Archbishop of Canterbury speaks on faith and mental health

The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Revd Justin Welby, gave the keynote address on faith and mental health to the Church of Ireland’s MindMatters conference on Friday (20th October).

This address was delivered by video link from St George’s Cathedral, Jerusalem. as Archbishop Welby was unable to attend due to a pastoral visit to the Anglican Diocese of Jerusalem amidst the war between Israel and Hamas.  The event, attended by 270 delegates from around the island, explored how the Church and the Christian faith can help people coping with anxiety, depression and poor mental health.

His remarks are below:

A few years ago, I realised I was feeling different. I had experienced bouts of what I might now recognise as depression before – ‘black dog’ as it were. I had some counselling around PTSD because of frequent work in conflict zones and sometimes, however, I felt absolutely awful even though everything was, objectively, fine.

It’s perfectly reasonable to feel awful when things are awful.  Feeling awful when things are fine is of a very different character and many of you sitting in the hall will recognise that difference; you will know it yourself.  But these feelings always seemed to pass, and I did not have a need, that I thought, to talk to anybody or do anything about it.

More recently, about four or five years ago, I found myself much more gripped by these feelings and more permanently gripped, with suicidal thoughts and all that sort of thing.

And so, our eldest of three daughters was the one who helped me.  She’d been very open with her own experiences of mental health and her experiences of depression and suicidal ideation. And she’d, in fact, written a book called I Thought There Would Be Cake which is about her own experiences and I found very, very helpful.

And one day she said to me, when she was visiting: “You realise, dad, you’re depressed.”  I said: “I’m not depressed.  Of course, I’m not depressed.  I’m the Archbishop of Canterbury, I can’t be depressed.”  And she said: “Don’t be an idiot, you’re depressed.”  And so I did get some help and started taking anti–depressants, which I still take, and talking to someone.  And it restored me, if I may say, from total emptiness to mere grumpiness – which is my normal state of being. If you think of it in Winnie the Pooh terms, I am naturally an Eeyore.  Whatever you give me, I’m never going to be Tigger but my medication means that I can now be a relatively content Eeyore.

I ‘announced’ the fact that I was suffering with depression on BBC Radio 4’s Thought For The Day. Most people think just telling their families over dinner is probably enough, but I thought we might as well get this done properly.  I think it was on Mental Health Day, and we were hosting that day a mental health conference at Lambeth Palace. And it got me thinking about how the Church has historically, in its different tribes and bits, dealt with mental health issues – and the answer, as I’m sure you know as well as I do, is not very well at all.

From the absurd suggestion that mental illness is a sign of lack of faith or the wrath of God, to the idea that if we just prayed hard enough, or pulled ourselves together, it would go away. Often the Church has moralised mental health issues and stigmatised those who are suffering, rather than offering them compassion, acceptance in the same way as we do with physical illness.  We never say to someone with cancer: “Oh, just get yourself together or have more faith.”

Once I had said publicly that this was true, however, I noticed something a bit like what scientists call the frequency illusion.  Of course, I got plenty of books sent by people who ‘knew exactly how to handle depression’ – I have to say the number of books that came to me slightly depressed me, and particularly the letters that told me ‘exactly how to deal with it’ and that they had ‘all the answers that anyone might need.’

The frequency illusion is when you learn a new word, and then you hear that word everywhere.  Do you know what I mean? People were, all of a sudden, telling me about their own experiences with mental health. People who had always struggled but now they felt able to talk about them, at least with me more.

And we know that mental health issues are very prevalent, amongst both clergy and the laity. A 2022 study of mental health disorders in the Republic of Ireland found that 42.5% of people met the criteria for a mental health disorder; 11.1% had a lifetime history of attempted suicide – more than one in ten. According to data from the Central Statistics Office, which The Samaritans published in 2022, there were 11 deaths by suicide per hundred thousand individuals per year in the Republic of Ireland. For men, it was 17.6 per one hundred thousand.

I am not a doctor but what I learned particularly in writing a book on reconciliation and issues around forgiveness is that issues in mental health – hostility, anger, fighting, war – have a strong origin in chemical imbalances in the brain.  Not everywhere, not for everyone, but for quite a lot of people.

