Learning Center
Plans & pricing Sign in
Sign Out

Faith leaders must speak up for people with mental health problems


It's not Christians being persecuted who need our advocacy but those struggling with mental ill health and their carers.

More Info

Faith leaders must speak up for people with
mental health problems
It's not Christians being persecuted who need our advocacy but those
struggling with mental ill health and their carers

For two decades I have campaigned for the right of people of faith to have their voices heard in the public
square. And yet this week I was silenced not by some strident secularist but by those who endure at the outer
realms of human experience. Meeting carers of those who face severe mental ill health I encountered families
whose stresses are being enhanced because those they look after are being assessed for the Work Programme
by staff at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) who simply do not have a clue what they are doing. As
I listened to their anguish I could not help but think that as the archbishop of Canterbury retires, and a third of
Roman Catholic bishops are replaced due to retirement, religious leaders should stop complaining about the
persecution that some Christians in this country feel they suffer and speak up instead for the one in seven who
struggle with severe mental ill health.

Let me give you an example: a couple rings their local council to inquire about personal budgets for social care
for their frail family member and gets put through to the city treasurer's department. After explaining that it is not
a question of local government finance but social care, they are transferred to social services, which refer them
to its team dealing with kids with autism and Downs syndrome after they have said they want to discuss a case
of severe depression. A week later no one has rung back.

Knowing of the social conscience of the (largely Christian) "compassionate conservatives" at the DWP, they turn
to Iain Duncan Smith's department seeking solace in an inquiry regarding jobseeker's allowance because their
family member is too frail to make the call themselves. First, they are told that being mum and dad does not
matter for they are not "designated persons". To become designated persons, their family member will have to
be assessed for work and sign a declaration that the parents (one of whom has already given up a job to be a
carer) are allowed to speak to the DWP.

This will involve the unwell family member in a terrifying journey on public transport and an interview. When the
assessment does happen, the assessor ignores the letters provided by psychiatrists that explain the condition
and how stressful the bus journey will have just been. So, the unwell family member sits quietly throughout the
interview and tries to be helpful. However, because of the psychosis from which they suffer, they are actually
more preoccupied with the two rats they can see sitting at the assessor's feet, and the auditory hallucination they
can hear threatening that, if they do not please this man in front of them, their mum and dad will be killed than
they are focused on what is supposed to be going on.

At the end of the interview it seems the DWP staffer cannot see what the problem is, and thinks work would be a
good step forward. No skills, no awareness, no attempt to read specialist advice and, no doubt, a tough target to
get the unwell family member off one list and on to another one. While welfare reform is essential, and I know for
a fact that Duncan Smith's ministerial team and special advisers are staffed with people of care and integrity, the
systemic failure of this client group because of poor training and sloppy casework is a national disgrace. What's
more, such an example pales into insignificance with the actually life-threatening decisions that some DWP
assessors have sought to take.

For faith leaders, of course, severe mental ill health is equally misunderstood: schizophrenia is quite resistant to
bland gestures in the direction of "Jesus". Psychosis – even when induced by clerical child abuse or the trauma
of war – can be lazily blamed on spiritual forces wrestling within victims rather than on the perpetrators of
violence. Obsessive compulsive disorder shows many signs of being made worse by spiritualities that
emphasise personal or ecclesial purity. Theologians have rarely written from the darkest depths of severe
depression. So few congregation members ever raise it.

Thus, for all my campaigning for public faith over two decades it is clear that as a new generation of religious
leaders comes into post, a sense of perspective and urgency needs to return. Faith in the public square is not
the priority – practical care of this most fragile of groups in private is. This is more than just a call for social
benefits. It is an exhortation for a step change in advocacy against the mass-produced inflexibilities and
thoughtlessness of the DWP and bodies like it. For if the new generation of religious leaders, claiming public
virtue for their own institutions, will not reach out to those with severe mental ill health and their carers who are
home alone, then who will?

Meanwhile tens of thousands of people have signed various online petitions
including one calling for Atos to be fined for failure.

Some are petitioning the International Criminal Court for the prosecution of
David Cameron and the UK Government for the relentless persecution and abuse
of the sick, disabled and vulnerable citizens of the nation.

To top