Saving Our Sorry Souls image

Saving Our Sorry Souls

What has covid and lockdown done to our collective mental health? The stats are starting to come in and it doesn’t look good. According to the Office for National Statistics, ‘One in five people appeared to have depressive symptoms compared with one in ten before the pandemic.’

This isn’t very surprising: anxiety about the virus itself, worries about employment and income, family stresses, the effects of social isolation, and so on, will all doubtless have contributed to worsening mental health. The concerning thing is how badly equipped we are to respond.

Writing in The Spectator, Melissa Kite makes these observations about sitting in a greasy spoon café and looking at ‘a typical English row of shops’ (it’s worth quoting at length):

It was a rundown block consisting of a betting shop, a hairdresser, a charity shop, a chemist, an off-licence, a tattoo parlour and, right at the end, a ‘wellbeing’ clinic, which I took to be a place selling methods to undo all the damage done in the other places.

It is dawning on me that something is awry about the way we are opening back up after lockdown.

Let me try to explain as follows. The betting shop was open, the hairdresser and tanning salon were open, the off-licence was open, the tattoo parlour was open and the greasy spoon caff was up and doing, coating organs with fat.

However, the wellbeing emporium was locked. Telephone for an appointment via video link.

If you go through a list of what you can and can’t do in this country right now you paint a grim picture of what has been achieved by this virus…The worst of everything is now freely available and being sold with enthusiasm, no risk too great, while the things we need most to save our sorry souls are being carefully rationed.

Churches are just about open for worship but there is no singing. No singing in church, but you can have a man pierce your skin with a tattoo needle.

The pubs are all open, and crammed full, with people pressed up against each other spitting beer into each other’s faces. But should these people hit the bottle hard enough, which they certainly seem to be, they can’t go to an AA meeting.

With the exception of barely half a dozen meetings at a handful of church halls in London, alkies have nowhere to go other than Zoom…But obviously it’s too risky just to sit people on chairs two metres apart so they can talk. This is the unbrave new world we live in. I didn’t like the other one much but now I realise how ungrateful I was.

Churches should definitely feel the sting of this. Yes, there is lots of great stuff we can do online. At my church we have launched a series of courses on Zoom designed to help people build resilience and navigate life effectively. Many churches are doing similar things and there is no doubt being online enables us to connect with and help people we otherwise wouldn’t. But what many people wrestling with mental health issues need – what all of us need – is meaningful physical presence with others.

Perhaps I should have been less surprised that there have been people new to the church at every physical gathering we have had since starting to meet again six weeks ago.

The pandemic has been terrible but before it struck there was already much talk about an epidemic of mental health issues sweeping our nation. Before the pandemic we were in the UK averaging more than 11 suicides per 100,000 of population. That works out at around 18 suicides a day. I doubt that figure has reduced during lockdown.

Yes, we need Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and wellbeing clinics to be open. But most of all we need churches that are engaging in our communities, bringing hope and life where there is so much death and despair. Let’s not ration ‘the things we need most to save our sorry souls’. We can’t leave it to the pubs and tattoo parlours: churches, open your doors!


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