Church magazine, August 2018
Several people with mental health issues have come my way recently. It’s quite clear that support for psychiatric patients in this country is woeful. Men suffer more than women, partly because it’s more socially acceptable for women to talk about this.
I was at a party recently during the World Cup when a group of men came in and immediately gathered round the TV, exchanging football banter. I was watching from the side. This meant that they didn’t have to make any effort at conversation. It’s what men do—or don’t do. We’re tender creatures under all the bravado, and have not been brought up to talk about personal issues. Sport talk is displacement activity. We suffer for it.
Staffordshire has the highest rate of young suicides in the country. You’ll know from local news how often the trains are disrupted, or the A38 is blocked, by suicides from overbridges. And they are nearly all young men.
Sunday morning recently at St Paul’s saw a psychotic man demanding help. He was talking non-stop about fighting Satan and listening to and talking to Princess Diana. We rang the police who said they didn’t want to know—we said they should want to know. We rang the ambulance service who after some reluctance eventually turned up, and so, interestingly, did the police. The man was taken to hospital.
When I was a medical student, there were asylums for the psychiatrically incapacitated. Then they were closed, replaced by “care in the community”. This might work for those who are reasonably well adjusted. It doesn’t work for people with severe neuroses and psychoses. If you wonder what these words mean, neurosis in simple terms is exaggerated worrying; psychosis is losing touch with reality. It has been said that neurotics build castles in the air, psychotics live in them, and psychiatrists take the rent.
Asylums were not there to protect society from crazies; they were there to protect ill people from society. We need asylums and better community support. Pressure needs to be brought to bear on local and national representatives and on government. What are you going to do about it?
Mental health issues are common. I make no secret of the fact that I have been on happy pills (SSRIs in my case) for over a decade, and probably should have been before that. When I try reducing the dose or stopping them, I become paranoid. I have a tendency to that anyway, but it’s kept in check by sertraline or similar drugs. I see no reason to hide this. I’m not in the least ashamed of it. There’s obviously something about the production of brain chemicals in me that isn’t ideal. If someone’s insulin production from the pancreas is awry, allowances are made and people bend over backwards to accommodate them. If someone’s brain chemical production is awry, they may well feel ashamed and try to hide it. This is crazy.
Life is complicated. I’m pretty sure our brains weren’t “designed” to cope with the complexities we’ve invented over the last 100 years. We need to simplify our lives. I keep telling you that we are apes. Perhaps we can go back to picking fleas off each other as we sit companionably basking in the sunshine.
Which takes me to a major rant. It’s too hot. I hate this weather. Some of you may be praying for more of it. I’m praying for cold and some rain. I suppose it’s a bit like an arm-wrestling competition. Who’ll win? This leads me to wonder if praying to a sky-pixie is itself a psychosis. I wouldn’t be the first.
The world is in a mess—not just mental health services. We’ve heard some Old Testament prophets recently who wrote at a time when people had become greedy and had stopped following values of decency. The wealthy elite had become rich at the expense of others. Farmers who once served local communities had been forced to farm what was best for foreign trade. And people say Scripture is irrelevant to modern life.
The talk at schools recently has been about seniors moving on, and welcoming new pupils in September. Lots of emotions in the air: excitement, apprehension, finding new friends, losing old ones. Likely as not, students move from being a big fish in a small pond to being a small fish in a bigger pond. If this hasn’t happened to them before, it will certainly happen again, because that’s life, and it happens again and again.
We’ve a choice in dealing with this: we can jump into the pool, go with the flow, and take what comes, or else we can retreat into a self-contained box and do the equivalent of living in dark room, never venturing out.
Jesus’ most often heard advice was ‘don’t be afraid’ (or words to that effect), and on several occasions he advised his disciples when out fishing to put out into the deep for the best catch. There’s good advice. Jump in and see what comes. Grab life by the little round things. Young people are usually much better at this than so-called grown-ups.
Here’s some Stanley advice: give to the world what only you can give—you, with your combination of gifts and talents and enthusiasms. Your vocation is, in the words of Frederick Buechner, ‘where your greatest joy meets the world deepest need.’ So go for it, boys and girls. Take risks, jump in.
Taking responsibility and growing up
In all this, there’s more than a whiff of the need for each one of us to take responsibility for ourselves. To grow up, in fact. This process is not helped by the indulgent over-cosseting that people and organisations provide for those who should learn to stand on their own feet. The NHS is culpable IMHO in that it leads people to think that it will pick up the pieces for their irresponsible choices.
So here’s a message to all of us, myself included, who are responsible for the nurturing of young people: we’re doing them no favours by mollycoddling them. We do them no favours if we confuse love with sentimentality.
C S Lewis said (something like) ‘God wants us to get out of the nursery and grow up’, a message that reflects the teachings of Jesus whose healings always included the afflicted coming to terms with the reality of their situation. The laws of nature (‘God made everything, and it was very good’) are inexorable and totally unsentimental. And human behaviour, which could be merciful, often isn’t. We need to deal with the world as it is, not the world as we wish it to be. Then our own healing can begin. Stop moaning.
You’re no good to anyone else if you’re suffering yourself. Which brings me back to where I started. Take care of your own health; seek help when necessary.