Other issues are, of course, caused or exacerbated by our contexts. Poverty, poor physical health, isolation – all of these, unsurprisingly, contribute to mental health issues.  In England, someone who is very isolated is more than four times as likely to suffer from a mental health issue.

But what we’re seeing is perhaps surprising.  I was discussing thi with my former chaplain, Isabelle Hamley, and we were talking about the fact that both our countries [Britain and France] are the most prosperous they’ve ever been in human history.  We’re better off than we’ve ever been in the past but yet, particularly among young people, much higher levels of mental illness around the developed, economically prosperous world than elsewhere. It’s endemic, it’s systemic and it’s long–term. So why?

Well, part of it is obviously just noticing it more.  There’s much better research, monitoring, and treatment around mental ill–health.  You only have to read Jane Austen to read about people having ‘nervous crises’ or ‘brain fever’ or things like that.

Richer populations have help more readily accessible and are now encouraged to seek support when they need it. We need to factor that into our understanding of mental health in the Global North, as well as recognise that poverty, war, and instability faced especially in the Global South or in areas of long–term conflict like here [Israel/Palestine] contributes significantly to poor mental health but it may not be diagnosed.

To go back a few years, my wife Caroline was working in South Sudan with bishops’ wives.  She spent some time leading them in a retreat and before she went, she said: “Half of the time we will be on retreat and half of the time will be in training in any area that you want.  What do you want?”  And the answer was immediately, trauma counselling.  So she got a group from Rwanda who came and, in the second half of the seven–day retreat, spoke them about trauma counselling and trained them in recognising trauma and mental health issues arising out of almost half a century of virtually continual conflict.

However, in the Global North, there has also been a philosophical turn inwards, towards the self, which began with Descartes – ‘I think therefore I am’ – and has brought us to a place of radical individual autonomy and atomisation, despite technological advances that make communication easier than ever before. And this means that there is a breakdown in community life, of shared life, which means there’s no scaffolding to hold us up or offer us stability when things inevitably go wrong, as they do in every life, or when we face tricky periods.

Breakdowns in family and household life, where families are often – not always – a place of nurture, and when they fail become a place of isolation, have also contributed significantly because families should be where are supported and learn to deal with the setbacks and pitfalls of being human.

And there’s generational trauma too. You know far more about this than I do because there is the more recent Troubles in Northern Ireland and there is the historicalm folkloric – but that’s not playing it down, it’s saying it’s deeply embedded in culture – trauma from times like the famines and the Civil War and earlier periods of troubles.  They may have happened a long time ago but there are studies now that show us how the legacy of trauma can be passed down through the generations.

Professor John Coates, a former bond trader with Goldman Sachs, wrote a wonderful book which I commend to you called The Hour Between Dog and Wolf, in which he looks at the biology and neuroscience behind our behaviour. He uses the example of a bond dealing room in the financial collapse in 2008–09.  It’s actually very readable and very interesting.  One of the things he says particularly is that the three biggest drivers of stress – and those stresses which cause the release of various chemicals within the brain, including obviously ‘fight or flight’ instincts and so on – are novelty, uncertainty, and uncontrollability.

And when you think of it, it makes sense that we are evolutionarily designed to have physiological and psychological responses in the face of new and unpredictable events. These responses keep us safe. Our ancestors in Ireland and the UK and Europe faced issues of life and death daily until very recently – from our hunter–gatherer predecessors, to the prevalence of illness before the advent of modern medicine, and the universal presence of war and conflict.

But these days, particularly in the Global North – not so here – we are not constantly faced with threats to our survival. And yet, as I have said, in the Global North, we are seeing higher levels of stress reported than ever before.

We are encountering novelty, uncertainty, and uncontrollability, which is communicated to us so much more powerfully.  In other words, those things that you could have read on the inside pages of The Irish Times forty or fifty years ago several weeks after they happened are now on your phone right in front of you – you are brought into them, they are present to you, you’re part of it.

But you can’t do anything.  There is powerlessness, there is helplessness, there is uncontrollability.

Russia’s war in Ukraine is ongoing, with no signs of ending.

2024 will be an election year in the United States, and one with especially high stakes.

We’ve seen the beginning of a new, devastating war with Israel and Hamas.

We’re emerging from the devastation of Covid–19.

