Hope-brokers: our response to the tide of mental distress

Hope-brokers: our response to the tide of mental distress

This story contains mention of suicide, and may be distressing for some readers.
If you would like help, you may like to talk and pray with a trusted friend or minister, or you may find the support of one of the following organisations helpful.

  • Need to talk? (Free call or text 1737)
  • The Depression Helpline (0800 111 757)
  • Healthline (0800 611 611)
  • Lifeline (0800 543 354)
  • Samaritans (0800 726 666)
  • Youthline (0800 376 633, free text 234)
  • www.thelowdown.co.nz (for young people, free text 5626)
  • www.depression.org.nz (for adults, free text 4202)

On the second day of Synod, the bishops hosted a presentation and small group discussion on mental health.  Presenting to Synod were grief and trauma educator Tricia Hendry, and the Strandz Enabler for the Dioceses of New Zealand, Diana Langdon.  Both presenters belong to the Parish of Hataitai-Kilbirnie.  They told us of the tsunami of mental unwellness in New Zealand, and how as the Church, we are called to bring support and hope to those who are struggling.

“Mental unwellness is a common part of the human journey – it always has been, but its rate seems to be increasing,” Tricia told Synod.  As our connectedness to the world increases, so does the speed and frequency with which we can be bombarded by distressing information – whether it be news of world events or the every day worries around us.  Tricia spoke of the blue tsunami lines painted on coastal streets in Wellington City.  They remind us that we live in a danger zone, although they are supposed to show us where we can go to be safe.  Ironically, she says, there are no such public health warnings of where we can go to be safe from the tsunami of anxiety our country is facing.

And anxiety is one of the largest mental health problems in the country, she says.  It can be overwhelming, disruptive, and at times, completely disabling.  One in four Kiwis experience anxiety at any time – that includes our churches, family, whānau – all of us.  Tricia posed the question: “what do we mean by mental health?  Are you mentally healthy?” she asked the Synod members.

Following small group discussion on that question, Tricia told us that researchers see mental health as a continuum – and that we all move backwards and forwards on this continuum at any given time.  We can be relatively mentally well, but still have bad days.  However the further towards mental unwellness we slide, the harder it is to cope, and the more negatively our mental unwellness impacts on our moods, our decisions, and even our safety.

And as members were reminded, Christians are not immune to mental and emotional suffering.  “We just need to flick to Psalms to hear David express on many occasions the level of his despair.  In Psalm 88, the psalmist mentioned that darkness is his only friend,” Tricia told the members.

Though God is with us through our ups and downs, Tricia told us of the shocking statistics of suicide in our country.  In the last year, 668 Kiwis “lost their ability to keep safe, lost hope due to unimaginable distress.  There is no suffering greater than that which drives people to suicide.  Suicide defines the moment in which psychological pain is so acute, that it overwhelms and exceeds the human capacity to bear it.”  She told us of her personal experience: almost 22 years ago, her first husband, Mike, a well-respected and talented Christian minister and father of three young children, tragically took his life.

“We bring focus to reaching the last, the lost and the least.  Mike is a really good example of someone who didn’t, at first glance, fit any of those categories.  But he did: mentally, Mike had gotten really lost.  But we must not allow ourselves to lose hope that we can play a part as individuals, as churches, as communities, in turning these statistics around.  There is a lot to learn, but we are enough in Christ as His church, to respond well to this rising tide.  How do we support the mental health of our clergy?  Of our young people?  Of our families?  Of our elderly?  It’s time to get more honest about it, isn’t it?”  Tricia challenged the members to hold a discussion in their groups about what can be done at a local level to support each other’s mental health.

Both Tricia and Diana reminded us that for all those who have tragically taken their lives, many thousands of New Zealanders also recover from mental distress.  Tricia reminds us: “Our church communities are in a prime position to offer our awhi and our aroha – our support and our love – to all those struggling with mental illness and to journey with them.”  Some faith communities, through misunderstanding or assumptions, can stigmatise those who are suffering, Tricia said.  But “stigma makes the experience far, far worse.  How can you become stigma-busters?” she challenged members.

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but God has an interest in humans – I’d say even a special interest!  He knows us incredibly well, and He gives us plenty of tips, you know, like this one!” Tricia showed us a slide with the words “Love one another” emblazoned across it.

“Have you noticed that it gets repeated?  Quite a lot?  For those finding life really tough, being on the receiving end of this can be a game changer.  It can be a life saver.  And we need some game changing and some life saving.”

“We are stronger together.  Isn’t that the point of being a church?  Isn’t that what God had in mind?  He designed us to live in community, to do life together, to draw on each other’s strengths, to be the hands and feet of Jesus in this pressured, fractious, complex time we find ourselves in?  We’re called to be hope-brokers.  Helping people to see the light of Jesus in the darkness, when their hope is running low, or running out altogether.”

Discussion followed on how our churches can become safe, supporting and inclusive zones for people struggling with mental illness.

Tricia and Diana shared some practical examples of how churches had become hope-brokers:

  • A mother with Post-Natal Depression and psychosis lobbied for her church to build a playground on church land. She co-ordinated the fundraising and construction, and once complete, a group of people would hang out at the playground and connect with other parents to ensure they were okay.
  • A parishioner found it uneasy to sit in pews, and sometimes needed some time out. The church leader offered the option of having a beanbag in a quiet part of the church for him to sit in to feel more safe and comfortable.
  • Southwest Baptist Church in Christchurch offered a Tuesday night service which catered specifically to those with health challenges, and aimed to be more inclusive for those who didn’t feel comfortable in a typical Sunday service.
  • A Hutt Valley church had conversations with those who experienced mental illness and then held workshops to increase understanding and compassion.
  • A church introduced Manaakitanga Mondays: knowing that the first day of the week might feel isolating for some, they had a roster of homes which would be open for people to come and hang out and be around other people if they felt isolated or alone.
  • Saddleback Church in the United States developed a comprehensive mental health ministry after the death by suicide of the lead pastor’s son. They used an acrostic to describe their ministry:
    • Care for and support individuals and families
    • Help for practical needs
    • Unleash trained volunteers
    • Remove the stigma
    • Collaborate with existing community resources
    • Hope – offer it generously.
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