This morning I read an opinion column from Saturday's Times (I went and got the page in question from my neighbour who reads it and then distributes the various sections to about 15 other people: my brother gets the sports pages, a friend gets the crossword, another friend the answers to the previous day's crossword, money, travel, the magazine etc. to those who are particularly interested in those supplements. Seriously creative recycling in action. But I digress). Matthew Parris's article about GPs was a follow up to a column he wrote in June which in which he criticized them extensively. Since then he's been to shadow two GPs and acknowledges that they work extremely hard; he admits failing to do this first time round. I didn't read the first column so I can't compare them, but on its own merits the article seems fairly balanced to me. (Some doctors might take issue with the statement that they aren't gods. A colleague of mine once overheard a doctor say to his patient, "there are only two people who can save you now...and God isn't a cardiothoracic surgeon." It wasn't a joke.)
"For much of their time," writes Parris, "family doctors are doing what in different times and places has been done by the parish priest...[and others]." For the majority, their problems lie "in the mind, not the body. Loneliness, isolation, anxiety, stress, breakdown and mental illness..." I almost entirely agree, but I would add that these are not just problems of the mind but also the spirit (and the lack of community which I blogged about recently). People need doctors and medicines (mental illness is an illness of the body as well as the mind, for example), and they need someone to talk to but they also need God. Their GP is unlikely to provide an introduction to the latter. They're hardly going to listen to the patient, talk with the patient, prescribe sleeping tablets, recommend they pray the rosary daily and refer them to a spiritual director. "Take one of these in the morning and go to confession by the end of the week." (In fact I would imagine the most public sector workers and healthcare professionals in particular are becoming extremely cautious about mentioning their faith to their colleagues, let alone their patients.) People need their parish priest as well, but with an ageing population, declining congregations and fewer priests, even if he has the time the parish priest might not know where to find them.
This, then, is something the laity could and should assume. There seems to be a lot of confusion around about the role of the laity (don't get me started on Eucharistic ministers giving blessings to those who don't receive communion and giving out communion when there are enough priests present to render them unnecessary), and it certainly isn't to replace or substitute for priests. Chatting to your neighbours and offering to pray for them would be a good start, even if giving them a rosary and inviting them to pray it with you might seem a bit too evangelical the first time you meet them. Praying won't cure mental illness but a personal relationship with God certainly helps you to know that it won't last forever and maybe even to see it as an opportunity to grow in virtue.