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19.09.2019

A More Mentally Healthy Campus | Connecting with Culture

It seems to be more normal than ever to read headlines about the state of the nation’s mental health. No one would complain that the tide of stigma is receding. But the changing tide also brings an expanse of complaints, scapegoats, and unanswered questions into the open.

This week, minister Norman Lamb spoke out about the scale of the mental health crisis in higher education. Lamb went as far as to say that UK universities should be bound by law to meet the mental health needs of their students. Which is not quite blaming universities for a failure in their duty of care, but was close enough to make a BBC news headline.

But headlines like these are not so new. In 1893 The Churchman periodical reflected that ‘the existence of mental and nervous degeneration among a growing class of people, especially in large cities, is an obvious phenomenon… diseases of the mind are almost as numerous as the diseases of the body’.

Media scaremongering aside, poor mental health can be an excruciatingly real problem for students at universities in the here and now. Is there hope for more mentally healthy campuses? Can we push back against this cultural contagion?

In the 1990s, a family therapist named Edwin Friedman began to explore these questions. He began coaching family members to become a ‘non-anxious presence’ in their networks: a presence who is connected to, but differentiated from, the sufferer. More recently, Esther Rantzen has championed grandparents for the same reasons.

Alas, prescription grandparents are unlikely to be rolled out across universities anytime soon. But the idea of a ‘non-anxious presence’ among us is worth further reflection.

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul tells the members of the church to ‘not be anxious about anything’. But far from being an anxiety-inducing religious requirement, this command flows directly from an essential preceding truth: ‘the Lord is near’.

Christians believe in a supreme Non-Anxious Presence – a God who is intimately connected to us, but differentiated from us. While we persevere in the midst of our anguish, we trust in a God who promises to be present with us ‘to the very end of the age’.

A more mentally healthy campus would be a place in which students have access to a non-anxious presence like that. That would truly be a good news story worthy of the headlines.

 


Tim Yearsley leads a student ministry for the Navigators in Nottingham and occasionally tweets @convocafeuk.

Comments

  1. Thank you. Very timely piece. If we can remember to bring our troubles to God and trust that He is in control of everything even the difficult times. It’s easier said than done but it definitely eases the feelings of anxiety.

    By Philip Hamilton - 20th September 2019
  2. Loved the reference to Friedman, Tim, having spent this week reading him!

    By Tracy Cotterell - 20th September 2019
  3. Hmm, I understand what you’re saying, Tim, but unfortunately some mental health problems are so pervasive for believers that despite God’s promises we cannot necessarily be that ‘non-anxious presence’ or similar ideal. And why, in fact, should we expect God to heal us in that way? After all, we don’t expect him to click his fingers and heal every physical complaint. On the contrary, Christians with mental health problems (and I include myself, with almost lifelong depression) are often actually made to feel worse by the church (both general and local) who seem to expect a miracle in us, so that somehow we overcome the effects of the illness itself and are somehow ‘different’ – and this when we already battle feelings of failure and shame ourselves, for feeling we are letting God down and not being the represenative of Jesus we want to be.

    I’ve never known the peace that passes understanding that we like to talk about. However, the God I serve is worthy of honour because of who he is and what he has done, outside and beyond myself – he is the epitome of love and beauty and peace and reconciliation and the transformation of people and situations despite all our wounds, and that remains constant and outside of ourselves … and his kingdom will finally be one where every tear will be wiped away, and incredible hope for all of us. I can attest to that and point to that, but please don’t ask me to be a ‘non-anxious presence’ or a ‘non-depressed presence’ … I can’t do it and I don’t want to feel a worse failure because I can’t.

    And, actually, it seems that the the depressed or otherwise mentally ill people I meet in my day to day life in fact often seem MORE encouraged by a depressed and struggling Christian who can point to God than they might a more apparently-‘together’ person that they cannot relate to, so maybe we should cheer on those brothers and sisters struggling brought low with their own mental health problems for whom being a ‘non-anxious presence’ is just a pipe dream, and yet they praise God and point to him anyway.

    Thank you for your thoughts – and they are very good ones and yes, of course it’s right and good that we strive to rest on God’s assurances of what’s important in life, as a countercultural contrast to the worries of our day. I just think that there are some Christians for whom that is so much more difficult and want to make that point that we should understand them and support them and realise that they may have a different perspective to offer, and one that may equally point others to Jesus.

    By Katy - 20th September 2019
  4. Good post, and helpful reflection too Katy, thanks

    By Bruce Gulland - 20th September 2019
  5. Thank you Katie. I will not go into details, but one of my family has been gradually diagnosed over six months with a heart condition. The NHS has done its best but, frankly, it has been a history of delays, misinformation, good intentions frustrated by events – particularly the lack of any administrative urgency. I do not question the clinical skill of the medical staff – I can’t judge anyway but it seems to be of a high standard. But the lack of ‘joined-upness’ and conflicting instructions has caused a gradual ramping up of anxiety in this person to the extent that he/she is terrified, confused, and angry. All the way through this ordeal fellow Christians have been telling us to trust in the Lord and we have received numerous ‘helpful’ texts that haven’t helped at all. God is not a slot-machine where prayers and Bible references go in and peace comes out – though of course we do not say that God can’t bring it about. He is the Lord of the impossible. But He hasn’t.

    One thing has shone out: the love of our fellow Christians has flowed even faster than the quotes. We praise Him for that. I pray that all those who can recognise the above will feel love like this through the barbed wire that grips them.

    By Chas - 20th September 2019
  6. Just a wee note to Chas to say how sorry I was to hear of you and your family’s difficult situation, and hurray for the loving Christians. I do hope things improve very soon in every possible way.

    By Katy - 27th September 2019

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