I received a telephone call from my mother today. She is one of those rare people who not only care about the problems and pain of others but also tries her hardest to alleviate them. This means that people contact her and dump stuff on her. If a problem falls within my range of skills or life experience she will contact me as she did today.

A lady who I have known since 1972, a widow who must be in her late seventies or eighties now, has suffered from depression of and on throughout her life. When her husband was alive she insisted that nobody was to find out about this especially when she needed medical intervention. In her mind mental illness is something to be ashamed of. Recently, she succumbed to a serious bout of depression and eventually referred herself to her local mental health hospital where she is now resident. She still has an overwhelming fear of people, even her friends and family,  discovering that she is ill. Of course, people have found out and, as she is a well-respected woman, she has many friends, all of whom are now extremely worried about her but can't get to see her and support her because she refuses to allow anyone to visit her because of her embarrassment.

So, I did some ringing around and hopefully a chaplain or pastoral visitor to the hospital will make contact with her (purely in the course of their work, of course) and be able to help my old friend to let go of her fear of the stigma she believes is attached to mental illness. At the very least, even if she still refuses to admit her friends, she will have someone to talk to in the pastoral visitor. I would point out that she lives three hundred miles away from where I now live, otherwise I would go and see her myself, disguised in the attire of my former occupation.

Whoever speaks to her will need to persuade her that she is wrong about being ashamed of her mental illness and that people don't view her as weak and not normal, as some sort of freak to be avoided. The problem is that this would be a lie. My friend is partly right. Although suffering from a mental illness is not something to be ashamed of, many people will regard her as weak and not normal, as some sort of freak to be avoided. I know this, only too well, from bitter (and is still does make me bitter) experience. When I was in hospital for months on end (over a decade ago now) none of my clergy colleagues visited me or contacted me, let alone my bishop at the time. When I was convalescing at home after being released from hospital the rural dean had to visit me to give me communion. But he did not engage in conversation with me, he would rush through the service in a couple of minutes, and would rush out the door with some excuse about having to be elsewhere as a matter of urgency, before I had managed to swallow the bread. When I was ready to start to return to work, the bishop (first through his archdeacon and then directly himself) told me in no uncertain terms that I would have to retire because a person who had suffered from mental distress was not strong, reliable and safe enough to be a parish priest.

I offered my services, as someone who had been through mental illness, as a resource for the diocese. I said I was happy to go and speak to churches and church groups about mental illness. Not once was my offer taken up. Church leaders in Newcastle were happy for people who had never suffered from mental illness to talk to their people about mental illness but not anybody who had first hand experience of any kind. I discovered that mad people had more cooties to be frightened of than women and gay people put together.

Not everybody treated me as a contagious leper. There were people who helped and supported me and maintained their friendship with me throughout my illness. None of these people went to or belonged to a church. Because I was ill all those years ago I have been unable to get a secure job in the Church of England and I never will now, unless the important people in the church let go of their own fear of mental illness, their view that the mentally ill are weak and incapable (even when they are well) and stop viewing the mad as people to be sympathised with from afar but never brought close and included. Those important people who do not have such a wrongheaded understanding of mental illness need to accept that they have colleagues who are bigots and they need to stop listening to these bigots and use their own discernment about the capabilities of people who have suffered from mental illness. More than anything the important people in the church, the hirers and firers, need to start looking for ways of fully including those of us who have suffered from mental health problems even if that means thinking outside of the box for a change, rather than throwing us onto the scrapheap of unemployment and poverty which is, believe me, a place of very little hope, especially if you are relying on institutional Christianity to help you.

I was so naive when I became sick (I had not been a priest for long). If I had known then what I know now I think I may well have copied my friend now languishing, unvisited, in a hospital ward, and avoided telling anybody about my condition or looking for help. I would have probably ended up dead following such a course, but at least my wife would have got my work insurance death pay out and some of my full pension. In stead, I have no pension to speak of and my wife is herself becoming depressed because of the hopelessness of our situation.

But my friend is not looking for work and, as far as I know, has nothing to do with the church. So I hope and pray that whoever visits her will be able to return a feeling of self worth to my friend and persuade her to allow her friends to visit her and that she is not regarded as a failure in life - even though far too many people and most of the professionals in the Church, despite what they might say in public, believe she is.



  1. I am sorry that the Church treated you like that. What could they have been thinking? For years, our older daughter suffered–and still suffers–from bipolar illness. Always our mantra has been, “If only she would just . . . . . .” As if WE knew what would make her well. Her illness is like a tide, or even the phases of the moon: in the words of her (India-born) psychiatrist, her illness “vaxes and vanes.” A year ago the Black Dog got ahold of me and didn’t let go for months. I am glad I finally was able to experience, for a little while, what she wrestles with everyday. Her illness has made her a more caring and compassionate person. I’m sure the same is true for you. How rotten of the Church to throw away the gifts you could have brought to others.

  2. I fully agree with forsythia. Mental illness is a gift as well as a curse and with it comes the sort of understanding that is rarely gained any other way. Don’t let your experience make you bitter. Your calling is not wasted, it might not be going the way you expected but you have to accept the pain and keep going in faith. The disciples ‘didn’t understand about the bread because their hearts were hardened.’

  3. I wonder whether part of the problem of “mental illness” is a labeling problem. I once knew someone who lived with depression and would say, “I have an emotional illness, not a mental one. Cognitively, I’m fine; my illness is one of the feelings.” Made sense to me.

    Prejudice and false reasoning surround depression. It’s an illness; it can be treated, and the person with it can be helped. I’m especially sorry for the treatment you received from the clergy who visited you. It makes me wonder what kind of instruction in pastoral care they received. Did they do CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education)? Our deacon in charge of Lay Eucharisitic Visitors used to say, “We don’t do drive-by Communions. Stay and visit a little while, and don’t rush the service. This is the time in which we share Communion, including but not limited to bread and wine, with the people who cannot come to church. This is a ministry of presence as well as sacrament.”

  4. Thanks, EHC and understand how your friend’s categorisation would help her. But us mad people actually prefer to point out to people that mental illness is an illness of the body as much as any other illness. The brain is an organ and it is the mechanics of this organ that is misbehaving. The emotions we experience when ill are symptoms. Our thinking is not ill, it is our brains that are ill and this illness damages our thinking and emotions in the same way a virus gives you a temperature. We want parity we physically disabled people and being classed as emotional cripples doesn’t help our cause.

  5. Part of the reaction is simply fear – I know about it too since I dealt with deep depression for over 20 years.

    I totally agree with you MadPriest, but many people fall back on what they thought in the past about mental illness – not what they know now. Sadly, our Western society is afraid of emotions. They look to the happy face as an answer to all the ills of our world instead of facing the pain, dealing with love. That’s the preaching from many churches today – “don’t deal with the and DON’T tell us! Simply smile because no one wants to listen.” 🙁

  6. May I recommend Black Dog Tribe which challenges the stigma of mental health.

  7. Then you are in the Pit of Ultimate Darkness, the very bottomless Void of which Edgar A. Poe wrote, sir.
    When inebriation is out of the question, you are in the clutches of the Devil.

    • Well, I’ve always preferred the taste of beer to getting drunk, and at least now I can drink more beer without getting drunk.