Becca Byass has now provided a copy of her message that she shared on Sunday 5th September 2021. Mental Health is the first topic we are exploring as Inclusive Church.
Before we get our teeth into the main body of what I want to bring for your consideration today, I’d like cover two things – the first is demonic possession and the second is who the heck am I to talk about mental health.
I don’t want to be seen to brush the powers and principalities element of this story under the carpet… I have good friends and had wise and wonderful teachers who have wisdom and knowledge about angels and demons, powers and principalities, miracles and healing. However, it is not my area of expertise and I am relatively happy to live in the grey areas of the unknown.
There are different schools of thoughts around what it might mean; it could mean possessed by a demon….or it may have been one way to talk about mental illness at the time, in a similar way to how we’d say someone was senile when they actually had dementia. We will talk about the impact of stigma and language later on.
So, second part of my introduction, and unlike demonic possession, mental illness is an area I do have experience in.
Firstly, this is personal. I come from a family where mental illness has had a high mortality rate - two women having died by suicide in recent generations. We have had psychosis on both sides of the family and anxiety seems to be a family trait. Like one in four people, I lived through a period of depression that lasted about 18 months. Unlike my relatives, I was able to climb out of the black hole, find help and have been without depression ever since (about 7 years). Mental Illness is part of my lived experience, and it is part of my good news story.
We all have mental health and sometimes we have mental ill health.
I have also been working with people with a range of mental illnesses in my jobs in social care. I’ve supported people living with schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, dementia, depression and Parkinson diseases. I’ve encountered people in the middle of hallucinations, whose speech, appetite, sleep patterns and relationships have been impacted by the health of their brain.
My job in care homes has been to figure out with individual people, how to live their best life, with the abilities and functions they do have. Our job has been to preserve dignity when inhibitions have been lost, to keep ourselves safe, when anger or frustration has caused someone to lash out, to try and understand the needs of people whose language centres have become damaged or muddled.
So, that’s that the introduction bit done, let’s run over some awareness around mental health which in one of the key factors of including people with mental ill health and removing the stigma around it
I threw in a statistic a minute ago, I wonder who can remember it – how many people will live with mental illness in their lifetime? One in four people and one in six will have suicidal thoughts.
Mental illness has the ability to affect how we look after our bodies, our ability to do work, to form and maintain relationships, to find value and worth in our lives, our finances, the way we perceive the world… and, the other way round, our work, relationships, physical health, finances, environment can all affect our mental health. We’re like great big beautiful tapestries – one thing weaves through another to make a gorgeous created whole.
So, when we talk about mental health, its as a good thing – same as ‘health’ or ‘healthy’ is a positive thing. Not only that, if you have mental health diagnosis, it does not mean that you cannot have good wellbeing. the world health organisation defined mental health as
a state of wellbeing in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life. can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to contribute to his or her community."
I’ve already mentioned a range of different mental health disorders or illnesses that I’ve worked with. When it comes to developing awareness and understanding of each one it takes time, curiosity and a willingness to learn. Even with dementia, there are different causes of the syndrome and it affects different people, in different ways, at different speeds.
So, like when new parents bring a baby home for the first time, there’s a whole list of things that they need to do, understand and prepare themselves and their environment, for that one baby. It’s similar with different mental health conditions. Each baby, or mental health condition, has it’s own unique needs and then each person then has their unique needs within that…. the more we understand, the better we are able to support and welcome them.
I’m not going to focus on any particular condition today though, instead, I’m going to focus on three things that helps us mentally prepare to be inclusive.
Our key words for today, if you miss Sesame Street or Playschool as much as I do, start with the letters B, E and D and they are: Boundaries, Empathy and Dignity. (what are they?) What do they spell? BED! (because sleep is a crucial for mental health!)
Boundaries, Empathy and Dignity are central components of how we ensure we include people living with mental ill health.
Our Bible passage starts with Jesus showing clear boundaries!
Cast your mind back to distant time when we got to go on aeroplanes and the safety talk on an aeroplane. What do we need to do with the oxygen masks? Put it on ourselves first. You care for yourself first, or you’re little good to anyone else.
Jesus has taken himself away for some quiet time. He’s left the crowds, he’d hoped to go unnoticed. We see this time and again throughout the gospel accounts of Jesus – he works, he engages and then he leaves those places and goes up a mountain or onto a boat in order to recharge, pray, relax and spend time with his closest support group.
Central to engaging with other people, to making them welcome, to being warm, hospitable, compassionate and generous, whether they have a mental illness or any other need…..is to know what your needs are, to communicate them and make sure you are meeting them. Setting boundaries is about knowing what time, energy and resources you have to give….and not giving more than that – you being resentful, exhausted and wrung out not only impacts your wellbeing but it also compromises your ability to be generous and inclusive – it is very hard to be generous when you are resentful of the time or resources you give because your boundaries have been compromised.
