About a year ago, I made one of the most critical decisions in my life and ministry. In actual fact, the decision was made for me. After months of suffering from crippling anxiety attacks, I took medical leave. There was no way I could properly function, not only as a bishop but as a human being, unless I received professional help. I was ashamed, embarrassed, and felt like a complete failure. I thought that my ministry as a bishop was over. My life was falling apart.
In retrospect, one of the wisest things that I did— even though thinking clearly at that time was a struggle— was to be truthful with the church about why I was taking medical leave. I was taking time off to address my mental health. I knew I had to be honest with my Church family about what I was going through.
My psychiatrist once explained it to me this way: if you had a broken leg and we saw you with a cast on, we would immediately be concerned for you and make sure you were okay. Working with a patient with mental illness is like wearing a cast. Mental health care takes time, and society should be just as concerned for your welfare, even though your condition is not as visible as wearing a cast on your leg. The stigma around mental health has dramatically improved in recent years. It wasn’t always that way. People who suffered mental illness were often isolated or hidden away for fear of what others would think or family reputations being damaged. There are countless horror stories where people with mental illness are locked away and separated from society. In this province, the phrase, “He’s in the Waterford,” was received with ridicule and scorn. So mental illness was kept hidden and rarely discussed in the open.
Not everyone can share their struggles, as I did, with their mental health. But we, as individuals and churches, can help lessen the fear of judgement by being more understanding and accepting. Realizing that mental illness is not the same for everyone and that there is no one treatment for all is the first step. Even though Jesus told us not to judge others, we sometimes do in churches, most often out of fear and ignorance. Churches should not be places that perpetuate negative stereotypes about mental health and people who are facing their own challenges. Creating compassionate and inclusive churches offers safe places for others seeking acceptance and welcome. It is not about prying into someone’s personal health issues but about being a caring community that loves like God loves unconditionally regardless of circumstance in life.
In a recent report from the Church of England, I was encouraged to read about a growing partnership and mutuality developing between faith leaders and mental health providers. In the Report Forward, Bishop Sarah Mullally of the Diocese of London wrote: “Building intentional partnerships between faith leaders and mental health professionals has the potential to transform lives. For all of us, there are multiple influences which shape our well-being and the way that we experience and understand our mental health. Faith is one of those factors, and it cannot be laid aside. If we are a person of faith it will permeate every aspect of our lives, our understanding of what happens to us and our response to those who seek to offer help when we are unwell. Faith leaders have deep knowledge of their own communities and the ways in which mental health needs are perceived, understood, acknowledged, or in some places greeted with silence, in those contexts. Bringing together the professional skills and expertise of mental health professionals with the contextualised wisdom of those faith leaders is therefore a very powerful act.” (NHS Report on Mental Health and Spirituality: Building Workforce Competence and Capability Together – June 2022).
I was so inspired to see my Cathedral of St. John the Baptist take the initiative in raising mental health awareness through education in their weekly church bulletin. On their bulletin’s front cover,
they have “Mental Health Moments,” which provide educated and researched facts about mental health. This is one small way the church can create open and honest dialogue and highlight genuine love and concern for all people. Many of our clergy struggle to deal with stresses beyond what could be expected. Some are questioning their vocations and their role in the diocese. Some are facing unique mental health pressures. The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on church and society are still being felt. As bishop, I am the pastor to the clergy and to the congregations. So, this year, I asked that every parish give all our current stipendiary clergy and paid lay employees a one- week (seven full days) paid mini-sabbatical. This mini- sabbatical is in addition to their standard vacation time and educational leave. This mini-sabbatical is a pastoral response so that our clergy and lay staff be given the time they need to rest and renew.
In addition, I have engaged with those with expertise in wellness, self-care, and mental health to assist in providing resources and days of awareness for the diocese, which hopefully will help all those who need it. We are a family, we are responsible for each other, and when one member suffers, the whole family suffers together.
From time to time, I will share more about mental health challenges and opportunities for
the church in future articles of Anglican Life, especially the difficulties for those accessing and receiving effective mental healthcare in this province. For now, I believe it starts with education and awareness. But education and awareness mean nothing if we do not show compassion for one another. My hope for the church is to truly embrace the call to respect the dignity of every person. When I went public with my mental health challenges, I received an enormous outpouring of love and concern from people in this Diocese and beyond. That support gave me the courage to carry on in ministry. I will never be “cured” of my mental health challenges, but through professional care and treatment, I am on a journey to healing and wholeness. I thank God for those in my life and ministry who are with me on this journey together.