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Mental Health
4 min read

We need to weep over the wreckage of mental illness

While its now OK to talk about mental illnesses, we need to weep over the harm caused and how we’ve tried to treat them, writes Rachael Newham.
A grey and white wall graffited with a tag a image of a person crumpled and crying.

Today, February 1st, is Time to Talk Day. It's part of a long-running campaign encouraging people to have open and honest conversations about mental health. It's aim is to break down the barriers of stigma and misunderstanding. It has been a staggering success - what was a fringe issue talked by those only affected by mental illness a decade ago is now part of common parlance. Mental health training is widely available, and the charity’s work has been seen to have a significant positive impact on the mental health conversation 

However, as our familiarity with the language of mental health has grown so too has the way we use it. People might talk about having PTSD after a bad date, or their friend being ‘so OCD’ about the way they organise. Unwittingly, as psychotherapist and author Julia Samuels points out, “[we have] awareness without real understanding.” 

However, awareness without understanding means we actually don’t reach those most impacted by mental illness. We know about mental health in the way we know about our physical health - but we are no more aware about the serious, sometimes lifelong mental illnesses which rob people of hope, joy and vitality - sometimes leaving them with lifelong disability.  

If you ask most people about mental illness they may tell you about depression and anxiety; the two most common mental illnesses which have become the acceptable face of mental illness. It’s reflected in the way funding is channeled to interventions that get people with mental illnesses back to work, or to NHS ‘Talking Therapies’ which offers short term psychological therapies (both of which are important initiatives) but have cut the number of inpatient beds from over 50,000 in 2001 to under 25,000 in 2022[3] which means those at the more severe end of the spectrum of mental health to mental illness are left to travel 300 miles for the care they need. 

We have to survey the wreckage that severe and enduring mental illness causes, before we can begin to rebuild a society that is kinder - without prejudice or stigma. 

Whilst it’s right that we have raised awareness about the most common conditions, we can’t ignore the illnesses which are termed ‘severe and enduring mental illnesses’ which include those such as bipolar disorder, major depression, schizophrenia and complex post-traumatic stress disorder.  

For people living with these conditions, the general mental health advice that we give; for example getting enough sleep and time outdoors may not be enough to keep the symptoms at bay. Just as general physical health advice like getting your five a day will not cure or prevent all severe physical illnesses. Medication, hospitalisation, and at times even restrictions of freedom like being detained under the mental health act might be necessary to save lives.  

These are stories that we need to hear. The debilitating side effects of life saving medications that can raise blood pressure, cause speech impediments. The injustices to confront (such as the fact that black people are five times more likely to be detained under the mental health act than their white counterparts) and the adjustments to life that those with disabilities are required to make to their lives.  

We have to survey the wreckage that severe and enduring mental illness causes, before we can begin to rebuild a society that is kinder - without prejudice or stigma. We have to listen to the perhaps devastating, perhaps uncomfortable stories of those who live with severe and enduring mental illness. The mental health npatient units miles from home, the lack of freedom, the searing - unending grief.  

Weep for the lives lost, the crumbling systems, the harm caused both by mental illness and the way we’ve tried to treat them. 

By hearing these stories, we are accepting them as a part of reality. For those of us in churches it might be that the healing didn’t come in the way we expected, it might be also be all of us accepting that the systems designed to care for those with mental illness have in fact, caused more harm. It’s seeing the injustices and understanding that we, our systems and professionals need to change our attitudes.  

Understanding and acceptance of the injustice are the way forward- that’s the only way change can come.  

It might look like standing in the rubble, it might feel too huge and all but hopeless.  

And yet in scripture and in life that is so often the only way we can begin to rebuild. 

In the book of Nehemiah, one of the Old Testament prophets who had lived in exile far away from home for his whole life, we see that upon hearing about the state of the walls of Jerusalem, before he did any of the things we expect heroes and innovators to do- he wept. In fact, it’s estimated that for four months he wept over the state of the place that had once been the envy of the ancient world.  

Perhaps we too need hear the stories and then weep. 

Weep for the lives lost, the crumbling systems, the harm caused both by mental illness and the way we’ve tried to treat them and then slowly, we can begin the work of rebuilding.  

It isn’t a work that can be done alone by a single agency much less a single person - it requires society to hear stories of the more than just ‘palatable’ mental illnesses with neat and tidy endings to the messy and sometimes traumatic stories that are there if we just care to listen to them. It might be reflected in the petitions we sign, the way we vote, the stories we choose to read. 

So ,this Time to Talk Day - I’m saying let’s continue the amazing work of talking about mental health - we need to keep talking about anxiety and depression. But let us also make conversations wider, so that they encompass the whole continuum of mental health and illness. 

 We’ve seen the difference Time to Talk can make - now it’s time to talk about severe and enduring mental illnesses, too. 

  

Article
Belief
5 min read

Dawkins is wrong about the nature of belief

You can’t rejoice in its collapse and like its cultural inheritance too.

Yaroslav is assistant priest at Holy Trinity, Sloane Square, London.

