Dr. Katharina Manassis discusses how a faith community and pastoral care can support those living with mental health challenges.
This is part of a special series of blog posts marking Mental Health Awareness Week, May 2-8, 2020.
One of the few positives of the recent pandemic has been its effect on our perception of mental health issues. Anxiety is considered normal, as unpredictable circumstances make most people anxious. Those of us who struggle with depression are reassured that it is “just COVID fatigue.” As someone affected by both, I am encouraged that the stigma previously associated with mental health conditions seems to be waning.
Yet normalizing mental health problems doesn’t make them disappear. Moreover, people who seek urgent care for them are only the tip of a very large iceberg. Most of us struggle along in that bigger group at the bottom affected by mild to moderate symptoms. We get a bit of telephone therapy here, perhaps a bit of medication from the family doctor there. We’re not impaired enough to make it to the top of any specialist’s waitlist.
Yet we suffer, and we may wonder what difference our faith and our faith community can make in that suffering. I will summarize a few of my relevant ideas and experiences.
Faith helps me in that I take comfort in certain faith-related ideas and spiritual practices. Some of the ideas are biblical. One of my favorites is a passage in Matthew where Jesus describes God caring enough to feed the birds even though they can’t plant and reap and farm, and caring for us even more. It’s a great antidote to worry. Beyond the Bible, there is the faith-based poem, “Footprints” which describes how, even when we feel distant from God, God is carrying us. There is also the idea that rather than trying to predict what will come, we can trust that with God’s help we will handle what will come, whatever the outcome. In these thoughts, faith provides hope, even in very hard, unpredictable times.
Spiritual practices which strengthen one’s connections with God and with other people can also help sustain mental well-being. Personally, I practice prayer, meditation—which some have called silent prayer—labyrinth walking, and participation in Bible- and book-studies in our congregation. It’s not always easy to include such practices daily, but they do lift my mood whenever I engage in them.
My introduction to a community of faith didn’t come until middle age, after a traumatic bereavement. The minister on call to the local funeral home listened intently to my distraught, guilt-ridden tale of loss and validated my experience. I was reassured that my actions had been reasonable and that my emotional response was not unique. He remained available for further conversations and emails in the following months, and I eventually became a member of his church. I came to understand that in some circumstances compassionate pastoral care is even more helpful than counseling by a mental health professional, because rather than singling out the person as having a psychological problem, it recognizes suffering as part of the human experience.
Within my faith community, I found supportive friends, inspiring role models, and people who were just good fun. Coffee time, whether in person or over Zoom, is a valuable mental wellness activity for many of us. Knowing there are like-minded people struggling with similar challenges can make a huge difference in well-being, especially when we are feeling alone.
Faith communities also recognize the importance of family to one’s emotional state, correcting some of the individualistic bias common in our society. For example, I worried initially about how my autistic son would fit in at church. I had struggled for years to find a suitable program for him at school. By contrast, he was immediately welcomed at Sunday School: included in activities he enjoyed and could handle, and given the space to calm himself when he needed it. As he grew older, he became an active participant in Bible studies, where his unique take on scripture was always valued. As a young adult struggling to find work, networking at church helped him identify job opportunities. Moreover, I connected with several church families whose young adults have developmental disabilities, and we meet periodically for mutual support. Including people of all abilities and their families is clearly one of the greatest strengths of faith communities. This inclusion enriches both their lives and the life of the community.
In these many ways, faith and faith communities can complement the professional care needed by those of us with mental health challenges, and improve mental well-being for all.
—Dr. Katharina Manassis, M.D., FRCP(C), is a member of St. Mark’s United Church, Scarborough. She is a retired Child Psychiatrist, Professor Emerita at the University of Toronto, and author of seven mental health-related books including, her most recent, Launching Your Autistic Youth to Successful Adulthood.
For Mental Health Awareness Week, May 2-8, 2021 there will be a special series of live conversations with chaplains, ministry personnel, and Elders on our Facebook page, Monday-Friday at 12:00 p.m. EDT.
The views contained within these blogs are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of The United Church of Canada.