In the UK, the death of Her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II signalled the end of an era that most of us had known all our lives.

And me may have yet another election soon.  We are getting quite used to those – because I have to write to the Prime Minister to nominate bishops in the Church of England, there was one point in the autumn of 2022 where we were going through so many prime ministers that I started saying to my office: “Don’t put the name of the Prime Minister, just put ‘to whom it may concern’.”

Globally speaking, the impact of the climate crisis is the ultimate in novelty, uncertainty, and uncontrollability, and those of us who are parents and grandparents, when we look at our children and grandchildren, we do think to ourselves: “What will the world be like for them?”

These are very different threats and dangers.  They’re less acute but they procure the same biological response that makes us feel that we’re on the edge.  Extended periods of high stress are particularly tough on human beings more than other mammals that have the same ‘fight or flight’ reactions.

As my psychiatrist who spent a lot of time in South Africa says, if you’re in a game park and you see a lion chasing a zebra and the zebra is happy enough to get away from the lion, 10 minutes later you could see the same zebra peacefully grazing.  It doesn’t have a memory.  A human being would be up a tree, still, shaking with shock and terror.

It’s no wonder that we see people suffering from burnout, chronic stress, and exhaustion, as well as much more serious mental health issues.

And we’re also dealing with the difficulty of adapting to new cultures, not only the radical autonomy of human beings, but to changing times, and without the older certainties of the world – the hierarchies, the way in which we knew who was who and how you should react to them.  Technology, globalisation, and multiculturalism have changed the very existence in which we live.

It’s made it much richer.  I was born in London, and intermittently I lived in London much of my life until I was ordained except when family things made me live with my grandparents on the north coast of Norfolk, but London is infinitely different to that of my childhood.  It’s so much more varied and it’s so much better.  It’s a richer – not economically always – but more fascinating city.

We don’t usually have lifelong employment with one employer.  In many ways, we’re seeing improvements but change and unfamiliarity unsettle us.

And that’s as true in the Church as it is in any other sector. The Mind Matters survey found that 46% of clergy think the Church is not doing enough to support their mental health, probably because 46% of bishops think the same.  Clergy are present with people during the most stressful and painful periods of their lives.

I remember doing nine funerals in week when I was a curate.  I’d been in the oil industry for 11 years.  I’d had a senior and very stressful job but this was on a totally different scale.  To do nine funerals and be the ‘lightning conductor’ for grief and sorrow in so many different ways left me at the end of the week emotional exhausted.

Today – if I’m honest – this morning, being with people who fear the spreading of a war which may consume them, talking to the director of our hospital in Gaza on the phone, I could feel the adrenaline running, I could feel my stomach tensing, and it’s quite right that I should.  You want to share in what people are going through.

And then there are other issues for clergy.  As well as hearing people’s anxieties and fear and living with the most vulnerable and ostracised in society, we are no longer in a place where there is stability and respect.  We brought some of that on ourselves through the scandals of abuse, certainly in the Church of England, but actually the major thing is we no longer count.

I got into a taxi recently and the taxi driver – an English taxi driver – said to me: “What’s that thing round your neck?”  It’s a dog collar.  And then he would say: “Why do you live in that big building in London?”  I think it would be safe to assume that he had very little idea of who the Archbishop of Canterbury is.  It also happens in families again but in a healthier way.

And then there’s the ultimate insecurity of the future of the Church, including in Ireland.  Although theoretical believers, we become practical atheists in which we forget that God is in charge.  It’s God’s Church, not ours … and he’ll look after the Church, we are his sheep.

Sharing counters the individualism and isolation I was talking about earlier, and it’s one of the ways in which we reduce the stigma of mental health.  There’s no doubt about it – there is less stigma but it still exists.  We need to start with willingness to talk about it, to share experience, and to ask about it.  Transparency and openness help people learn that mental health problems are an illness, not a sin.  It’s not contagious.  You don’t catch it by sharing the Peace on Sundays.

From financial markets to viruses, everything we do and everything we are is interconnected. To be a human being is to be in relationship.  The strongest defence for mental health issues is found in the communities around us – families, friends and colleagues that support us.

