On 15 March 2014 Quakers in Britain held (in London) a first conference, open to all Quakers, on our approach to mental health issues.  It was sponsored by The Retreat, a Quaker mental hospital set up in York in 1796 and still going strong.  The ninety plus people attending comprised: people with personal experience, carers and professionals – and indeed any combination of the three.  We looked at: (a) our history, (b) the wider context today, (c) our present work, and (d) the impact of mental health problems on individuals, carers and the pastoral care within the Quaker community; and we asked ourselves where we go from here.  We did not finish these tasks in one day!

In the last 350 years Quakers have taken an active interest in all sorts of matters: war and peace, slavery, social justice, independent schools etc.    Mental health has not been prominent in our discussions apart from support of The Retreat.  It may be no surprise though (a) that many Friends these days work in care settings and (b) that our Local Meetings are sometimes attended by people in distress (and an appropriate response can be hard to devise).

There were numerous speakers and also discussion groups.  I would just like to mention a few things that came out.

1. A young Friend spoke frankly and vividly about her personal experiences, both as a patient and as a member of a supportive Local Meeting.  She suffers mood swings (varying from elation to tears), which had affected her behaviour in Meeting for Worship at times and required other members to try to understand her.

On the one hand, a psychiatrist had asked her, “Does God talk to you?”  She had taken the opportunity to explain the Quaker belief that God does indeed talk to those who listen, especially in the setting of a worshipping group.  This young woman was in a position to say that she had been accepted by her Local Meeting: she was not “broken or worthless” but “valued and trusted” – “good enough as you are”.  Help had been emotional and practical.  In return, she had contributed to the life of the Meeting by volunteering to take on tasks.  (Doubtless, not everyone has such a satisfactory experience.)

(I should add that this young woman has just completed a postgraduate thesis on the choices pregnant women with a mental health history make about what medication to take, if any, while they are expecting.)

Our Friend ended by saying that (although being a user of services is bad enough) being on benefits is worse.  Community services that help people stay well are being cut.  “The way we look at people on benefits is wrong.”  She called upon Quakers to challenge the cuts and the attacks on benefit claimants.

2. During the day, the question was posed: who is mad – the person occupying the back of a pantomime donkey in a demonstration outside a nuclear weapons factory, or the arms manufacturer?

3. Finally, for my personal reflections: the day was very successful in getting lots of people together who did not know each other (for the most part) but who had a burning interest in mental health issues.  We talked and talked and listened and listened.  We were all committed to trying to attend sensitively to the pastoral needs of people (including ourselves) with passing or long-lasting, mild or deep, mental health problems.  What we did not and could not solve was the challenge of manifestations of mental distress that sometimes disrupt Meetings for Worship (where most Friends seek stillness). 

More will follow, no doubt.

David Harries