I did some real social work the other day.
It has been a rarity of late- mostly I just go to meetings. But on this day I was the duty mental health officer for Argyll, and was called into the Psychiatric Hospital to interview someone in order to decide whether to grant consent for their detention in hospital under our Mental Health Act.
For obvious reasons I will reveal no details, but suffice it to say that the person I then spent the next few hours speaking to and about was living in the shadow of a terrible bereavement and had decided to take their own life. In many ways these kinds of conversations are run of the mill to me- I have been having them for 20 years. But each and every one of them is real in a way that most other conversations are not.
Despite this person’s lack of initial success in bringing about their death, they were in no way convinced that life was worth giving another try. In fact they were determined to leave the ward at the first opportunity, and to go on hunger strike until then.
My role in this process is a legal one- in that I have all sorts of legal obligations and duties- but it is also a very human one. And in many of these conversations I have found myself praying as I searched for ways of connecting- ways of opening up some kind of bridge over which we can travel together.
And in the mess of it all, in the shabby soon-to-be-demolished psychiatric ward, there can be these transcendent moments.
I can not easily describe how or why they happen, unless I use these words-
Grace will fall
On these broken places
Strength may fail
May become our beginning
Hope may have been crucified
But the story is not yet over
The tomb now lies empty
But none of these words can be spoken.
It would be unprofessional. It would be patronising and would lack respect. The words would also not be believed.
But there was a moment when the person challenged me to give a reason why their decision to die was not a valid one- why this choice was one that people like me would use the force of law to declare invalid.
I could of talked about the nature of mental illness, and how depression steals our joy, then our energy, then our colour, then our light, then our reason, and finally all of our hope- but how also these things are temporary, and may yet return.
I could have discussed too the effect that such a choice has on those we leave behind. The generation who are condemned to years of guilt and pain in the wake of such an aggressive, final act.
Or I could have discussed my qualifications, legal obligations and the nature of mental health law (which I did a little- it is part of what I am obliged to do.)
But after the question was asked of me, I was silent for a while. And we stared at one another.
And into the silence I heard myself saying
Because life is just so precious.
And because you too are precious.
And for a while the air crackled with the Spirit.
I hope this time in a broken old hospital ward is a turning point, and a little more light is let in. We may never meet again.