When we truly listen to them and are open to them, we can create space and safety.  It’s like having a Covid jab – it pre–empts much of the isolation that causes mental illness.  We do have the vaccination, literally, in the hands that shake other hands, in the ears that listen, in hearts that love, and we don’t have to wait for six months to pass to use that vaccination.

We can support each other.  There is no resilience in isolation.  We are biologically, evolutionarily, and necessarily creatures of community.

In churches, one of the ways that we find that community is in small groups that meet and share, read the Bible, pray together, love each other. I have a group that, since I became Archbishop, has met on the second Sunday of every month and when I can, my wife and I go and join it and we pray together.  And I can say anything there.  I can say that I’m at the end of my tether – I don’t know how to deal with a problem – and as soon as I’ve said it, it doesn’t seem quite as bad. We really trust each other but they love each other as well.

And then there is the increasing burden of compliance, of paperwork.  Lots of professions have this but it places a lot of stress on clergy and bishops.  It’s important that clergy are supported and offered appropriate supervision.  I’ve only just starting using a supervisor for dealing with safeguarding issues.  I met him for the second time this past Monday – he was super, very experienced, very supportive on some decisions, helped me think through others.  Most professional sectors have supervision in this way.  We must introduce it either through the structures of the Church or externally.

And faith can also be, of itself, a great support in times of mental health difficulty.  Sharing groups can be set up to talk about living with mental illness.  There are excellent theological books about the Bible and mental health being published, one of them I warmly commend by my former chaplain, Isabelle Hamley, who has co–authored a book called The Bible and Mental Health.  It’s brilliant and totally uncondemnatory.

And, more than anything, there is the promise of God who, the Letter to the Hebrews tells us, has been tempted in every way as we are, who has suffered in every way as we are, and is always faithful, always loving and always hopeful even when we turn away.

Remember, it’s not our faith that keeps us close to God – it’s God’s faithfulness.

I do a programme on BBC Radio 4 – I’ve done two series of it – called The Archbishop Interviews …. I do get to interview some really interesting people and Gabriel Byrne was one of them recently, who is of course an incredible actor from Ireland.  An extraordinarily witty and wonderful man.

And I talk to people about what motivates them, crises, their inner lives, their beliefs, and they’re not all Christians.  Gabriel Byrne is remarkable.  I don’t need me to tell you that.  He grew up in Ireland in the 1950s, he was educated by Irish Christian Brothers, went to a Catholic seminary at 11 years old for training for the priesthood (before deciding to become an actor instead). He spoke of his depression and alcoholism, and his sexual abuse by a priest.  We spoke about going to churches just to absorb the atmosphere; he described them as a ‘thin space’, a place where he had found comfort and he said he remembered in Ireland as a child, hearing older people saying: ‘Oh, I’m just dropping into the chapel to have a few words with Himself’ – this idea that God is accessible, we can talk to him.

Gabriel Byrne talks about the Church as being ‘the House of the People’ – if it is the House of the People, it can be that space where people are welcomed and comforted.  It means we’re a new family where we can insulate each other somewhat or at least hold each other against life’s knock–backs and pains.

In the days of the scrum, I was the little guy in the centre at the front with two very large guys next to me who used to stop me running away.  We need people round us, who will help us not despair, not run away.  We need a church which is a space for people with mental health issues, where people can be sure that God has not abandoned them and the Church will not abandon them.

I’m going to end with a reading from Psalm 88 and then a very brief comment on it.  The Psalmist says to God:

‘You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths. Your wrath lies heavily on me; you have overwhelmed me with all your waves. You have taken from me my closest friends and have made me repulsive to them. I am confined and cannot escape; my eyes are dim with grief.’

Does that not sound to you like someone in the depths of depression who is so angry with God?  ‘You have done this to me‘ – I put the emphasis deliberately.  And is crying against God because of his suffering?  And yet God can bear the weight of all our pain and all our doubt. Even in that darkest of places, he listens and reaches out to us.

It’s difficult, sometimes, when we feel so unlovable.  I know that feeling well, I know that feeling of just being a failure and useless.  And when we feel like that to recognise that we are loved beyond measure by a God who is faithful is so difficult and yet, that is the truth. And so I pray for you, for the Church of Ireland, for those you influence and love and are loved by, that you may be a people who are, as Saint Patrick said, ‘the people of the Lord, and they are called the children of God.’

Thank you.

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