Every year during October, Mental Health Month is held. It is based around World Mental Health Day, which was first celebrated in 1992, as an initiative of the World Federation for Mental Health, a global mental health organization with members and contacts in more than 150 countries. World Mental Health Day falls on 10 October every year and is now promoted internationally by the World Health Organisation.
The day, and the month, offers a way of raising awareness of mental health issues around the world through government health departments and civil society organizations across the globe. The WHO says that “World Mental Health Day provides an opportunity for all stakeholders working on mental health issues to talk about their work, and what more needs to be done to make mental health care a reality for people worldwide.”
This year, the theme for World Mental Health Day is Making Mental Health & Well-Being for All a Global Priority. The hope is that focussing attention on the mental health of people will result in a better general awareness in society as well as improvements in services offered. 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, it was estimated that one in eight people globally were living with a mental disorder. So this is a much-needed focus on a long-established matter. See https://www.who.int/news-room/feature-stories/mental-well-being-resources-for-the-public
Certainly, the years of the pandemic have exacerbated short- and long-term stresses, undermining the mental health of millions. As mental health services were disrupted by restrictions and lockdowns, so the treatment gap for mental health conditions has widened. The need for ongoing attention to providing good mental health support is even more evident.
In NSW, people are being encouraged to Tune In this mental health month, with resources providing Tips to Tune In (practise self-compassion, take time to rest, notice your boundaries, connect with friends) as well as tips for a less-stressed workplace and colourful posts for social media, to spread awareness of the month. See https://mentalhealthmonth.wayahead.org.au/downloadable-resources/
In the ACT this year, the theme for the month is as simple as A—B—C: namely, Awareness—Belonging—Connection. Awareness is about understanding how to maintain and boost our mental wellbeing, realising when we need to reach out for help, and knowing where to get it. Belonging is about looking out for each other, feeling safe and supported, and knowing that we’re not alone: there are others going through the same thing. Connection is about our relationships: not just with our friends, families and those we care about, but also the groups, clubs, and networks we rely on to help us stay happy and healthy. See https://www.mentalhealthmonthact.org/
Loneliness is one significant cause of mental health issues. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reports that most Australians will experience loneliness at some point in their lives. 1 in 3 (33%) Australians reported an episode of loneliness between 2001 and 2009. 40% of these people reported experiencing more than 1 episode. In surveys undertaken since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, just over half (54%) of respondents reported that they felt more lonely since the start of the pandemic. See https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/australias-welfare/social-isolation-and-loneliness-covid-pandemic
Friendship, care and support is something that the church can offer to people—especially to people who are experiencing loneliness. A supportive community can help lonely people to strengthen their mental health and have a more positive life. It’s something that every local congregation can easily do. Look around in your community; who are the lonely people? How can you offer them friendship and support? How can you live out the Gospel by giving compassionate care to such people?
For myself, I have lived with an awareness of the importance of taking care of my own mental health for some decades. Long before the pandemic, I recognised the importance of accessing support services and taking steps to ensure that my mental health remained robust. It hasn’t always been so—there have been some difficult periods of depression, anxiety, and dysfunction that I have experienced. Some of those times were really tough. Fortunately, there were other times—more times, I am pleased to say—that were positive, enjoyable, hope-filled times.
I am most grateful for the consistent, loving support and the always perceptive guidance that I have had over all those years from my wife Elizabeth. There have been a number of times when she has made sure that I was safe, helped me to seek professional assistance, and let people know that I wouldn’t be able to carry through some of my responsibilities at those times. I am sure that I wouldn’t have made it through all those years without her.
I was also very fortunate that the church made generous provision for me to have extended periods of leave when that was necessary, following medical advice. I am so glad that I came through those periods of time and was able to continue in ministry and have the opportunity to serve in a variety of roles.
There are various learnings that I have taken from these experiences. In the early times, when I had no explanation for what was happening, working with various professionals to explore matters was certainly very hard work. In time, when a clear diagnosis was made and then a workable treatment regime was put into place, there was a clear pathway to enjoying better mental health. But it would take quite some time to get there.
Those were difficult and, at times, scary times. Coming to grips with the realities of life—learning to be honest about myself, with myself, and with trusted others—was a slow process, full of challenges, but ultimately a very important pathway to follow.
Integral to my particular process of therapy was dealing with memories of the past that surfaced. This can be a real challenge—especially when there has been no clear, present memory of those traumatic experiences back in the past. I had to be prepared to learn new things about myself. This was hugely confronting. Eventually, realising that many of these learnings provide insightful explanations about “the way I am”, and especially my specific idiosyncrasies, proved to be a helpful process. Difficult, costly, but ultimately quite rewarding.
In this process, I learnt the importance of building resilience to engage at deeper levels with what life presents. Dealing with a series of shocks that surfaced during periods of deepened depression, increased anxiety, and gradually-clarifying memories, needed constant inner strength. It was draining and demanding. Over time, looking back, I can see how I learnt to accept and integrate those learning experiences into my sense of who I am as a whole person.
For myself, I found that balancing personal and professional needs was very important. In crisis periods, prioritising the personal over the professional was essential. As each of those crises lessened in intensity, the integration of specific professional tasks became possible, so a phased “return to work” could take place in an appropriate way.
At times, my work in ministry, either in educational or in organisational/oversight roles, presented challenging emotional situations. In the regular run of things, being aware of the saturation level of emotional intensity in my life was quite important. I needed to know when to plunge in to such situations, and when to step back from those situations and leave others to deal with them.
This has helped me develop, I believe, a growing capacity to balance honesty and care: to know when it was most important to confront the truth in a situation, and when it was wiser to offer pastoral care to a person, or persons, caught in such a situation. I like to think that my own psychological journey, exploring and strengthening my own mental health, has given me some capacity to empathise with hurting people, to engage sensibly with angry people, to speak clearly to confused people. I don’t for one second imagine that I am world’s best at these kind of things— far from it! But I have tried to develop skills in such things over the decades.
When I look back on the three decades during which good mental health has been an important focus for me, I think that I can see how I began to forge a new way of being, in the midst of realising that I was actually a rather motley collection of battered and bruised pieces dating from various incidents in my life, long, Iong ago. I have thus had a focus on “becoming integrated” as a person (or, at least, becoming “more integrated” than previously). I think that this has been important for me to do as a person, and it has helped me to function effectively as a minister. I hope that has been the experience of other people.
So this year, on World Mental Health Day, I join with interested people around the globe in emphasising the importance of taking care of our own mental health, being alert to the signs of stress in other people’s mental health, and advocating for the provision of strong mental health services in our society. I hope you will share in that same commitment.