From one mother to another
The community paediatrician was gentle as she examined my little son, only a few weeks old. Meanwhile, I snuggled my toddler close while he too watched these proceedings from under the safety of his long blond fringe. I also kept hold of my baby's tiny hand and held his eye for reassurance as he lay on that examination couch. As the minutes ticked by, I could feel my toddler burying his head deeper into my neck at seeing his baby brother being prodded by a stranger.
These little ones were anxious in this new situation, of course, but they weren't the only anxious ones in the room. Their mother had experienced several severe episodes of anxiety in the last decade, and now another was brewing, like some freak storm about to rip aggressively through these happy days of new motherhood. As a seasoned anxiety sufferer, and armed with all the cognitive and behavioural strategies to ward off the worst of such inclement forces, the ferocity of this episode had, nevertheless, taken me entirely by surprise. But then, that's how many bouts of anxiety do strike. Over the years I've considered labelling my episodes of anxiety much like meteorologists have taken to identifying storms with names such as 'Irene', 'Gloria' and 'Keith'. I wouldn't choose such benign denotation, however.
This paediatrician was intuitive. She reassured me that my little son needed no further follow up for his neonatal jaundice, but made some enquiries about how I was. She didn't run through a checklist of potential mental health symptoms in new mothers, pen at the ready to tally up the scores. Instead, she listened as I explained my anxiety-filled dilemma over whether breastfeeding was providing my baby with adequate nutrition. Our health visitor had suggested possibly adding in some formula milk. This paediatrician with kindly eyes and slightly swollen ankles pushed into sensible black shoes had undoubtedly seen precisely this same scenario of anxiety many times over during her long career. Looking thoughtful for a moment or two, she then turned to face me with an expression which said: ‘I'm now talking to you as one mother to another’. “Just enjoy your baby”.
Solidarity promotes good mental health
Like many other young mothers whose own mothers have died or are distant from them, these expressions of solidarity 'from one mother to another' have been significant.
It's not only older women who can support younger mothers in this way. During my subsequent years of mothering three little boys while managing a severe anxiety disorder and holding down a professional job, it was often an afternoon spent drinking tea with a fellow mother that sustained and soothed my anxious mind.
Later on, when my children had started school, I met with a group of mothers for Bible study on my day off work. These meetings were purposeful and involved meaty discussion about theological issues. Still, there was always time to listen to another woman's struggles. Here I knew the support of kindred spirits.
Solidarity within the Christian Church
Within the Christian Church, many are working hard to ensure a welcome for people with mental illness. Patrick Corrigan has recently written a helpful article on the challenges of welcoming people with mental illness into faith communities . He advocates approaches based on solidarity and dignity rather than the traditional top-down 'helping' ministries fuelled by compassion and mercy. I'm not sure if it's either possible or desirable to separate church activities neatly into compassion/mercy led or dignity/solidarity inspired. It may be especially challenging to do so when dealing with people with severe mental illness as many of these will often have additional social and practical needs. Nevertheless, solidarity is not a new concept for the Church.
Solidarity amongst the followers of Jesus has been actively promoted since the inception of the Christian Church. Jesus Christ did not merely set up a volunteer organisation to do charitable works among the poor and vulnerable. Instead, he gathered together believers as ‘the body of Christ’ : a community of individuals who would treat one another as family, and who would bear his name as the Church of Jesus Christ. Scripture reminds us that though we are many, we are also one in Christ , a people called to have “compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness and patience” .
Of course, education about mental illness has a role to play within the Church. It should not, however, come at the expense of recognising ourselves as united in Christ. Jesus Christ himself spoke about the issue of Christian solidarity in the Gospels, with the instruction "do to others as you would have them do to you." .
Practising solidarity may be easier than we think
Supporting people with mental illness within the Christian Church can be a daunting task. We may think we don't know enough or haven't the resources needed to help people with such lifelong disabling conditions for which there seems to be no cure. Often, however, nothing more is required of us than to stand in simple solidarity with hurting people. All we need do is to find common ground between us. Remember that Jesus didn't ever intend us only to relate to others within the Christian Church whom we saw as 'friends'. Instead, he asks us to dig deep and find the image of God in the face of all our fellow believers.
The important thing is this: all church members should practise solidarity. It's not just for the pastor, vicar, priest or specially trained pastoral care worker to do. Together we will make a difference, one small act of solidarity at a time.
Challenges to welcoming people with mental illnesses into faith communities. Patrick W Corrigan. The British Journal of Psychiatry (2020) 217, 595-596 doi: 10.1192/bjp.2020.83
I Corinthians 12:27
Colossians 3:12 (ESV)
Luke 6:31 (ESV)
Photo credit: - Priscillia Du Preez on Unsplash