Working out what your boundaries are is about knowing how much sleep you need, what kind of support you need, what food you need. The more you know and understand your needs, and communicate them, the better and more ready you will be to meet the needs of another person….cos you’ve already practiced it on yourself
Similarly, clearly communicating boundaries is about what you say no to and what behaviour you will not accept.
If you’ve ever been on a bus or in a hospital, you may have seen a sign that says certain behaviour will not be tolerated and people demonstrating it will not be allowed to travel or be treated.
Having clear boundaries around appropriate behaviour, how we speak to each other, when we speak, tone of voice, content of emails is the kindest thing we can do for each other and to make the environments we live and work in not only inclusive but also safe and healthy for everyone.
I have had cause, many years ago, to utter the immortal words as I ran across the lounge at work, “nooooo, Cedric, don’t wee on Margaret!!” Even with mental health conditions, it is important to set clear boundaries and maintain them. No one wants to be weed on…. or shouted at or criticised.
We all have off days. We all have days when our emotions or impulses get the better of us, more so if our mental health or wellbeing is poor. However, like when we are physically unwell, the way to communicate our discomfort, is not to throw the symptoms in someone else’s face!
As a community, we create a safe environment for all when we are clear about what behaviour is and isn’t appropriate….we’ve been removing risk of abuse from vulnerable people with our safeguarding training…. To create environments so that everyone can fulfil their potential, we also need to recognise behaviours that hinder people’s flourishing, to know what bullying behaviour is, what harassment looks like.
The more we encourage good boundaries, develop good listening and communication skills and improve the relationships we have together, the healthier and safer our communities will be, particularly for people who are feeling anxious, overwhelmed, low, disorientated anyway.
[as a side note: no one hands a book to a child starting school and says ‘read’, as if having eyes and sight means a child can automatically make sense of the information in front of them. It takes years to learn to read well – reading is more than seeing! The same can be said for good communication and effective listening – to listen (and not just hear) is a skill that needs to be learnt.]
So, B is for boundaries – they are not about creating walls that exclude and push others away, they’re what allows us to be truly generous, inclusive and compassionate.
Find out more about Your needs:
What did Mother Theresa or Audrey Hepburn or Martin Luther King feel about other human beings that Hitler, Pol Pot or Myra Hindley seemed incapable of?
Respect Compassion Kindness Empathy Love
In the reading from Mark’s Gospel, the story follows Jesus’ teaching about clean and unclean and the gentile region Jesus enters, for his little getaway, is considered an unclean area. Yet, Jesus goes into it, crossing political boundaries as he does so. He empathises with a woman, desperate to help her daughter. She, a gentile, with a quick wit and ready grasp on Jesus’ parables, says she’s willing to take even the crumbs of time from this famous Jewish rabbi. He engages with her with respect, as he does the Samaritan woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, the unclean child who died and was brought back to life, Zacchaeus in his shame, the man who had been possessed by Legion and had been running naked through the community, the woman who bathed his feet with her tears and perfume.
Over and over again, Jesus sees the individual before him. He treats not only their physical ill health but he connects with them in their pain and hurt and fear. One of the greatest gifts of the incarnation in Christ is the years of stories as he journeyed around different places (what we know as Palestine, Lebanon (in today’s story), Israel) is seeing this human interaction. Seeing Jesus, God’s, ability to empathises with our emotions and to engage with us right where we are.
Empathy is the ability to say ‘me too’ to someone’s pain… or ‘I’ve been there’ or ‘I understand how much that hurts’. It’s the pause, sometimes an indefinitely pause, before we try and find solutions or answers or silver lining…. Where we sit, like Job’s friends and we weep and mourn in solidarity with what they’re feeling.
To explore this more, watch Brene Brown talk about empathy:
If we are going to be inclusive, we need to find time and space to listen and hear people’s story … and those stories will come when people feel safe and welcome to share them….that means creating that healthy environment where it is safe to come and be who you are, setting those boundaries and standards of behaviour so that bullying, harassment or judgment have no place.
And when we do that, when we remove the stigma and judgement and condemnation around mental illness…. When we talk openly about our own struggles, others feel free to say ‘I’m struggling’ or ‘I’m living with X’…. that’s when we create opportunities emerge and we earn the right to offer support or intervention, to signpost people to help…
….when we have truly allowed that pause for empathy, that’s where the connection and relationship can really begin…. Which is, after all, the whole point of inclusion – decent, healthy, human relationship, that Jesus modelled so well!
