In a message delivered through a video link at the Church of Ireland’s MindMatters conference on mental health, the Most Rev Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, shared the valuable role of small support groups in nurturing his own mental well-being.
In his message, he stressed the power of trust and community in overcoming the stigma surrounding mental health issues.
The Archbishop expressed how his monthly gatherings with a close-knit group had become a sanctuary for him. He explained, “I know I can say anything in the safety and support of that group. I can say that I’m absolutely at the end of my tether, and I don’t know what to do about such-and-such a problem. And almost as soon as I’ve said it, it doesn’t seem quite as bad. We really trust each other. That sort of community is so, so important.”
He went on to reflect on a pivotal moment in his journey towards acknowledging and addressing his own mental health concerns. Several years ago, he began to notice a persistent change in his emotional well-being.
He recognized that he had experienced episodes of what he might now describe as depression in the past, particularly related to his experiences working in conflict zones, which had led to counseling for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. However, these feelings had typically passed, and he hadn’t felt the need to seek help. This time, though, it was different. He found himself feeling utterly hopeless.
During this trying period, the Archbishop’s daughter played a pivotal role in his healing. She had been open about her own mental health struggles, including experiences with depression and suicidal thoughts. She helped him see that there was no shame in seeking help. He began taking antidepressants, which he continues to use, and started talking to someone about his experiences. The medication helped lift him from a state of emptiness to a more familiar feeling of grumpiness, as he humorously described it, acknowledging that he’s naturally inclined to be more like Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh.
Archbishop Welby also touched on the broader issue of mental health within the Church and society, acknowledging the historical tendency to moralize these issues and stigmatize those who were suffering. He advocated for greater compassion, understanding, and a departure from judgmental attitudes, emphasizing the importance of Christ’s example of gentleness and acceptance.
Citing a 2022 study on mental health disorders in the Republic of Ireland, which revealed that 42.5 percent of the population met the criteria for a mental health disorder, and 11.1 percent had a history of attempted suicide, the Archbishop highlighted the critical need for open discussions about mental health. He pointed out that there is still a lingering stigma surrounding mental health, despite progress in recent years.
Archbishop Welby, who was speaking from Jerusalem, where he is providing pastoral support to Anglicans and individuals affected by the Israel-Gaza conflict, encouraged everyone to contribute to breaking down the stigma. “It’s gotten better, there’s no doubt about that, but it still exists. We start with our willingness to talk about it, to share our experiences. Transparency and openness help people learn that mental health problems are an illness, not a sin. It’s not contagious. You can’t get it when you shake hands and share the peace on Sundays.”
He concluded by drawing from the Psalms, highlighting the age-old human experience of anguish and hopelessness. He emphasized that it is a universal part of the human condition and something that we can take to God in prayer, highlighting the importance of faith in supporting mental well-being.