Monday, 8 May 2017

Mental health and the Media

Duncan Williams speaking at the Christian Free Press 

Duncan Williams, the founder of the Christian Free Press, has recently spoken out about the power of his publications, and religious publications generally, to help those who are beset with mental health issues. The Christian Free Press belongs within the umbrella company NewsGroup Limited.

Having been involved in publishing for twenty years, 52-year-old Duncan now wants to help others through his work, and has been giving talks on how religious publications can do just that.

He said: “Religious magazines and newspapers are a way to reach people suffering with mental health problems and give them a message of hope. There is often stigma surrounding this topic that causes additional and needless pain to both the sufferer and those around them. This can go on for years and through generations."

Mr Williams has been speaking in response to what he sees as a nationwide mental health problem that isn’t getting the understanding nor help it deserves.

"It is no exaggeration to claim that Britain is in the grip of a mental health crisis. Millions admit to having suffered, or are currently suffering, with anxiety and despair which medical statistics can confirm in grim detail.

"In a Unicef report commissioned by the Department for Education, a culture of “compulsive consumerism” was cited as a major contributing factor to the onset of mental illness and breakdown of the family structure.”

He believes that religion and spirituality have been sidelined, and that this may be one of the root causes of our mental health crisis.

"The great psychologist Carl Jung always wrote in support of the benefits of embracing meditation and a spiritual framework for clients who had suffered trauma and were needing healing of the psyche. The UK'S mental health crisis could be reduced by reintroducing spirituality instead of focusing on material gain," he suggests.

Rather than being a faith led initiative, however, Duncan suggests that our media consumption has to change. "What we focus on, they give us more of. Doom and gloom becomes a self-perpetuating and ever widening cycle of negativity. Advertising and marketing also play a large part in the deliberate manufacture of discontent in order to create needy revenue streams out of stimulated consumerism.

"When greed is nurtured and contentment attacked, what chance does peace of mind have?"

Mr Williams explained how readers send him letters to express their feelings and talk about grief, after being inspired by stories in religious magazines.

“This is how media can be very helpful to society. Newspapers and magazines give people a chance to speak about grief,” he said.

It was when he was leading talks in hospitals and prisons that he first realised how writing can help people to better express their feelings. "People suffering from war trauma and other forms of PTSD often develop problems with addiction, they drop out of society and too frequently fall foul of the law."

Response to inspirational literature was very positive. Practical reports of how people can rebuild their lives from out of the ruins of drug addiction or depression, in turn help others to do the same.

"I have observed countless people become able to recover and get well."

His experience has made him want to set up a publishing company in a bid to reach more people in need and give them a chance to voice their feelings.

“If people lock their pain it’s not good. For example, my elderly grandfather's suicide was brought about by war trauma at sea that he was never able to talk about. The sinking of the ship he served on and drowning of many comrades and passengers haunted him years after the event."

"Being able to be able to talk about traumatic events is vital to the healing process. Too many former members of the armed forces live haunted lives after being mentally scarred. Conversation can break the isolation. Even Prince Harry has recently encouraged people to talk about grief and their mental health,” he said.

Mr Williams firmly believes that problems with modern society are making it difficult for us to fully comprehend, contextualise and work through our grief. The first symptom? Having to be busy, busy, busy.

"Our modern obsession with being busy is not always wise when we'd be better off focusing on just being. Busy keeps thoughts of discontent at bay, but only temporarily. Just being, and just being still, can be revolutionary. It often reveals what we are really being too busy not to think about."

But Duncan believes that spirituality could bridge this divide, even if it may be a different kind of spirituality than that which was more common twenty, fifty or a hundred years ago.

“Pick and mix attitudes toward religious teachings may be frowned upon by devotees, fundamentals and fanatics, but a "take what you need leave the rest" approach to studying any creed may be the key to peace and unity.

“Trashing all religions is harmful to a progressive society, not to mention scientifically worthless - it’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Our current avoidance of embracing the clear benefits religion and spirituality has to offer has led to a materialistic society, which may be partly to blame for the rising numbers of mental health issues in growing numbers of people.

"This spiritual-phobia coupled with the mainstream media's relentless focus on bad news is ultimately bad for your happiness and your mental health.”

Mr Williams has also pointed out that the materialism of society is another of the central societal issues he would like to tackle. "A fixation on materialism causes a distorted feeling of deprivation because it stimulates a desire for acquisition simply in order to “keep up with the Joneses”.

"Social media trends and the popularity of Facebook and Twitter may be equally culpable in causing our generation to develop a narcissistic, isolated lifestyle disconnected from reality and meaning."

"Too many of us are preoccupied with this new culture of selfies, celebrity association and a displays of imagined wealth, which invite not only envy but also a revulsion from others. We are taught to fear failure and hate poverty, implying that being poor is shameful and only for losers. Bullying becomes rife, and weakness is preyed upon.

 “Additionally, studies indicate causation between materialism and poor psychological health, and research suggests materialistic individuals are more susceptible to marital discord and fractured friendships.”

But Mr Williams believes that what he does, and the reintroduction of spirituality generally, could reverse these trends and make the world a better place. "Reminding someone that they are not the sum of their possessions is a tall order in a society where so many live for instant gratification and find it difficult to attach existential meaning stretching beyond the fancy car, lavish abode and that much deserved job promotion.

"A spiritual dimension to living, offering a well-argued alternative viewpoint, challenges our personal and collective values, reminding us that we are all more than what we accumulate. Theology and faith journalism has a place in the era of new media and helps paves a way out of a commercialised rat race.

"Whether you identify with religion or not, there is a fundamental honesty contained in the teachings of most faith-based communities when they warn people against the empty pursuit of materialism and attaching oneself too completely to any of the world’s fleeting and ultimately finite pleasures."

Mr Williams publishes several magazines and newspapers which are delivered in churches, prisons and rehab centres across the country.

“My experience has been that by delivering beneficial newspaper and magazines through armed forces chaplaincies, a message of hope can be effectively offered and shared. Good communication is a great healer,” he said.

He also stressed that religious magazines must not try to convert vulnerable people.

“As long as religious people put the needs of genuinely helping others ahead of promoting their religion beliefs, all is good. After all, a faith themed magazine in a hospital or a war zone can lift the spirits, if responsibly presented," he added.

“More help is needed in treating mental health and not just relying on church groups and the well intentioned voluntary sector to muddle on indefinitely.”

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