A man sits and speaks, against a background of a bookcase.
Dawkins on LBC.

Richard Dawkins sat in a tree,  

Sawing every branch he could see,  

As he sawed through the branch on which he sat,  

He raged, "It's not fair that I should go splat!" 

I am a recovering New Atheist. I was such a New Atheist that I have a claim to fame: I have given what-for to Anne Widdecombe and the Archbishop Emeritus of Abuja. I was there, as a spotty, greasy haired, angry teenager when Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry socked-it-to the Roman Catholics at an Intelligence Squared debate. The motion was ‘The Catholic Church is a Force for Good in the World’. The question I asked was so poorly formed that the moderator deemed it a comment.  

I was a callow youth. Forgive me.  

I am now not quite so young and not quite so spotty. Now that I am a man, I have put away childish things. I have abandoned atheism and embraced faith in Jesus Christ. I am a priest in the Church of England, fully in favour of the Ten Commandments and the moral framework of the Church. Clearly, I’ve been on a journey.  

So, it seems, has Professor Richard Dawkins.  

The author of The God Delusion, and scourge of many public Christian thinkers and apologists, has recently made some turbulent waves. Having surfed the tides of New Atheism, he now seems to be swimming against the current. He is a proud ‘cultural Christian’. In an interview on LBC he forcefully defended the Christian inheritance of this country: 

“I do think that we are culturally a Christian country…I call myself a ‘cultural Christian’… I love hymns and Christmas carols…I feel at home in the Christian ethos… I find that I like to live in a culturally Christian country…” 

Professor Dawkins went on to clarify (several times!) that he doesn’t believe a single word of Christian doctrine or the Bible. He was cheered by the continued decline in the numbers of believing Christians in this country. This wasn’t his Christianity. He argued that the distinction between a ‘believing Christian’ and a ‘cultural Christian’ is such that one can be both a very firm atheist and a ‘cultural Christian’. He doesn’t want people believing the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection of Jesus, but he does want us to keep our Cathedrals and beautiful parish churches. At first reading this could be seen as positive - an unlikely defender of the Christian faith coming to the rescue of a beleaguered Church.  

It isn’t. 

What the interview demonstrated was that Professor Dawkins doesn’t really understand the nature of belief or the nature of culture. If he did, he would understand a basic principle: culture doesn’t just magically appear and grow. Culture is formed and maintained from fundamental beliefs.  

You can’t have the fruits without the roots. 

Professor Dawkins likes church music. He likes the architecture of grand Cathedrals. He likes living in a society with a Western liberal ethic. All three of these fruits have grown from roots of the Christian tradition, and not just any Christian tradition. They have grown out of the BELIEVING Christian tradition.  

Why on earth would people spend inordinate amounts of time and money building Cathedrals if they didn’t actually believe the worship of God was important? Why would musicians pour out the best of their creativity into sacred music if not for a love of Jesus? Why would they structure our society in a way that sees the care of the poor and oppressed as a fundamental necessity if they don’t take the Sermon on the Mount seriously? 

People don’t die because they quite like a soft cultural inheritance - they die because they believe! 

Professor Dawkins finds himself living in a world that has been so shaped and saturated by Christianity that even our secularism has been called ‘Christian’. He lives in a Christian house. He likes it. Now he thinks he can have it and keep it while seeking to undermine and destroy the very beliefs that are the foundation, the stones, the mortar. 

He can’t.  

You don’t get to demand that everyone build their house on sand, and then complain that it is collapsing…and he does worry that it is collapsing. Predictably, he opened the interview by discussing his qualms about Islam and how he wouldn’t want this country to change from being ‘culturally Christian’ to ‘culturally Muslim’: “Insofar as Christianity can be seen as a bulwark against Islam I think it’s a very good thing.” I find this invocation of my faith offensive - not just because I believe my faith is ‘the truth’ (not just a club for angry atheists to bash Muslims with), but because it is so stupid! 

I use the word advisedly.  

It is a comment from a man who can’t seem to understand cause-and-effect. People who don’t believe strongly in something don’t fight for it. Rejoicing in the collapse of Christian belief while expecting it to protect you from other religions is about as obtuse as an individual can get. The Church grew, and spread, and produced the hymns and cathedrals and ethics that Professor Dawkins loves so much, because of people’s firm belief in Jesus Christ as our Risen Saviour. People died to spread this faith - THIS CULTURE! As Tertullian said: “…the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.” People don’t die because they quite like a soft cultural inheritance - they die because they believe! 

It was this realisation that led me to where I am now. I found that everything I cared about flowed from the Christian faith I rejected, so I rejected it no more. I wanted to continue enjoying the ‘fruits’ of my ‘cultural Christianity’, so I stopped hacking away at the ‘roots’ of ‘believing Christianity’. Professor Dawkins is seemingly wilfully blind to this fact: ‘believing Christian’s make it possible to have ‘cultural Christians’. Take away the belief and just watch what happens to the culture. 

“I don’t was to be misunderstood. I do think it’s nonsense.” 

As a believing Christian I respond: can we please have our culture back, then?