Welcoming people with mental ill-health in church

By Ben Bano, Director of Welcome Me As I Am 

Having had a career in mental health services, as well as being active in my own parish, I began to realise a growing problem when someone close to me developed a serious mental illness. I wanted to be able to remember him in the prayers of intercession at Mass as well as having Mass offered for him. Many Mass intentions were offered for those with a physical illness such as cancer, but it was only with the encouragement of our priest that I felt confident enough to mention that he was suffering from a serious mental illness.

There is still a lot of stigma associated with mental illness, but I was fortunate that other parishioners were able to share some of the concerns they had over mental health with me. I took part in the Mental Health Reference Group of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, and it was through this involvement that I started Welcome Me as I Am – a charity with the specific purpose of promoting awareness of mental health issues in the Church. In 2011 an online toolkit was launched to promote discussion of mental health issues in parishes and deaneries. A series of awareness raising workshops, funded by MIND and Faith Action, has been organised in the Archdiocese of Westminster.

While much progress has been made in recent years, people with conditions such as depression may still feel excluded or even unwelcome. Yet, a quarter of us are likely to seek help for mental health problems at some point in our lives.  We remember the courage with which people face physical conditions, but how often do we acknowledge the courage of those who face an equally debilitating condition such as manic-depressive illness?

Soon after Welcome Me As I Am was formed, I became aware of another issue which needed addressing more openly  – that of people whose lives have been touched by dementia. Thanks to the interest shown by Caritas Social Action Network (CSAN) in this issue, it was possible to make the film ‘It’s still ME Lord’. We have now launched a revised online toolkit for parishes and deaneries as well as for those whose lives have been affected by dementia. The focus of the toolkit is on personhood – seeing the person as someone with their unique qualities – rather than the dementia. It has been very helpful to have financial support from the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales in taking this project forward.

It has been a privilege to be able to work with parishes and deaneries on these issues through the workshops I have facilitated in the last few years. I have been humbled by the many stories of love, compassion, courage, and above all hope, which chime with the Christian message of the Resurrection. We have been able to reflect with carers on how love and compassion helps us to nurture and appreciate the God-given qualities of our loved ones. We have also reflected on the role of many people connected with parish groups, who need to have an inclusive attitude to a problem that is so often hidden and difficult to discuss.

Our current programme includes a series of workshops on mental health in partnership with MIND and Caritas Westminster, as well as a number of sessions on dementia such as ‘Our Church as a Dementia Friendly Church’. One recent session in Salford attracted more than 50 people who all became ‘dementia friends’. We also provide awareness training on the prominent issue of the Mental Capacity Act and the Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards, since these legal provisions are important to understand for those involved in pastoral work with people who have a mental illness or dementia.

Let us hope that we can continue to explore these issues in an open and constructive way, and that our parishes can always be a place of welcome.

For more information on our activities, or if you would like a workshop in your parish or deanery, visit www.welcomemeasiam.org.uk. You can find the new CSAN dementia toolkit here. More information about workshops focusing on mental health issues in the Archdiocese of Westminster is available at www.caritas-westminster.org.uk.