During Mental Health Awareness week this year, discussions took place in many national and local settings regarding the ways our society can better understand and support those who live with mental health issues. The UK now has its first Minister for Loneliness, perhaps a timely indicator that concerns of this nature need to be addressed in more formal spaces.
Reports of an increase in anxiety and depression amongst young people have also sparked conversations within the UK’s faith communities, both in terms of identifying root causes, as well as offering helpful insights from different religious teachings. For example, mindfulness meditation, a Buddhist practice, has over the last several years, been widely adopted as a tool for managing anxiety and other mental health conditions. Indeed, meditation techniques from a variety of faith traditions can induce a calmer state of being, thereby offering an individual a valuable coping strategy in difficult moments. Evidence suggests however, that for this 'state' to develop into a character 'trait' (i.e. a sustained alteration in disposition) the practise of meditation needs to be a long-term process. Nevertheless, acknowledgment that mindfulness is a helpful treatment option, albeit secularised in this context, and extracted from its original source, indicates a commitment to broader understandings of the term ‘holistic'.
The UK Baha’i community has had the opportunity to participate in two events this year where such conversations are occurring. The first, organised by ThriveLDN, asked important questions about the role religion can play in fostering mental health and wellbeing. The Faith, Culture, and Dementia conference, organised by the Alzheimer Society also explored creative solutions as to how those dealing with dementia could continue to interact meaningfully with their particular communities.
At both events, the issue of stigma surrounding mental illness and the importance of challenging attitudes towards those who struggle, was raised by several faith representatives and mental health practitioners. Whilst the root causes of mental health issues are various, such issues are particularly evident in neighbourhoods with a high incidence of social deprivation and inequality. Here individuals in need of help are often unfairly labelled, leading to further suffering and fragmentation in families and neighbourhoods. Moreover, although diagnoses can be helpful, it was noted at both events, that suffering itself need not always be pathologized or medicated.
As Johann Hari states in his book 'Lost Connections': 'If you are depressed or anxious, you are not a machine with malfunctioning parts. You are a human being with unmet needs. The only real way out of our epidemic of despair is for all of us, together, to begin to meet those unmet needs – for deep connection, to the things that matter in life...'
The Baha’i Writings offer the view that although we have a personal identity, we are not merely single, material beings, but part of a larger entity, the body of humanity.Interconnectedness with others, and the development of greater compassion for their sufferings, allows us to access a sense of purpose. Knowing that we are at once individuals, whilst also part of an organic whole, can nurture the building of talents and capacities in the context of service to humanity . This in turn can encourage the experience of belonging, so often distressingly lacking in those who struggle with mental health issues.
Naturally the injustices and traumas that often contribute to mental health conditions are unacceptable, and it is the right of all, to receive the appropriate care. Furthermore, Baha’is, like members of all faiths or none, are not immune to mental illness and are indeed encouraged to seek the help of skilled professionals in times of need. Whilst not offering specific treatment programmes for mental health, the community is learning how to build a pattern of life that promotes wellbeing and self-esteem. This has been emerging in recent years through efforts to translate Baha’u’llah’s teachings, particularly the core principles of oneness, justice, equality, and service, into practical actions.
Acknowledging the social isolation faced by so many in the UK today, the Baha’i community, over the last several years, has been establishing a culture of home visiting. This naturally necessitates forming more meaningful friendships with friends and neighbours within our localities. In a time when social media has been identified as one trigger for anxiety and depression, particularly amongst young people, youth can be encouraged, through their community’s activities, to discover and practise the qualities required to be a true friend. In face to face settings, the art of listening can be refined, particularly when initiating modest acts of service with those around them. Baha’is and their friends throughout the UK are engaged in community building activities, such as neighbourhood classes for the moral and spiritual education of children, groups where young people can be empowered to fulfil their potential, and prayer gatherings that are open to people of all faiths and none. Perhaps most significantly, in this era of loneliness, such activities offer opportunities across age divides, to form meaningful interactions and bonds.
Whilst these activities are by no means the cure for mental health concerns, they could in many cases be considered preventative measures against some of the complex and diverse causes of mental and emotional suffering in our society. Certainly the aim is to read the reality of neighbourhoods and work with others for the spiritual and material progress of all. However, it is perhaps the helpful attitudes that are developed in this context that can be identified as relevant to supporting mental health. Firstly, the spiritual practices of consultation and reflection are enhanced in collaborative settings when striving for detachment from one's own opinions, in order to seek unified solutions with others. Secondly, committing to a posture of learning supports individuals to remain optimistic and resilient when plans go awry and discovering the confidence to look for new and emerging opportunities during times of apparent crises.
The hope, when considered from both a spiritual and a mental health perspective, is to envision communities of compassionate and service-oriented individuals, so that subsequent generations can be released from the burden of repeating patterns that contribute to, and are reinforced by, societal fragmentation. In other words, to transform the character of a community over a long-term period, in much the same way that private prayer, reflection and action can transform an individual. As the Baha’i Writings tell us: ‘We cannot segregate the human heart from the environment outside us and say that once one of these is reformed everything will be improved. Man is organic with the world. His inner life moulds the environment and is itself also deeply affected by it...’
Today, there appears to be a consensus within the diverse faith groups of the UK that spiritual values and prayers, alongside community life and service to others, can provide a healing context in which to explore meaning, purpose, and the quest for wellbeing. It is also possible to consider, where appropriate, that life’s personal challenges can be opportunities for growth. Such attitudes will perhaps challenge the pathologizing of suffering and indeed the stigma faced by those who suffer.
Annabel Djalili is a BACP Accredited Counsellor with experience in voluntary organisations and private practice