Thinking about the effect of environment on mental health and depression

In his review of The pastor with a thorn in his side, Mark Pickett calls for further theological, ecclesiological and sociological reflection on the causes and consequences of depression among those in Christian service. I agree and believe that such reflection will be helpful not just for church leaders suffering with depression but as we consider the impact of mental health more widely.  I picked up on the theological aspect in this post. Here I want to respond a little to the sociological question.

Mark picks up on one example in The pastor with a thorn.

 “Derek French tells us about the fact that his house was overlooked from hundreds of windows. Having, I believe, visited that church, I can tell you he is not exaggerating – the church and manse lie in the midst of several Soviet-inspired high-rise blocks of flats. If that is a sink estate, the manse is the plug hole. If I am not mistaken, the previous minister had also had mental health issues. It seems a neglect of the duty of care that the church should allow that situation to have persisted. Ministers need to be able to relax just like anyone else. To be in a situation where one is perceived to be always available to the community (especially in such a needy one as that) is to load a heavy burden on a gospel worker with a sensitive conscience.”[1] 

Reading back that description, I think he makes a good point.  There are two factors to consider here.  The first is around environment and architecture.  You get a feel for an area and for buildings, there may be something subjective to that but you tend to here a consensus from people that particular areas have an oppressive and gloomy feel to them. Indeed, I think that this may at times be why people sense a negative spiritual presence (I say sometimes, not always and there may be other factors too) and talk about areas as dark.  It is partly to do with the culture and lives of people such as if there are high levels of crime, addictions etc. However, the architecture and environment do matter. There is something theological to consider here too. If we believe in a good God worthy of worship and if we believe that he made a good creation but that this world is subject to the Fall then we also will expect to see evidence both of beauty and of ugliness in the world around us.

Of course, there’s not much that a church can do about the surrounding environment for the pastor. You can’t change the fact that the church building and potentially the manse are right in the middle of high-rise block flats.  And whilst I agree with Mark that the church in this case perhaps should have been more alert to things, I wonder what exactly they would have been able to do, assuming indeed that the church family itself lived on that estate under the same conditions. Furthermore, all that is described there would have been true of other residences including church members and those witnessed to.  So, do we as pastors want to be exempt from what those around us are facing. If the environment we witness in is potentially a cause of depression, then should we to some extent be ready to suffer alongside people.

However, there may be two things that we can be doing in such situations. First of all, we should be looking at our buildings and so far as we are in control of them making sure that they are places of warmth, beauty and welcome.  I have to say that some church buildings are absolutely hideous. I mean, you don’t need to go all high church in your aesthetics but why build places that look like public toilets?  And we can make sure that on the inside they are tastefully decorated, kept tidy and don’t smell rank.  Of course, there are plenty of places that are pleasing to come to, warm and welcoming and that can be something we aim for -to provide a pleasant oasis that not only will be a suitable workplace for the minister but will also be a safe and soothing place for those in the community who struggle with their mental health too.

Perhaps the other thing we can do in those contexts is have an eye for public theology too.  Perhaps we shouldn’t just try to make things a little bit better on our patch but we should also be working to make the environment better for the whole community. That might include organising in the community to do rubbish clear ups, painting and decorating projects etc. It  might mean lobbying local authorities and housing associations. It might also mean encouraging Christians to consider careers as architects and town planners.

The other factor of course is in terms of attitudes and culture.  Is a community open and welcoming or closed and hostile? Are people friendly and engaging or are they over inquisitive?  It is one thing to feel as though you are constantly under surveillance, living in a goldfish bowl. It is another to actually be under surveillance. At theological college, we lived right in the middle of the college. Our lounge and bedroom windows looked out onto the main entrance to the lecture and library block. Our front door opened opposite other student’s studies.   To some extent, we felt like we were in a bit of a goldfish bowl.  However, the nature of college life was that in fact we were part of a loving and friendly community. If we had not been then the “goldfish bowl effect” would have been far worse.

Once again, the pastor cannot be immune from what the rest of the community experience because others have to face that same feeling of being watched. I’ve heard this particular from those from ethnic minorities, especially when they are the first to move into an area.  It is also worth observing that Derek French who writes about the goldfish bowl affect on his mental health tells us in his chapter that when he visited his GP she disclosed that she had been through a similar experience when she started working in the area.

What we can do is encourage a different culture within the church and this can be a way of being light in the neighbourhood, providing an alternative community where there is grace and love to replace guilt and shame, a community without a surveillance culture. 

What we are talking about here is an approach where we are willing to make our lives with people and share their suffering with them but at the same time to model transformation.


[1] Pickett Post: Pastors Get Depressed Too (markpickett.blogspot.com)  See also, The Pastor with a Thorn in his side, 79.

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