Book Review

Mental Health, The Inclusive Church Resource, 

by Jean Vanier & John Swinton

A Review

 

This is a short, punchy and memorable introduction to mental health issues for Christian communities. The core of it consists of four personal stories which deal with mental health and church and faith; and a series of reflections written by Jean Vanier of L’Arche Community and John Swinton, theologian and mental health specialist. The personal stories are especially powerful. One is by a male, three by females; three by those with a bipolar disorder diagnosis; and one’s by a priest, a chaplain and an ordinand. So these are the stories of those at the heart of the Church’s life.

Two instructive themes run through them. The first is the link that each makes between struggling with mental health and personal and spiritual development. “There is a fine line” writes one “between mystical and psychotic experiences.” Another writes of depression helping on a journey away from a more judgemental notion of deity. “God for me now is the compassionate non-judgmental source of all being.” The second theme is the ambivalent response of faith communities, from unconditional acceptance and the benefit in particular of Celtic-style and healing services, through to avoidance and outright hostility, including by the church hierarchy. The priest’s story is the most shocking in this regard. “In a naïve way I believed the church would be open to all. However, my experience makes me feel that I am on the outside of the institution and an embarrassment”. 

Vanier and Swinton’s theological exposition is underpinned with reference to the ministry of Jesus and his healings, drawing a crucial distinction between healing and curing. The latter seen as the focus of mental healthcare professionals and the former, being “more soulful”, has to do with “finding wholeness, inner beauty, unity and peace” and is, they argue, intrinsic to the ministry of the Church. They highlight the significance of experiencing a strong sense of belonging through compassion and love. In relation to belonging, they contend that Church communities need to reclaim their own specialism which is a true community care, unburdened by encroaching bureaucracy. They develop a strong theme of the role of accompanying, whether that’s listening and understanding, affirming spirituality or simply what they call “meeting”, the profound encounter where two people are present to each other with both taking on the roles of learner and teacher. I found the fourth chapter the most powerful, where they address stigma in mental health in relation to “giving people back their names” describing the origin of the word stigma and discussing how “sticky” wrong labelling is. The Church has the task, “to give people back their names.” Though Part Three points to good sources of training and further reading. It was also published a little too early to include Katherine Welby’s excellent Mental Health Access Pack, designed for Churches (www.mentalhealthaccesspack.org). 

It is too a book of two halves – personal stories and theological reflection. The reader is left to piece the two together. The stories themselves all have a similar  provenance and the only mention of the link between mental health and poverty is made fleetingly in the Introduction. There are startling statistics for that link, in particular amongst those in prison. This is surely a key area for Christian engagement as we follow in the footsteps of Jesus. 

Eva McIntyre, herself a priest, explains in the Introduction that one in four of us in our lifetime will be treated by the GP in regard to our mental health. She bravely describes herself as being part of the one, as would I. In regard to the Church’s responses she concludes that “there is much to celebrate, but there is also much to be done.” This book will contribute greatly to this. 

Nick Jones

 

This article first appeared in Progressive Voices, 16, December 2015, and is reproduced with permission.

Progressive Voices in the magazine of the Progressive Christianity Network www.pcnbritian.org.uk

 


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