Vulnerable Leadership and Mental Health

We are pleased to have Katherine Welby-Roberts contributing to the Concrete Network. Her reflections on her experience and current thinking around mental health will hopefully provoke and encourage our work with young people.

A couple of weeks ago I spoke at Youthwork Summit. The title was ‘Down but not out: Working with youth struggling with depression’, I am not going to go into great detail about what I said (if you would like to listen you can do so here) but I do want to pick up on the key theme of vulnerable leadership.

The point I was aiming to make is that it is all very well to say to someone ‘you may be down but you are not out’, but unless we take significant action to demonstrate inclusion in the way we live, our words are meaningless.

The thing with our society, in an age of twitter, immediate news and headlines, is that we love a catch phrase or a sound bite. The church has not been immune to this, and we want some new method, course or 3 step solution to put beneath a catchy and ‘cool’ heading to tell our youth that it’s ok to be depressed.

However, if we say to someone they are welcome, but imply through the way we lead that we have a happy life, that Christ has taken away all our trials, that life is brilliant, we are denying people freedom to hurt. Most of us imply this without thinking. We don’t deliberately shut people out, but by not allowing hurt and pain to show – even if we don’t want to go into details – we state, through our actions that it is not ok to be suffering.

I read an article recently called ‘Raising a moral child’ (read it here) in which the author described a study done with children in which adults spoke about generosity, demonstrated it and demonstrated selfishness in front of children – this was done through a combination of actions and words. The part that interested me the most was that the groups of children who had witnessed generosity without the adult speaking about it were the ones most likely to still be generous three months on. In other words, our behaviour speaks louder than words.

This same approach must be taken when it comes to working with youth with mental health problems. It has only been in the last couple of years that I have become confident enough to speak about my own mental health. In this time I have been able to recognise that there is no shame in my illness (it is no more than an illness) and it certainly doesn’t define me, nor does it say anything about the state of my faith or the state of my character.

I was ashamed of my illness for a long time, a Dr told me I was a hypochondriac, countless Christians told me ‘you just need to understand God’s love for you’, ‘you need to trust in God more’ and various other meaningless statements that speak more of that individuals understanding of suffering than my faith. However, these things caused me a huge amount of pain.

Church is a sea of smiling faces, ‘I’m fine’ comments and happy lives. It so often feels like a lie. If we want to have the youth in our churches know that it is safe to be depressed, know that they are down but they are not out, we need to be able to show them that we are broken too.

Mental ill health is not a sign of weakness and my having a mental health condition is no different to a friend having asthma, or diabetes. Before we start to work towards a ‘program’ or a pithy catch phrase to let people know we love them despite their mental ill health and that we want to support them in their journey through mental ill health, we need to assess our attitudes.

Do we treat those with mental ill health the same way as we would with any other illness?

Are we willing to lead by example and speak openly and with vulnerability about suffering?

If the answer to either of these questions is no, then we need to go right back to the very beginning. Start from scratch and say ‘I don’t know what to do’. This simple statement is the first step to leading with vulnerability, informing those we lead that they can be broken too.

It is then, and only then, that we will be able to tell someone with complete transparency that they are welcome, in any state, mind set or condition.  It is only then that we can start using catch phrases. It is through our actions that others learn to imitate our behaviour. Not through our words.