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Mental Health and Spirituality: Building Workforce Competence and Capability Together

20 July 2022

A new report sets out how NHS professionals, faith leaders and members of faith communities can work together to improve community mental health. Project Steering Group Chair, Professor David Sines CBE, and members of the project team explain the project and next steps.In 2019, Health Education England (HEE) and Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust (CNWL) launched a project to explore the role and contribution that members of local faith communities could make to support people with emergent and actual mental health needs.

The valuable lessons we learned from this project have now been published in a report: Mental Health & Spirituality: Building Workforce Competence and Capability Together. They will be used to shape a framework that will empower NHS staff and faith leaders to support people in their communities who urgently need care and support but may not know how or where they can find it.

This project was commissioned by HEE (London) following a request from the Bishop of London, The Right Revd and Rt Dame Sarah Mullally DBE and was undertaken by Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust (CNWL) in partnership with a range of multi-faith leaders. CNWL were able to draw upon a considerable body of knowledge, experience and expertise  following their engagement with the Grenfell Tower recovery programme in Kensington and Chelsea. The project also began just before the COVID-19 pandemic which had a significant impact on the outcomes and the engagement of faith leaders and their faith communities.

In the Foreword to the report Bishop Sarah advised that ‘Faith leaders have deep knowledge of their own communities and the ways in which mental health needs are perceived, understood, acknowledged, or in some places greeted with silence, in those contexts. Bringing together the professional skills and expertise of mental health professionals with the contextualised wisdom of those faith leaders is therefore a very powerful act’.

Initially focussing on the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) and Brent, the project has worked with multi-faith leaders, lay members and partners to identify new workforce capabilities and competencies which could be delivered to members of the public who present with symptoms of stress, trauma and mental illness.

Our clinical aim was to target the emerging and longer-term mental health needs of younger people and adults, including trauma, anxiety and stress, related specifically to life threatening/changing events. We are all engaged in a lifetime journey of uncertainty that requires us to build personal resilience so we can adapt and acquire the capacity, confidence and capability to respond effectively when we are caught out by unexpected life events. When these events happen, we must recalibrate how we construct our normative ‘lived reality’ and our engagement with society. At such times, people often turn to their local faith communities for support, guidance, and enlightenment and to assist them to build resilience. The cornerstone of this project was building community engagement, capacity and resilience and releasing community capital so we can pull together to support the more vulnerable among us when they experience hard times.

Faith leaders and lay members of our multi-faith communities can make a significant difference to improving the social, emotional and psychological health and wellbeing of local citizens. They engage purposefully and effectively with local mental health services to inspire shared decision making based on the principles of partnership, equity, accountability, and ownership at the first point of contact.

Caring within communities

The care and support that faith communities deliver in terms of responding to mental health and wellbeing need is widely acknowledged. The project found that wide-ranging interventions can be offered as part of a codesigned and delivered workforce solution that is based on a partnership between faith communities and mental health professionals.

While health professionals are taught to holistically respond by including the consideration of a person’s spiritual needs, they often feel ill-equipped when planning care solutions to deliver health outcomes. Likewise, faith leaders and communities feel the same about how to approach and respond effectively to a person’s mental health and wellbeing needs and the most appropriate point of contact when escalation is required.

This project sought to identity the benefits that can result when mental health services and faith communities work in partnership and to consider how education and training can enable both parties to enhance their capability, competence and confidence to respond and/or deliver care and support people with stress and mental health challenges when required to do so.

What we discovered

The project identified some clear actions for the NHS, faith leaders and the community. Faith and community leaders require better training on mental health conditions and referral pathways to access care. Spiritual training may also be useful for nursing support staff. There also needs to be more support for health care professionals on how to have conversations about mental health and well- being according to a person of faith.

To achieve this, we are looking at workforce capability and solutions within our own staff from diverse faith and spirituality backgrounds who could step forward to co-produce and deliver training, and other faith based therapeutic interventions delivered into the communities.

It identified a need for collaborative work settings to discuss the impact of mental health utilising platforms like online meetings, to discuss the care plan. This would include nurses, doctors, psychiatrists, and priests or religious leaders to bridge the gap between a person’s faith and clinical needs where appropriate.

The report also recommends integrated family work, and systemic family therapists from faith- based backgrounds. We need to involve the patients and families from faith and cultural backgrounds to help us deliver services that are reflective and inclusive to achieve better health outcomes.

Finally, we need to empower and enable communities to be at the centre of the change that they want to see for themselves, families, communities, neighbours. This will set out how commissioners and NHS providers can work collaboratively to make this happen, to avoid entry and re-entry into Mental Health services at a more acute level and re-directing resources towards prevention and awareness.

Though this work is challenging there are lots of positives to consider and the report evidences how working in a more aligned way can bring together the support of healthcare professionals and the support of multi-faith leaders and communities to reach a shared goal of supporting people when they need it most, lifting the barriers to treatment and providing the services and support when and where it is most needed. The project has confirmed how much mutual learning can be achieved when NHS employees are encouraged to speak openly about their beliefs and values.


Posted by Professor David Sines CBE, Project Chair and Strategic Advisor, Health Education England