So E is for empathy, the vulnerable willingness to sit with someone in their pain or fear or suffering and emotionally engage with it, without trying to fix it.
This brings us to our final letter – D is for Dignity.
Mental illness continues to be stigmatised within our society. People who are living with a diagnosis often report that they are treated differently, though it is illegal to do so. That same stigma is what prevents people from talking about their mental illness in the first place (it is still the police that arrive when someone calls 999 for a mental health crisis and people still use the term ‘committed’ suicide, though it stopped being illegal in the 1960s – we don’t commit a heart attack!).
We haven’t helped, in Church, when we have leapt to conclusion around mental illness and labelled it demonic, a curse or the produce of ‘sin’, creating a shame connected to faith that should be the source of wholeness and healing and hope.
Dignity isn’t something we bestow on someone. It is what they already possess.
I used to think, as the minister’s wife or daughter….as a Cliff College student…that I should always be happy, peaceful, calm, confident and kind … I would feel so ashamed when I felt angry over frivolous things (too often who was loading the dishwasher). That in itself was an element of what led me to my time in the dark, airless hole of depression. I was in a cycle of shame around my emotions and subsequent depression that meant I hid it. Years after, people who knew me at the time were surprised I’d been so depressed because I learnt to mask it so well…a bright red lipstick is a magical thing.
I felt like a warm, zombie…I had two beautiful little girls and I couldn’t feel the joy of it. I felt nothing about Christmas (and I LOVE Christmas)…. I got to the point where I really didn’t think I had anything to give anyone… and my cycle of thoughts swirled closer and closer to opting out completely.
I was stood outside on a grey, autumn evening, smoking a cigarette which was the only reason I’d got out of bed that week, and I looked down at a dry, brown leaf. A few weeks before I’d managed to weep my way through reading the Shack and the relationship between Papa, Jesus and Sarayu had left an impression. As I looked at the leaf, and saw its inevitable decay, left to rot and be reabsorbed back into the life cycle, i appreciated how precious that leaf was, despite its shrivelled uselessness and then I heard the voice of God, three voices in unison, that said “you are of us”, you are of us, you are of us.” In that moment, my sense of dignity was restored. I mattered. Everyone mattered. Everyone has that same value and worth for no other reason than God made them. That’s Dignity – inherent worth and value.
While Dignity isn’t something we give, it is something we preserve and remind people they have. We do that when we create healthy environments, caring for ourselves, establishing boundaries and safe spaces…we do that when we make space and take time to listen to people’s stories and pain and when we let go of our judgement and expand our knowledge and understanding. We do it when we sense someone is struggling…and recommend a book like The Shack. We do it when we pause before we do something for someone, when they’re trying so hard to do it for themselves. (that’s always been one of my biggest struggles, as a parent or supporting people with physical disability or mental illness – to wait and watch while another person struggles).
Jesus didn’t just physically heal people. He restored them into relationship. The man possessed by Legion, was encouraged to stay with his community, healthy, rather than give everything up to follow Jesus, to not leave as the man who used to run around naked. The woman who had been bleeding, was publically touched and ‘cleansed’. The parents of the child who had died but was brought back to life, however, were told to keep it secret…so that that child wouldn’t be seen as unclean by the local community and could grow up and have a ‘normal life’.
Each time Jesus treats people individually, his response isn’t generic, it’s specific to the situation and the person.
So, boundaries, empathy and dignity….BED because decent sleep can move our mental health more places on the scale than prescription drugs. Three things we need to remember when seeking to include people living with mental ill health, which will be a quarter of us, already here, during our lifetime.
We are facing a period of time when everyone is feeling weary, unsettled and cautious. People have been isolated, bereaved, they have lost their jobs or risk losing them in the future as the economy shifts around all the changes. We don’t need prophets to tell us, if there was a mental health crisis before the pandemic, there is definitely one now.
Mental health and wellbeing are things we can promote within our church, and can result in positive action. Life in all its fullness is the foundation and purpose of the gospel message - Jesus came that we might have life and have it abundantly and when we paint a delicious, hopeful picture of what a deep, rich, full, meaningful life looks like, by the way we live and work, together, we can offer a beacon into the very darkest of places.
What can I do now?
Watch this video introducing the mental health manifesto.
Watch and share this video on 7 top tips for mental health
Discuss how you might implement the Mental Health Manifesto in your church
Plan a series to promote Wellbeing with ‘Finding our Way’ 9-week study guide
Pray about and discern for a Wellbeing Champion in every church. to promote inclusion and wellbeing in your church and be a mental health first aider.
Learn more about Mental Health conditions here.
Check in with yourself – how is your wellbeing today?