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11 May 2021updated 12 May 2021 10:13am

Justin Welby: “We are still a long way from parity between physical and mental heath“

The Archbishop of Canterbury on the mental health crisis, inequality, and faith in a pandemic. 

By Alona Ferber

On World Mental Health Day in 2019, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby went public about his struggles with depression. “One of my children, who has been very public about it, understands these things and had taught me that there’s no stigma to this – it’s just life,” he said in a video released that day on Twitter. “I went and got help.”

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, the spike in those suffering with anxiety and depression has drawn attention to a growing mental health crisis. According to figures from the Office for National Statistics, released last week, the rate of adults experiencing some form of depression in early 2021 is nearly double the rate before the pandemic. Speaking out in 2019, Welby said it was vital that people “know that their friends will go on loving them, that it’s not a disgrace to suffer from mental ill health”. But he also highlighted the “stigma” attached to mental illness. “[It’s] no different to physical illness,” he said, “except it’s invisible.”

Ahead of Mental Health Awareness Week, the Archbishop of Canterbury answered Spotlight‘s questions on achieving parity between physical and mental health, tackling inequality, and faith in a pandemic. 

Since you spoke out publicly about your depression in 2019, do you think we have moved any closer to achieving parity between physical and mental health? 

Sadly, I think we are still a long way from parity, but that doesn’t mean there has been no progress. It has become easier to speak about mental illness in public, and the fact that celebrities have spoken out and lent their names to campaigns means it is more accepted and prompts conversations between friends, families and workplaces. It is slow and gradual, but that is the only way that we will make progress, so I am hopeful. However, there is still little parity in terms of treatment, and the shortfalls in our system have been laid wide open by the pandemic, particularly in terms of support for children and young people. In addition, while it has become easier to speak about certain mental health problems like depression, other severe mental health conditions, like schizophrenia, for instance, are still rarely talked about.

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There is plenty of evidence that the Covid-19 pandemic has sparked a mental health crisis, with levels of anxiety and depression spiking. Do you think that the public discussion of this shadow crisis has contributed to reducing the stigma around mental illness?  

Yes, I think it has, as I said in my previous answer; yet many people still suffer in silence, and again, as I said above, this often only applies to some forms of mental ill health, even though they can, of course, be highly dangerous too.

Read more: How to fix the mental health crisis

England’s Mental Health of Children and Young People Survey found the proportion of children with a probable mental illness increased from 10.8 per cent to 16 per cent between 2017 and 2020. What should the government and schools be doing to deal with this increase?  

I’m not sure this is a matter just for schools and government. The mental health of our children is something all of us should be doing something about: in homes, in schools, in churches, in clubs, in extended families. Parents and carers can be the first to spot when a child is struggling, and need to have the tools and confidence to know how to respond. However, we need to ask not just how we should respond, but why are our children are so distressed? What is it about the way in which we have designed our societies, in the ways we choose to live as a nation, in the pressures we put on them, that has created such a depth of unhappiness? What can we change so that Britain becomes a better place to grow up in? Some of that will be schools and government response: more investment in mental health services, trained specialist support in schools, good awareness for teachers. At government level, tough conversations need to happen to start looking at why we are where we are, and why we are not responding as well as we should. 

Under your leadership, the Church of England has made mental health and well-being a priority issue. Has this increased during the pandemic? How has the pandemic changed the way the Church and its schools have provided support to those suffering with mental health problems? 

Church is a grassroots thing. Vicars and lay leaders in churches have always provided huge amounts of support to those who are distressed in their local communities, often unseen and unrecognised, and that has increased massively in the pandemic. Churches can be places where people are encouraged to look out for one another, to be thoughtful friends and neighbours, to build flourishing communities. At a national level, we have tried to support that, as well as reach some of those that local churches do not reach for whatever reason. We have provided digital resources around mental health, and promoted really good initiatives and material like the Sanctuary Course. Our national Recovery Group, chaired by the Bishop of London, Sarah Mullally, has been looking at how we respond, including in terms of well-being, and how local dioceses can be supported and empowered in their own responses. Church of England schools have made mental health a major focus during the pandemic, supporting school leaders to be equipped to address mental health issues. They are working closely with the Anna Freud Centre and other experts and partners, and will be building further on the brilliant work they’ve already done to support children and families at this difficult time.

Last year the government committed an extra £500m to mental health services. Given the background of a decade of cuts to public services, do you think health services, schools and social care can provide the support people need in the context of this crisis?

The evidence suggests that no, we are not responding well enough. Having said this, it is an enormous crisis, with people doing their absolute best, when they are often struggling themselves. Mental health support is highly skilled, and takes much time, therefore it is often difficult to ever have enough funding to address the deep needs of all those who struggle. An integrated approach, that isn’t simply remedial but looks at the causes of strain and ill health, is needed; a strategy for integrated care that works with partners in the community, and does not leave people to struggle until they break down completely but offers help and support early on. A focus on early assistance and prevention might not only help some people avoid horrendous turmoil, but is also less expensive than having to provide acute care later down the line. These are difficult questions because I am tempted to say that the only truthful answer is: provision is often woeful, inadequate and too late. The only way to make it better is a massive review about why our society is causing these problems and how they can be addressed. The answer may well include massive investment, which can only happen if we raise taxes.

Read more: “Covid-19 will have a long-term impact on mental health,” says Claire Murdoch

You have spoken over the past year about the dangers of the coronavirus pandemic exacerbating inequalities. Just over a year on from the start of the pandemic, is enough being done to ensure that inequalities are addressed as the economy and society recover?

This is a really defining moment in history for our country, as we realise the debt we owe to key workers and the deep difficulties and economic struggles many people have faced. The burden of the pandemic has not been carried equally: it’s clear that its many, varied and often devastating impacts have been experienced disproportionately by women, by those with disabilities, by those from UK ethnic minorities, among others. As we rebuild after the pandemic, we will have to think about what sort of country we want to be in 20 years’ time. I want our pandemic recovery to put those who have suffered the most at its heart. Others are better placed to propose specific policies, but I am interested in making sure what we do is built on the foundations of the love and care for our neighbour to which Jesus Christ calls me. Each of us has a role to play in rebuilding a society that addresses inequality. The Archbishops’ Commission on Housing, Church and Community pointed to sacrifice as a key theme – those of us who have much must be prepared to help those who have little, if we are to be a just and fair society. 

How do you think the pandemic has affected people’s faith? 

We have had to wrestle this year with one of the most difficult questions of faith – why and how do bad things happen if there is a God that loves us? We have had to face our own mortality. We’ve been confronted with so much loss and grief. And all those things mean we need to ask really difficult questions about how and why we live. So it’s a time when questions of faith might naturally be at the forefront of our minds, and indeed we’ve seen many people joining our online services who may not previously have come to church – the Church of England’s weekly national online service, which was launched at the start of the pandemic, had about three million views last year. Christians believe that in Jesus we have a God who comes to be with us in times of suffering. Ultimately, I hope that in wrestling with questions of faith – and experiencing the comfort of Jesus Christ who intimately knows our pain – people might find the God, revealed in Jesus Christ, who brings comfort and hope in all times.

Read more: The UK’s mental health crisis: why people are struggling to access therapy