Mental health needs communities
After much talk about ‘parity of esteem’ for mental and physical health, mental health is finally becoming an official priority for health planning and spending.
The NHS Long Term Plan, published in January, sets out how the extra £20.5bn that the Government promised the health service in 2018 will be spent. It makes a raft of commitments including a ring-fenced fund for mental health spending, which is set to grow at a faster rate than total NHS spending; a redesign of community mental health services; and a significant expansion of help for children and young people.
This is welcome. But while local areas now have the task of working out what the Long Term Plan means in practice, communities can only wait for the funding to reach the front line.
Austerity has meant cuts to some local services and raised thresholds for treatment in others, with the result that faith groups and faith-based charities are seeing higher levels of mental health need among the people they serve. “Many people come to us with mental health issues because they have nowhere else to go,” says a FaithAction member who runs a drop-in centre for vulnerable women and children. “It’s great they feel that they can turn to us – but we don’t have the skills to support them.”
This complaint is typical: our members, who are grassroots faith-based organisations involved in social action, frequently cite mental health issues as top among the health concerns of those they work with. These organisations are seeing higher levels of need, as other local services have disappeared, while at the same time their own resources are squeezed. This is backed up by thinktank The King’s Fund, whose December 2018 review reported eight out of ten NHS trust finance directors as saying that funding pressures have led to longer waiting times for people who need mental health treatment.
While it’s clear that the effects of the funding boost for mental health can’t come quickly enough, the Long Term Plan also recognises that communities themselves have an important role in preventing ill-health. It commits the NHS to partnership with local voluntary sector organisations, recognising that these provide support to vulnerable groups, often in innovative ways and serving groups that mainstream services struggle to reach.
We can’t know if those who wrote the Long Term Plan had faith groups in mind when they envisaged this kind of partnership, but FaithAction has long argued that these communities have a particularly valuable role to play in supporting mental health.
Many reach out to those who are isolated – for example, through parent and toddler groups, shared meals or food banks. They often have trusted leaders and longevity within, and expertise on, their communities. As well as physical assets such as buildings and transport, they tend to have highly motivated volunteers, alongside an ethos of care for others which takes seriously the idea of going the extra mile. What’s more, for individuals, faith can be an important part of health and wellbeing – a resource to draw upon to stay well or recover from illness.
All this means two things.
First, our health and care services need to recognise the assets for mental health that faith groups offer not only to their congregations but also to the whole community – and to help them increase their skills where appropriate. In the current cross-government drive to tackle loneliness and roll out social prescribing, faith groups need to be on the radar of those mapping the sources of support available in their local areas.
Second, faith groups and faith leaders need to educate themselves about mental health. The well-known statistic that one in four people will face a mental health issue means that there should be no place for stigma surrounding mental health – and that includes among faith leaders, who are no more immune than anyone else. This doesn’t mean we all have to become mental health experts. It means learning some basics around mental health – the Mental Health Access Pack for churches is a great start – and knowing when and how to help someone access professional support.
It also means making it okay to talk about mental health in faith communities. It’s vital that the we seek to navigate the tricky path between a purely medical model and an over-spiritual approach (“If you just pray more, you’ll get better”).
At FaithAction, we have started to address this through our Friendly Places initiative, which offers tips on being a more welcoming and supportive faith community and a growing collection of resources. One of these is a guide from LifeLine Church, based on its learning from walking with its own community through the realities of living with mental health issues.
Faith communities are not exempt from having to deal with issues of mental health, but they are also expert at offering love and hope.
This is a version of an article which first appeared in the Church Times on 10 May 2019.