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  • Writer's pictureDebbie Thrower

Mental health – the Lambeth way

Updated: Oct 24, 2019

Lambeth Palace is home as well as office to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and his wife Caroline. The couple recently opened their doors to more than a hundred people working in the fields of faith, medicine and social care to discuss mental health.


On the morning of the conference, the archbishop disclosed on the Today programme, on BBC Radio Four, that he suffers from periods of depression himself. He takes an anti-depressant tablet every morning, 'just as one might take a puff of an inhaler if one has a touch of asthma'.

'Faith and mental Health: a Christian response'

I was leading a workshop at the event, 'Older people: loneliness, isolation, and mental health'. As a group, we worked on some of the root causes of loneliness as we age and discussed proposals for trying to alleviate it, especially as we are a rapidly ageing population. Age UK published statistics have indicated that in 20 years' time there will be double the number of people over 85 in Britain, and in 30 years almost treble that number. Read the charity's latest report here.

Professor Chris Cook interviews people prepared to speak candidly about their mental challenges – you can watch the interviews online

Candid interviews

Professor Chris Cook, who is both a priest and a psychiatrist – he was President of the British Association for the Study of Spirituality from 2014 to 2018 – painted a picture for delegates assembled in the Lambeth Palace Library of a society in which half of all mental illnesses begin by the age of 14.


Listing some of the causes of mental ill health, it was interesting to note – particularly in the light of later life disabilities – that those who are deaf are more susceptible to mental illness. He spoke about dementia, as well, saying, 'If we no longer remember our own histories, it affects our sense of meaning and purpose.' Forgiveness therapy, he added, is 'good for mental well-being'.

Flourishing despite the challenges

Clips were shown of Prof Cook asking two people about their mental health – Les and Rachel. Their interviews, together with ten theological reflections he has written on the subject of what it is to flourish despite challenges to our mental health, may be found on the Archbishop of Canterbury's website by clicking here.

Gospel stories

Prof Cook spoke of how Jesus placed a high priority on people's mental as well as physical health and of ways in which the Christian gospels help us with 'our ability to find our place in the narrative of the kingdom of God and to tell our stories'.

Delegates to 'Faith and mental health: a Christian response' heard from MP Dr Sarah Wollaston, former GP and chair of the House of Commons' Health Select Committee, and Dr Jaqui Dyer, equalities campaigner and advisor to the government on mental health issues, who described, shockingly, how she feels as a black woman having to gird herself to leave the house each morning. As a black Londoner she described being subject to daily discrimination.

Discussions were chaired by the Bishop of London, Dame Sarah Mullally, former Chief Nursing Officer for England. At the close, Justin Welby said the conference was not about achieving solutions – that would be unrealistic – but about 'sustainable improvement'.

More than just a choir

Over lunch we were entertained by 'More Than Just a Choir', celebrating ten years since the choir was founded in Harrow. Comprised of many who have struggled with their mental health, the choir meets every week on a Tuesday evening in the London borough, between 6.15 and 9.15 pm and have, clearly, become a community of mutually supportive friends as well as singers.

The Rt Revd James Newcome, Bishop of Carlisle, and Debbie Thrower, Pioneer of Anna Chaplaincy for Older People

Nervous systems

Bishop of Carlisle, James Newcome, the Anglican Church's Lead on Health, gave a concise summary of the causes of mental ill health, listing a range of factors: biological, psychological and environmental. He spoke of an urgent need to prevent disaster as well as to react to it, and quoted his own daughter working in this field, describing our nervous systems as over-stimulated, ill-equipped and struggling to cope with the demands of modern life.

Chapel worship

The day concluded with worship in the Lambeth Palace chapel where, as well as lighting candles to remember those suffering from ill health, a simple repetitive chant rose from the congregation:

‘Take, O take me as I am;

summon out what I shall be;

set your seal upon my heart

and live in me.’

(John Bell, 1995, Iona Community)


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