Mental health, spiritual wellbeing and COVID-19

Mental health

In the interest of the common good, every citizen has a responsibility to promote the mental health of all the members of our society, including ourselves, and of our local communities. The Church believes that life is worth living. Life matters. It is a precious gift to be cherished. Our fulfilment and destiny come from a living relationship with Jesus Christ through faith, nourished by the sacraments and the support of the Church community. Prayerful support of those who care about the mental health of every member of the community also assists in this great work of Christian concern.
Statement from Bishop Richard Moth on the World Mental Health Day 2019

Mental health

This article was first posted on the COVID-19 blog of The Centre for Catholic Social Thought and Practice at the University of Durham and is reposted with kind permission

In the interest of the common good, every citizen has a responsibility to promote the mental health of all the members of our society, including ourselves, and of our local communities. The Church believes that life is worth living. Life matters. It is a precious gift to be cherished. Our fulfilment and destiny come from a living relationship with Jesus Christ through faith, nourished by the sacraments and the support of the Church community. Prayerful support of those who care about the mental health of every member of the community also assists in this great work of Christian concern.

Statement from Bishop Richard Moth on the World Mental Health Day 2019

There are many analogies for describing how it feels to emerge from a national lockdown: tentative baby steps, gasping for air, relief after a bad dream, waking up one day to find we live in a completely different world. This range of feelings and emotions reflects the variety of human experience during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, including the differing effects on mental health.

In recent years mental health awareness has become one of our society’s top priorities, with high profile public figures encouraging the general public to pay more attention to their own mental health and that of those around them.

But, before the pandemic, had mental health become a bit of a buzzword? Were organisations really paying close attention to the wellbeing of their employees? Was that ten-minute doctor’s appointment enough? Did we really mean it when we asked our elderly neighbour, “How are you today?” Did we tell anyone that we cried when got home after a hard day at work?

A changed way of life

“As I have loved you,” said the Lord Jesus, “so you must love each other.”

– John 13:34

The long-term mental health implications of COVID-19 are still largely unknown, but these months spent in lockdown have certainly shown that no section of society is immune from experiencing mental health difficulties in their various manifestations. Data gathered during this time reflects this.

In May 2020, the Royal College of Psychiatrists reported that ‘43% of psychiatrists have seen an increase in their urgent and emergency caseload while 45% have seen a reduction in their most routine appointments.’

In May 2020, the Royal College of Psychiatrists reported that ‘43% of psychiatrists have seen an increase in their urgent and emergency caseload while 45% have seen a reduction in their most routine appointments.’

Another report from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed that at the beginning of lockdown 49.6% of people in the general population reported high anxiety compared with 19% in the last quarter before the pandemic.

For much of this time, activities which may have been central to our mental wellbeing were removed from our lives. The practice of religion in a public and collective way was suspended. We could no longer meet friends and family outside of our own household, go for a coffee and get some quiet time alone, go to the gym, visit the library. In the most extreme cases, families of key workers were separated for weeks at a time, and some of the most vulnerable could not leave their homes at all.

There may seem to be an irony in the isolation of the most vulnerable in our society who may also have already been suffering mental health conditions. However, we must recognise that in the pressured conditions of the early stages of the pandemic decisions needed to be made to protect those most potentially susceptible to this lethal virus.

We have since retrieved a number of those things which we may have previously taken for granted. Gyms, restaurants, libraries, and shops have gradually returned to our lives. We can visit friends and go on holiday, though we have now returned to another lockdown, not quite as restrictive as the first.

The doors of our churches have also re-opened. Private prayer in churches was allowed from 15th June, and the resumption of public Masses followed not long after that, though we are back to private prayer only again.

Things have certainly changed. Attending a shorter version of the Mass in a sparsely populated church with one-way systems, face masks, no singing, and regular applications of hand sanitizer is a far cry from what we are used to. But, as the Archbishops of England and Wales remind us, there is one thing from which none of these changes can ever detract: ‘the immense gift of the Holy Eucharist.’

The Archbishops also acknowledge that ‘the lockdown has brought forth remarkable acts of charity, of loving kindness, from Catholics across our communities as they have cared for the needy and vulnerable…Now we can begin to return to the source of that charity, Christ himself, present for us sacramentally, body, blood, soul and divinity, in Holy Communion.’

However, this does not mean that our own acts of charity and kindness should have ceased at the end of the last lockdown or should cease at the end of this one. We know that deep down things have not returned to “normal.”

Instead, our return to the sacrament of the Eucharist should be fuel for these ongoing works.

Recovery

The Catholic Church believes that life is worth living, and that love is central to healing.

