Revd Sara Doyle bravely shares her story of how her own lived experience has allowed her to help others battling mental health issues.
What does your role involve?
I’m the Co-ordinating Chaplain at Mersey Care NHS Foundation Trust for the local division. I manage a team of two staff and 15 pastoral volunteers. We spiritually & pastorally support patients, their families & carers and staff covering an area of approx. 13 sites from Southport through to Garston. We support a wide variety of both male and female patients, those with learning difficulties, older people and those experiencing drug and alcohol addiction. I work as part of a multi faith team, working alongside chaplains from other Christian denominations and faiths.
It’s hard to describe what a typical day is like, I never know what I’m going to walk into, whether a situation might have happened on the ward or a staff member might want to talk. I try to spend time and be present on all the different sites over the weeks. One thing I have done in addition to the pastoral care and the support of staff and managing the team is to develop a weekly Holy Communion service and the Eucharist has become central to the ministry that I do here. I feel it is a place of healing, gathering and community for people, particularly if they are feeling uncertain of the future, broken, isolated or afraid. Some people who might have been brought in on a section may feel as though their liberty has been taken away. Some people feel the opposite and might be glad that they are in hospital and safe. We try and gather all these feelings into the Eucharist in that sense that Jesus was broken for us and that the wounded healer is with us as we all come together.
Some of the volunteers that work with us have lived experience which is massively important as they are able to share with people on the wards and at the Holy Communion Service how they have journeyed through issues with their own mental health. That can give people hope that even if they are on their fourth or fifth admission to hospital and are at a point of desperation that there is a way through and they are not alone, for we journey with them. There is a hope and there is a future.
To some up, the ministry is incarnational; it’s very much that sense of God being present and with us.
What made you want to work within mental health as a chaplain?
I’ve always had an interest in this sort of work. My background is dual diagnosis/drug and alcohol misuse. I worked for the Whitechapel Centre in Liverpool which is a charity that deals directly with homelessness and issues around addiction. I met many people who had mental health issues who were self-medicating by misusing drugs and alcohol and living quite chaotic lives.
I was called to be Ordained and my intention was to be a parish priest but two years into my training I had a serious mental health breakdown. I became very unwell. I had stopped eating and lost a lot of weight, my mind had become very broken. I got very anxious around taking medication, I couldn’t sleep, I was hyper vigilant and became very low.
Initially I wasn’t sure what was going on and things were collapsing around me, my rationale was completely thrown. I went to my GP and got medication for anxiety but I couldn’t take it as I was convinced that it might harm me. Eventually I got help as I ended up in A&E over one weekend and was referred to services that were able to give me the right medication and care to be able to recover. At that point I was so worn out with what had been happening I had to take time off work and I had to end my course. At the time it was awful. I felt a failure, I felt weak, like I couldn’t do anything, thinking that everyone else was better than me. It was painful to watch my friends continue studying and getting ordained knowing I should be with them. I got counselling from the Diocese at this time and got through it, although it was hard work. I went back to my job at Whitechapel but this sense of failure was still there and hard to contend with. I eventually went back to training and I got ordained while continuing my job at Whitechapel. Working at St Brides/St Luke in the City after ordination allowed me to theologically work through what had happened to me and to become the “Christian and theologically thinking person” that I knew I was. I gained a great freedom from that perspective.
Tom my husband was very supportive throughout. Support networks were so important at the time, and still are now and will be in the future. Church, particularly our church at the time All Saints Kensington offered us great support; people visited me, made food for us and sat with me to give Tom some time out.
The following quote was very important to me in recognising my own vulnerability and acknowledging that my own journey of mental health is a strength rather than a weakness and I would like to share this quote with you.
“The Christian leader of the future is called to stand in this world… with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self.”
Henri J.M. Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership
That year that I had to take out taught me more about myself, God and other people than anything that I have ever experienced before.
A few years later a friend told me that Mersey Care were advertising for a chaplain – I applied and during the interview I shared my own story of lived experience and about my work at the Whitechapel centre and it must have been in God’s plan that I was given the job and here I am today.
What is your message to anyone who may be struggling with their mental health at the moment?
Firstly, you must seek help. You don’t have to struggle alone. Here at Mersey Care we are doing a lot of work about ending the stigma of mental health and this is the reason why I talk about my own mental health. I am a person and ordained priest who to this day has to mange my mental health and every single day I take medication for my anxiety disorder. We use medication for a variety of physical health conditions and mental health should not be thought of as any different. Please speak to someone, a friend, a GP. Don’t be ashamed or feel like it’s a weakness – it is most certainly not….!
Your work as a chaplain brings you into contact with people of all faiths and none. How do you deal with theological questions that you may be asked?
I often get people saying ‘I'm not really into God’ and that’s OK. Actually sometimes my role is just to be a presence, to offer someone a cup of tea. We don’t have to talk about God, we can talk about anything they want. Some people are very angry at God or think religion is rubbish; they can be very vocal and angry and hurt. I often get asked questions about war violence, death, heaven and hell etc. I very much come from a place of just being available to be present with people.
I find quite a lot that people are interested in the spiritual, but not necessarily God in name and we find that many people are looking, seeking and asking. They may not voice it but often as people start to chat they find that they are curious about faith and spirituality and sense something beyond themselves. There are of course times that I will get asked something that I don’t know the answer to and I often suggest that we can try and find the answers together whilst also acknowledging at times that we do have to live with a sense of “uncomfortable mysterious unknowing” at times.
I love my job at Mersey Care and am so glad that God has called me to be a Priest in this special and sacred place – with God nothing is wasted and I can now look back on all my experiences and see how this has helped me to be in the right place doing the right thing. I am truly thankful and Blessed.
I am extremely proud as Mersey Care really does take the spiritual and pastoral care of the people who use the service seriously, which is wonderful. We work within a recovery model of care and The Life Rooms is an initiative that runs courses such as gardening and walking. It looks at people’s health as a whole – physically, emotionally and we are a part of this by looking after the spiritual & pastoral care of people.