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Faith in Mind: Science, Faith and Mental Health

 Olivia Rathbone

Rebekah Allon-Smith writes about the impact of the Faith in Mind project at Sunderland Connect Network, one of the 2022 Scientists in Congregations award recipients.

The Faith in Mind project involved church members from 13 churches and three Christian charities across Sunderland, participating in workshops exploring themes of trauma, addiction and mental health through the lens of neuroscience and psychology. These workshops aimed to resource and support Christians in their mission, ministry, pastoral care and work with those in need. Participants are involved in running food banks and other community mission projects, which frequently involve them in supporting those affected by these challenges.

We had 20 committed and enthusiastic participants, who enjoyed meeting with like-minded people of faith from different church communities and learning together in a supportive environment. As well as gaining insight for the benefit of those they support, participants also talked of profound personal growth as they explored themes which touch on God’s creative power and what it means to be human.

An active listening exercise (exploring the neuroscience of empathy and mentalisation) was profound for many participants who described never having listened or been listened to in this way before. This exercise set the tone for the engagement between participants throughout the course. The attitude of listening to hear and understand and not to judge became a simple yet profound outcome of the project.

A second area of impact was a recognition of the importance of personal emotional boundaries and that ‘It is not our job to fix others’. For several participants, recognising the need to step back, say no, take less responsibility, pay attention to their own limitations and feelings (impending burnout?) was a key realisation. There is a cultural gulf between norms of boundaries and personal limits in the mental wellbeing field, and Christian attitudes of self-sacrifice and putting others first. Participants found spiritual and personal growth, healing and meaning in learning to step back and say no, which suggests that there is something to further be explored here to build a bridge between these philosophies, reflect theologically and explore what may be learned, one from the other.

Learning with a desire to understand and accept, rather than judge, was central to the philosophy of Faith in Mind, and seemed to result in deeper and more profound learning for participants, who, in turn, felt less anxious of the ‘right’ way to be/feel/think, and more able to share openly with peers. This caused us to reflect on whether much church teaching comes from a place of seeking to change attitudes and behaviour in a particular direction? And does this lead to feelings of judgement, rather than acceptance of our shared humanity and space for transformation? Participants reported growing in compassion and understanding of others, and were more able to experience God’s love and acceptance of themselves more deeply.

Participants commented on the programme supporting them to become more in tune with their own thoughts and feelings, a deeper understanding of those who are struggling and the complexities of experiences like addiction. People talked of growing in humility and in their awareness of God’s love for them. Participants grew in appreciation of the diversity of God’s creation and saw hope for healing in understanding the topics more deeply.

One participant, who we will call Helen, has a senior leadership role in her Elim church. She works in a hospital and is married with teenaged children. During Covid, Helen was leading her church which was without a minister, working part time, preparing and recording church services including doing much of the preaching herself, providing pastoral support to the church, as well as undergoing her own cancer treatment, running her home and being a wife and mother. Helen is practical, pragmatic, lively, humorous, and big-hearted.

Having never had mental health struggles before, Helen developed a needle phobia following some of her cancer treatment. With therapeutic support, Helen overcame her phobia, but this experience gave her an insight into mental health struggles that she had previously found difficult to relate to.

The Faith in Mind programme and content have caused Helen to reflect on her own attitudes to pastoral care. She has come to recognise the importance of integrating her emotional life into her spiritual life and letting herself ‘feel’. She has recognised that her role is not to fix and do everything for those she supports, but to allow God to be big enough, and to act as a witness. This is what Helen said:

‘This Faith in Mind course I have learnt so much. My expectations have completely altered as to what… was in my power to control and I’ve realised that people’s needs are hugely complex and my job isn’t to fix them but to walk with them through it, where they are, and for a lot of people they are the only ones that have to start the healing process, that God can work with them but it has to be something they want to do and that I can’t see people as a project that I need to fix. That’s not my role… What I’m really amazed at is just how wonderful God is. That the creation he made… yes, we know that his perfect creation was broken… but actually within that, our brains are fluid and with professional support and with God, there is hope for everybody.’

What also stood out for us, in running the project, was the immense personal challenges of participants themselves. Whilst, in secular contexts, it is well recognised that those providing support themselves need support, this is not commonly recognised in church contexts but was glaringly clear in our project, where every participant juggles difficult personal situations with their caring and pastoral roles. Through this project we saw the benefits of the opportunity to learn and also to receive support and care in their own right. We would passionately advocate for this to become a normalised expectation in church environments and for greater support for those who provide support to others.

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