Our recovery as a society from Covid-19 requires the fostering of a genuine and positive culture of love, healing, awareness, understanding and respect.

The Church teaches that every human life is sacrosanct, and while we are each a unique individual, our shared likeness in the image of God shows that we also have bonds of reciprocity which spur us to strive for a common humanity.

In the same way, our mental health is both an individual and a shared issue.

During his Passion, Jesus spoke the words, ‘And the one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what is pleasing to him.’ (John 8:29) Yet, a short while later, he cried, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Mark 15:34)

Jesus’ contradictory feelings show us that in the depths of our despair we can still feel isolated and abandoned even when surrounded by those who care most about us. His is a reassuringly human response to suffering, and we can learn much from it.

During his Passion, Jesus spoke the words, ‘And the one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what is pleasing to him.’ (John 8:29) Yet, a short while later, he cried, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Mark 15:34)

Jesus’ contradictory feelings show us that in the depths of our despair we can still feel isolated and abandoned even when surrounded by those who care most about us. His is a reassuringly human response to suffering, and we can learn much from it.

In his 27th of May letter to the Prime Minister, Archbishop John Wilson spoke of the potential mental health problems arising from COVID-19, and stated that ‘religious faith can help support people, both directly and indirectly, with respect to their wellbeing.’

We must not shy away from the positive effects which faith and spirituality can have upon mental health. In an increasingly secular society, we should not be afraid of believing that faith, religion, and spirituality have something relevant, positive, and productive to offer.

Humans will always feel the need for groups and belonging. We have recently seen different kinds of communities forming built around a common experience of or expression of solidarity with a particular social justice issue or struggle. Recent examples include the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements.

Communities built around theories of social justice and politics can create and catalyse real change. However, they are also largely conducted online and through social media in forums which also risk exacerbating social tensions and working to the detriment of the mental health of many. After months of lockdown and conducting our social and professional lives via video calls and emails, there is a craving for human interaction. There is now a balance to be struck between the protection of the vulnerable and the rebuilding of personal communities.

These are challenges with which governments will be faced for many years to come. For policy makers, identifying that mental health is something which cannot be ignored or cursorily mentioned in passing is an important first step. Medicine and economics are quantifiable, but mental health tends to defy empirical metrics, and it may be that this is why it can be overlooked when contemplating the social outcomes of a lockdown and pandemic.

At the centre of the Catholic Church’s teaching is the commandment to love – to love God, to love our neighbour, and to love ourselves.

This is the lens through which the Catholic Church in England and Wales is now looking as we seek to explore how we can contribute to society in a post-COVID-19 world. Our role as a community is therefore firstly to make a genuine effort to open our ears and our hearts to those among us who are suffering.

Being open to others means ensuring that our relationships, actions, and communities do not alienate or isolate others, but rather that we find dignity in our differences and seek to understand and respect all human beings with true generosity of heart.

From this premise, we can move to looking at practical ways in which we can all contribute to the mental wellbeing of ourselves and of those around us.

The Catholic Mental Health Project, part of the Bishops’ Conference’s Department of Social Justice, has five key recommendations for how the Church can contribute positively to addressing mental health in a post-COVID-19 world.

  1. Training
  2. Resources
  3. Helplines and support
  4. Spiritual health and wellbeing
  5. Action

Alongside these central suggestions is the need to work in co-operation and collaboration with authorities and policy makers at local and national levels, in order that we can ensure people experiences translate into positive action and help.

Understanding local resources is crucial to successfully supporting social inclusion of the marginalised and vulnerable and assisting those suffering with mental health issues. Given the wide range of needs, the work of the Church can focus on offering recommendations, ideas and signposting for possible ways to address mental health needs, rather than giving a prescriptive set of instructions. These can then be taken up at the appropriate local diocesan, parish, and community levels, as well as by individuals.

The Church believes that life is worth living. Life matters. ‘For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ.’

2 Corinthians 1:5

Resources and the Church’s work during the pandemic

The Catholic Mental Health Project
Recommendations, ideas and signposting for possible ways to address mental health needs in a post-COVID-19 world.

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales
Guidance from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales on the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

What can Catholics do to protect their mental health during the Coronavirus?
This document provides some advice and suggestions for how Catholics can protect their mental health during the challenging time we face due to Coronavirus.

Domestic Abuse
Guidance on how Catholic parishes can support victims of domestic abuse

CSAN Toolkit for Parishes
Caritas Social Action Network and the St Vincent de Paul Society (England and Wales) released a new Toolkit to help Catholic parishes and groups develop safe, local responses to people in need during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

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Stephanie MacGillivray

Author: Stephanie MacGillivray

Published: 12th November 2020

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© Catholic Social Thought 2020