October 10 is both World Homeless Day and Mental Health Awareness. How do staff at London City Mission’s Webber Street Day centre support people who are homeless and struggle with poor mental health?
The relationship between homelessness and poor mental health can be complex – each can be a cause of the other. People without a home are almost twice as likely (45 per cent) as the general population to be diagnosed with a mental health condition. Informally, 80 per cent of homeless people say they struggle with poor mental health.
For missionary Tyson Bradley, who until recently has worked at LCM’s Webber Street day centre, the key to responding well to people struggling with their mental health is to take a relational approach that doesn’t force things, allowing guests to open up in their own time and their own way.
‘Things like anxiety, depression are really hard to pinpoint in guests at Webber Street,’ Tyson says. ‘A lot of guys don’t want to talk about mental health. They might talk about external factors, how the government, employers or the system has screwed them over, but be resistant when it comes to self-examination.’
Trust is not built overnight. For a guest to open up about something that’s negatively affecting them is a big step.
It is a matter of listening and resisting the urge to lead the conversation. To open up on a first meeting is pretty rare, says Tyson. So the team has learned to let guests lead the conversation in a time and a way that’s good for them. Trying to push it can set everything back by breaking trust and building barriers.
‘One particular guest had been coming to us for many years,’ says Tyson ‘I and others, would spend time trying to build a relationship and trust with him. Eventually he expressed that his mental health not in a great place.’
Even then he refused to engage with the mental health outreach team.
The mental health outreach team visits regularly, asking if there are guests that the Webber Street staff are concerned about. Sometimes individuals will avoid coming in on days when they know the mental health professionals are coming in.
A lot of guys put all their hope in their situation changing. They say that if particular things were to be in place – accommodation, income, or a job – then mental health would not be an issue.
They are holding out for something to make it alright. It’s rare that you find someone who doesn’t have hope for anything. That where speaking the gospel comes in. Tyson says
Speaking the gospel
There is a danger in speaking about faith. The pat answers that roll off the tongue most easily – to just have hope in God, that everything happens for a reason – can be offensive and counterproductive, especially if it comes from someone who has a secure home and a warm bed. On the ears of someone who is homeless it can sound patronising and condemning, as if their situation is due to a lack of faith.
‘Again, I would emphasise the need for listening and understanding,’ says Tyson. Avoid broad brush generalisations and assumptions.
‘I have found that where the gospel talks about a new identity and a purpose in life that resonates with people who are homeless. Those issues are massive for people who are acutely aware of how they are perceived by society.’
Storytelling helps too, says Tyson. There are many stories in the Bible of people who struggled with their mental health. He often respond to people’s situations beginning with: ‘let me tell you about a guy facing a similar situation…’ The Bible is full of stories of imperfection, godly people with struggles and weaknesses, there are lamentation and weeping prophets. Several key figures wished for their own death.
The Psalms are very real and raw. When things are going not so great, there’s no pretence. Reading psalms that are crying out in the midst of suffering can help acknowledge and address a rough situation, Tyson says.
‘I am always struck that Webber Street is willing to help with all sorts of things – referrals, finding work and accommodation, but many people are content to have a coffee, a shower and somewhere to read a newspaper. Just offering that does a lot to help some sort of normalcy in life.’
‘Taking time to listen attentively can really help people to see their situation differently. Just being there and being present can make the world of difference.’