World Mental Health Day - Baptist Times Feature

The church has a mixed record in dealing with mental health issues, but Premier Mind and Soul is an non-demoninational organisation committed to exploring Christianity and mental health. Shaun Lambert interviews its founding directors.

One of the most important conversations of the age is that between theology and psychology, the church and mental health.

But it's a conversation in a stage of major flux. Many Christian mental health professionals as well as church leaders are recognising that suspicion, conflict and separation should not be the dominant paradigm of engagement.

They are also aware that we need to address the suspicion of some mental health professionals towards Christianity. Dialogue is now part of the mix, especially as many mental health professionals are Christians.

These professionals, church leaders and ordinary Christians, need help to decide which elements of secular mental health practice need filtering, as well as what unhelpful elements of church practice need filtering. They also need to be informed about where integration is possible and necessary, and how to examine the different perspectives on mental health issues.

Premier Mind and Soul is centrally placed to provide these resources and act as dialogue partners.
I have been talking to two of the founding directors, the Revd Will Van der Hart, vicar of St Peter's in West Harrow, and Rob Waller, a consultant psychiatrist with the NHS who lives in Edinburgh about what personally took them into this conversation between the church and mental health; what led them to set up Mind and Soul; their new book The Worry Book and what they see as the future of Mind and Soul.

The church has an integral part to play in helping the vulnerable and promoting mental wellbeing - but it has a mixed track record, both stigmatising those with mental illness, and failing to be inclusive. Will and Rob are passionate about addressing these fault lines.

Will has a doctor's surgery attached to the church as one expression of integrating these two worlds, and Rob is working to help the NHS take the spiritual dimension of life seriously.

The impact of 7/7 - and the launch of Mind and Soul

Mind and Soul can best be understood by describing what it does and how it began life.

Rob Waller was already blogging online about mental health issues. The big turning point for Will was his involvement in the London 7/7 bombings in 2005 which happened on his doorstep. Although he won a commendation for the help he offered the emergency services and police he suffered a severe form of post-traumatic anxiety, as did other priests who helped.

What shocked him was that it was mainly his non-Christian friends who were supportive. They seemed to know practically what help to offer. Some Christian leaders did not show the same empathy and psychological attunement.

After a quick recovery he met up again with Rob at a rowing reunion and spoke to him about his frustration with the reaction from the church.

'Other Christians didn't understand what was actually happening, and that was very painful,' he explains.
'I felt so angry that I was misunderstood and unsupported by the church. I felt I had to defend myself at a time of need from the church.'

Rob also had frustrations as a psychiatrist in that a patient's faith wasn't always seen as beneficial but sometimes something to be suspicious of.

They decided to join forces. Will was passionate about helping the church become more empathic to those with mental health issues as well as more mental health friendly, whilst Rob wanted to see the church support its mental health workers and help the NHS and other providers see the benefits of Christian spirituality and psychological wisdom.

Mind and Soul began as a website they started together. The passion and compassion that drives them both can be seen in the website as a provider of resources.

The website started in 2006 and in its first year received over 45,000 hits in 23 countries. In 2007 they received a national Christian website award, and in 2008 Premier media group got involved  which gave them a stronger platform and a 24 hour telephone helpline.

The Worry Book

One of their latest developments is The Worry Book. This is the best book I have personally read on this subject. It is a compassionate book as well as being practical and well-researched, drawing on the best of Christian theology and psychological insight.

It is also a very personal book in the stories that are shared, like Will's response to the London bombings. This transparency and vulnerability is hugely important in helping other Christians acknowledge their mental health struggles and go for help.

It is also a book that is clearly written, easy to read and not in technical language. It will help those suffering from worry, but also help non-worriers understand a topic that perhaps they can be dismissive of, because they have not experienced it personally.

The book filters out unhelpful Christian teaching on worry - as when people are told they are anxious because they don't have enough faith. The book also affirms that the resources of being a Christian are an ally in wrestling with worry.

Rob is keen to stress the importance of thinking about how to read the book.

'Read with a pen in your hand! Maybe read it with somebody else. And then read the book slowly, take your time. It's not meant to be a quick read but something to be chewed over. Although I think it is an easy read.'

'The key thing for me,' adds Will, 'is that we wrote a book that has a lasting beneficial effect on people's mental health. As well as bringing in Cognitive-Behavioural exercises which are safe in a self-help setting we were keen to bring in some of the benefits of contemplative work.'

Mental health issues on the agenda of every church

This creative integration and thinking is evident in their plans for the future of Premier Mind and Soul.
'We want to get mental health issues on the agenda of every church, and help them to be mental-health friendly. And that means trying to influence church leaders,' says Will.

Rob adds, 'We are going to continue to put on some big-splash conferences. In the past we have had up to a 1000 people at our conferences. We want to attract the attention of the Christian world and put this topic centre-stage.'

Other new developments include working with mission organisations to look at how workers and missionaries are supported. With the Olympics in mind they want to focus on what it means to be mentally fit.

They are developing another book which looks at the eight things you need for a healthy Christian mind. They are providing seminar speakers at key Christian festivals as well as looking to develop their network of people involved with Mind and Soul.

The website will continue to grow with interactive forums and a directory of mental health ministries across the country.

With Buddhism now being rebranded as an ancient and wise psychology and increasingly influencing the world of counselling and psychotherapy Premier Mind and Soul is taking a lead on giving Christians credibility within the world of mental health.

They are also helping people at a strategic level, access the wisdom of Christian contemplative and psychological traditions.

By actively being involved in the key elements of engagement with psychology which include dialogue, filtering, integration and the consideration of other perspectives - Premier Mind and Soul is enabling Christianity in the UK and mental health to enter a new and fruitful phase.

The website for the book is www.mindandsoul.info/worry

The Revd Shaun Lambert is a Baptist minister based in Stanmore, North West London. He is part of the New Wine leader's network, and Premier Mind and Soul network. For the last ten years he has studied integrative and relational counselling at Roehampton University and has written regularly for The Baptist Times

Shaun Lambert, 10/10/2012