This presents a unique opportunity for the Church, which is at its best when on the frontline of caring for the vulnerable and isolated. So it’s encouraging to see within the new research that many churches are ready to respond to evolving community needs with an increasing number of online services, support and social action initiatives. But before leaping into action, it’s essential we do two things first: ask the right questions and connect the dots.

Why is this important? Because the statistics are alarming. There has been a 250 per cent increase in referrals to social services and a significant increase in first-time referrals for severe mental illness cases, according to The Royal College of Psychiatrists. Refuge, a domestic violence charity, has had a 700 per cent increase in website traffic! This should be a huge wake-up call to all of us.

For too long Christians have had an approach when putting on events in churches of: “Come to this venue, sit down and listen to us talk about this subject.” While there is a place for that, what is also valuable is simply saying to anyone of any income bracket, race, age or gender: “We’re here to listen, we’re here to journey alongside you, we’re here to share our stories together, to share about our faith, how we cope, support each other and, can we pray for you?”

Understanding mental health

Following COVID-19 we need to begin by asking: “How do we best care for our communities, including the people in our church?” We should also ask how we help people cope with ongoing uncertainty. COVID-19 is going to be a part of life for a long time; we can expect some restrictions and practical challenges to remain for months and even years. So how do we, as the Church, help people to cope with the anxiety and loneliness that this has already caused and will continue to produce?

This is the perfect time to examine our theology and attitude towards mental health. For too long, we’ve made people feel guilty for struggling with anxiety or depression, telling them it’s the result of hidden sin in their lives. What people need right now is empathy and a non-judgmental listening stance. Jesus had this amazing ability to make people feel safe and accepted, whether it was a tax collector, a prostitute, or a Roman soldier. People start the healing process the moment they feel heard, so, as the Church, we need to be available to just listen when our whole nation is crying out for care and support.

Another question to ask is how we can work better together as the Church in its wider sense in the UK, and also within the broader societal structures that include charities and community, social and health organisations. How do we avoid going back into our silos and getting on with our own agendas?

Connecting the dots

The Church has an important role to play in addressing mental health and social issues. We can’t do what medical professionals are doing and we shouldn’t try to, but we can create a space where people can be vulnerable and process the extreme situations they’re facing. Doctors are saying to me that five minutes with them and some tablets can provide a level of help, but it’s not going to solve the whole issue. An hour’s counselling won’t be the solution either.

People need an entire lifestyle change; to build real, supportive relationships with people willing to go the distance and be there for them throughout the journey, and this is where the amazing opportunity to connect the dots for the Church is, right here in the middle of the storm that many are facing right now.

Next week I’m meeting with the Centre for Social Justice to look at how we, as the Church, can serve the nation better at this time through ‘social prescribing’ as part of a holistic approach to helping people. Being given a ‘prescription’ to join a choir, a gardening club or a Kintsugi Hope Wellbeing Group run by their local church could be the start of a journey to improved wellbeing.

As the Church, we are not the answer to the issues our communities face, but we are and can be a big part of it. Historically, the Church was embedded in the welfare of people’s holistic life, including emotional, physical and spiritual aspects, and it’s time that was true again. At Kintsugi Hope, we’ve signed up a different church every day since lockdown, with groups being set up all over the UK that will be a listening ear to provide encouragement and support for those struggling with mental health issues. There are hundreds of leaders now in training. I just pray that God starts something really special in the Church, for such a time as this, and that we take hold of this opportunity to care and love others with both hands - just like Jesus did.

Patrick Regan OBE is CEO and co-founder of Kintsugi Hope, which came about following a series of personal trials and ill health affecting Patrick and his family. Prior to that, Patrick led urban youth charity XLP, which he also founded in 1996 and ran for 21 years.  Patrick has travelled to over thirty countries working with and on behalf of the poorest communities and is a regular contributor on radio and TV on issues of poverty and justice.

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