An ordinary parish trying to do something useful to support mental health.

To coincide with the start of Mental Health Awareness Week, Rachel Moore has been in contcat with Rev David Evans, Team Rector in Rugeley and part of the team heading up the Changing Rooms counselling service in a church in Rugeley. Read David's insightful and inspiring blog

Changing Rooms Pic

"Having spent a significant portion of my career before ordination in overseas community development, I looked forward to bringing some of the insights and practices into the approach to mission locally in a parish in the UK.

For me, health in the fullest sense, is the very heart of God’s mission. Health interpreted as wholeness, encompassing relationships, social wellness, and connection within communities and spiritual wellbeing are all elements of health.

I have long been frustrated with the ‘medicalisation’ of health which has reduced the common understanding of what health is to clinical wellness. The pressure on primary health systems in the UK has led to an approach by many clinicians which views ‘patients’ as people with clinical issues to be treated. This constricts ‘health’ into a very narrow bandwidth which undervalues solutions that are social, relational and psychological in nature.

In the parish where I served as a curate, in the Diocese of Southwark, the urban nature of the environment meant that health service providers and the myriad community groups and charities supporting wellness were all in close proximity making networking and creating connections relatively straightforward. Rarely did a few days go by without the local MIND branch rent out the Crypt Room of St Mary the Virgin, Lewisham for mindfulness or managing stress sessions. Synergy between diverse partners offering more rounded and joined up solutions developed quickly once an opportunity was identified.

For me the missional role of the local church within its community rests on three actions: The first is the ability and opportunity to name and affirm strengths of local people and communities in conversations. The second is the power to convene different groups with a shared common interest together around a gap or opportunity that the community conversations identify. There are few if any other groups in a community better placed to convene, to draw people together into connection than local churches and other faith groups who broadcast through word and action the expansive and inclusive love of God for all people regardless of circumstance, background or identity. The third action is the ability to facilitate and reflect together on what we are all learning about life, love and faith in a God who loves all people – some might call this reflective evangelism.

So the culture shock when we moved six years ago to a post-industrial town in south Staffordshire was both unexpected and eye-opening. Health services, charities and groups supporting a broader understanding of health, where the exist at all, are far more spread out geographically making access and the potential for networking and synergy far more challenging.

Being new to the area and the new incumbent, the first few months were spent assessing both the understanding of mission within the church community, and the opportunities for engaging with parishioners with an approach to outreach that corresponded to felt needs and lived experience.

A series of three workshops identified some core strengths of the community. People’s desire to help and care for one another was clear. The sense of shared history and pride around the legacy of mining and the local power stations which

had closed in recent decades was deeply held. When talking about the different points of transition in people’s lives one area of need became clear quickly: There was little local mental health provision in terms of access to counselling and other support. It was a challenge for people to even get a formal assessment of their mental health situation. The nearest place where NHS counselling was available was in Cannock, a few miles away. The distance between Rugeley and Cannock may only be a few miles, but public transport links for people unable to afford a car were, and still are, woefully bad. On top of that, local attitudes in Rugeley towards Cannock didn’t help. Cannock could be a hundred miles away as far as some people were concerned. People suffering depression, anxiety or other challenges often told me that their counselling had been cancelled because they hadn’t attended appointments. It was hardly surprising; they weren’t well enough to face the journey across Cannock Chase and back on a bus service that was infrequent and used to stop early.

Then, in 2017 I took four funerals in the space of a few weeks for local people who had committed suicide. These, together with the stories of people attending the workshops we ran, highlighted the challenge and opportunity that was presenting itself to us as a church community. Could we provide support in this area of need for local people?

The story of the Changing Room Counselling Service is a story of God’s provision and providence. Having conducted the series of workshops we brought the findings to the Parochial Church Council (PCC). An internet search for counselling providers in Rugeley came up with one source. The private practice of a therapist. A phone call and cups of coffee followed. Carla Thompson accepted the invitation to speak to the PCC. During her presentation she was asked, what could the church do to help? Carla’s reply spelt the beginning of a partnership with many spin offs: “Just give me a room!” was her reply. St Augustine’s church building has two warm, inviting vestries. The Changing Room Counselling Service was launched in February 2018 with one counsellor and some willing tea makers. A cheap mobile phone was bought with a number which was advertised locally. ‘Call or text to arrange an appointment’.

In 2021 we decided to have a review of what had developed since the start. The report that followed is presented in a way that provides something of a toolkit for any other parish or group to consider."

Rev’d David Evans

Team Rector, Brereton, Rugeley & Armitage Team Ministry in Lichfield Diocese

Find out more about The Changing Room Counselling Service

The Changing Room Counselling Service is a free service for the area around Rugeley, Staffordshire. We welcome self-referrals, referrals by friends or family members and relevant organisations. Appointments must be made by calling or texting 075 9125 7737.