“Jesus is for losers, those who are lost and those who have lost it.” I think we pretty much find ourselves fitting one of those categories at some point, right?
I met Scottish theologian and Professor, John Swinton, the day after he had been awarded the 2016 Michael Ramsay Prize for theological writing for his book Dementia: Living in the memories of God. I considered it a huge privilege to interview him, but he was as gracious as could be as we sat in the press tent on a very rainy Monday after four days of festival camping.
I was fortunate enough to listen to Professor Swinton speak at his talk the day before on dementia and our collective response as Christians. People asked some very emotive and personal questions and I really warmed to Professor Swintons expertise, but also his very clear experience-based compassion and unequivocal person-centred approach. What I perhaps admire most is that he spent his early career working on the ground with patients in the mental health sector as a registered mental health nurse and I think the dignity he affords the experiences of people is wonderfully life affirming.
What I really wanted to ask Professor Swinton was about mental health in the Church, how he feels we are doing in terms of acknowledging and not ignoring, responding to people’s needs, how far we have to go and most importantly, how do we get there. His responses certainly lifted my spirits, reminded me of where Jesus is in it all and that there really is hope in our hopelessness.
threads: What do you think is the connection between spirituality and mental health?
Professor Swinton: If you think about spirituality in general terms, it seeks to answer perhaps four questions: Who am I? Where do I come from? Where am I going? Why? These seem to be questions central to all the main religions, but certainly in the Christian tradition, we know that Jesus comes to bring answers to all these questions. These are precisely the questions that are thrown up in the air when you encounter a different set of experiences such as mental health issues, whether that is schizophrenia, depression or dementia for example. With these experiences, you can sort of lose your sense of who you are, where you’re from, where you’re going and why. In principle, your faith gives you a foundation and your community should be part of that foundation wherein you can begin to rethink these questions.
If you think about mental health challenges as ‘disruptions’ in peoples stories i.e you’re telling a story, you think you know who you are, you think you’ve worked out pretty well the way the world is and then suddenly you start to hear things or see things or you become cognitively disturbed and suddenly your story looks completely different. What people really need to be able to do is find a way of drawing their story back to how it was or be able to make sense of the new story emerging. In principle, our faith can help us do that.
I came to your talk yesterday and I was really interested in your concept of “sticky labels” around diagnoses, how do you think we can deal with the “sticky labels” that people end up with?
Get to know people – that would often solve the problem! No, seriously I would say as Christians it’s important – think about the Genesis account of creation, God creates human beings and gives them various responsibilities, one of which is to name things, like the creatures, giraffe, monkey etc. That says to me one of the primary responsibilities of human beings is to name things properly, to give things their proper name. When you give something a name it has power, because essentially it becomes that thing. Particularly if you give vulnerable people the wrong name it can become really dangerous, diagnosis can be a little bit like that. Diagnoses are important for trained mental health professionals because it enables them to do their job well and they can work with it but actually it’s not that important for you and I because we don’t really know what it means. It can then ‘leak out’ and becomes part of peoples general language, which is probably created by media images and caricatures based on stereotypes, then we’re in trouble really as people can become that diagnosis.
I’m aware you spent your early career as a mental health nurse, how did that clinical experience inform how you relate to people within a faith setting?
The advantage of spending my life with people who see the world differently is that you end up seeing the world differently! When I was involved with mental health as a professional, there is a strong medial model understandably. When you’re a doctor or a psychiatrist you have some distance between yourself and your patients. When you’re a nurse, you’re close to people all the time. You come to know that many of the assumptions of diagnoses are not the way people are. When I moved from the mental health profession into the world of theology, I came not with a series of diagnoses, but with a lot of experiences and stories about people who were categorised under these labels, but you realise, we’re all just people. When you begin with that different story, you’re looking for different things.
A diagnosis at one level can help give people good reasons for why they’re experiencing the things they are and how they see the world the way they do, but for exactly the same reasons it can be a negative thing because you’re already assuming that’s what you’re going to see. Usually when you think you’re going to see something, you do.
Sometimes, I think a problem the Church has is it thinks the psychiatric story is the only story that can be told. It’s an important story, but I consider it to be only one of a multitude of stories that can be told by an individual and about an individual. The gospel story gives us a whole set of different lenses to explore the experiences that we call mental health challenges.
Yesterday I heard you speak about the three “elements of self” regarding mental health – the first being the impact of biological factors, the second being the stories we accrue along the way and the third being the value that the community give us. I’m interested in the community aspect – how far do you think the Church has to go before we get it right?
I think the Church needs to realise the importance of the body of Christ. The idea of the body is that the norm is diversity, we all have different experiences, but we can only be together when we are actually recognising all these different experiences. I think if we begin to realise that by marginalising people implicitly or explicitly and ignoring them, we actually fragment the body of Christ. Very often, people think this is a peripheral issue for people who are interested in these kind of things, but it’s the actual heart of the gospel, it’s the heart of Jesus ministry. People often talk about the fact that Jesus sat with the marginalised, which at one level is true, but at another level is not true because Jesus as God, sits with those whom society has marginalised and shifts the margins. The Church is like over here doing its thing, and then Jesus can be over there doing a totally different thing. I think we need to be careful that we don’t end up in a similar situation and issues of mental health throw that up as a major challenge. Ultimately, are we being faithful to the things we’ve been given to do and are we actually mirroring Jesus’ ministry in an authentic way?