BBC Radio 4 Thought for the Day, led by Dr Revd Sam Wells on 12/09/2019
Good morning. If people were falling and breaking their leg across the country, editorials would be demanding an inquiry. Health and safety requirements would change within hours. But when a Public Health England review finds that hundreds of thousands of people in England are getting hooked on prescription drugs there may be scepticism that anything’s likely to change soon.
It’s not that these drugs can’t do a lot of good. It’s that people get to the end of the period it’s safe or effective to take them and there seems no alternative to staying on them. One GP from South Shields commented, ‘The patients we see don’t really have a depressive illness, they have rotten life syndrome.’ Amid chronic pain, anxiety, and social deprivation, pills become a constant companion in the darkness.
My church, St Martin-in-the-Fields, coordinates a national network of about a thousand homeless support workers. When asked what they wanted for the subject of their annual conference, they said well-being – their own well-being. They weren’t talking about going on a diet. They were saying they knew their own mental health was as vulnerable as that of the people they serve.
What is it about mental distress that makes it such a taboo – that associates it with not coping and needing to pull oneself together?
The philosopher Gabriel Marcel distinguishes between a problem and a mystery. A problem’s generic – you’ve seen lots of them before, like a broken window or a software glitch. A technician can fix it and there’s a fairly straightforward solution. A mystery’s unique – it’s one of a kind. You’ve never encountered it before, it has multiple origins, and you can’t understand it from the outside. You need to bring your whole life-experience to enter it. Often it’s the flipside of something good and wonderful.
Mental health is often treated like a problem but I wonder if it might be better understood as a mystery. The mind is a physical thing – but it’s not like a leg or a ribcage. Its trials are seldom ones that medicine alone can fix. Such struggles are unique to each person’s story and circumstances.
Perhaps it’s helpful to reconsider most of the world’s travails as mysteries rather than problems. For Christians, God sees the world not as a problem to be solved but as a mystery to be entered. Christianity maintains that Jesus doesn’t fix everything at arm’s length but comes among us, humbly entering and sharing our mystery.
Mental illness can seldom just be fixed once and for all. The language of problem and solution can ironically be part of the problem. Amidst multiple policy and community strategies, we need patience and endurance, and a sense of awe and discovery, if we’re to enter the mystery of our own mind.