Stepping Up in the Silent Pandemic
The Covid pandemic is visible everywhere. Pretty much every area of daily life has been affected by it, and so it’s impossible to miss it or forget about it. But there is an increasing realisation that another pandemic is also surging through the population: a pandemic that is far less visible, but that will last far longer than the Covid and could be incredibly damaging. It’s a pandemic of mental health struggles, a silent pandemic within the pandemic.
When Covid first hit, many Christians began to think about how we might best respond. Looking back through Church history many of us were inspired by the examples of Christians in earlier pandemics who were at the forefront of caring for those who were unwell, even when it meant putting themselves in potential danger. However, while there is much good Christians have been able to do over this time, we have also found that our experience has been different: professional medical care and the government strategy to tackle the pandemic have closed off some of the ways Christians have cared in previous pandemics. But in this mental health pandemic, we will not face all of the same challenges. It could be our opportunity for the church to step up and to play our part at the heart of a pandemic.
I recently took the opportunity to talk to a friend of mine, Dr Anita Rose, a Consultant Clinical Neuropsychologist, about this pandemic and how we as Christians and churches can step up and play our part.
AB: Could you tell us a little about the current situation of mental health in the UK?
AR: The situation of mental health in the UK since the Covid-19 pandemic is serious. It has been said we are facing the greatest threat to mental health since the Second World War. It is a silent pandemic within a pandemic.
Silent because the focus has been on the physical manifestations of Covid-19, keeping people safe, reducing risk, and keeping the NHS safe, but also silent because mental health, whilst on the healthcare agenda, still carries a stigma. Long after we have got Covid under control this silent pandemic will still remain.
Research has shown us that in the general population there has been an exponential increase in anxiety, depression, self-harm, addictions and suicidal patterns across all populations, all exacerbated by loneliness due to the repeated lockdowns.
Last summer a survey of UK frontline health and social care staff reported that 47% met the criteria for a diagnosis of anxiety, 47% for depression, and 22% for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A majority (58%) had at least one of these disorders. More recent research indicates these levels have increased, with an alarming 40% reporting symptoms of PTSD.
It is reported that at this current time 10 million adults and 1.5 million children are needing new or additional mental health services.
AB: What can we do to strengthen our own mental health at this time?
AR: Firstly, if you are struggling with mental health issues – speak up to get help. Speak to your GP, MIND, Samaritans or someone you trust. If you are a healthcare or social care worker there is the text service called Shout. You are not alone and there are people to help you.
There are also things you can do to help yourself:
- Restrict your time checking the news and tracking social media. Maybe only check the news once a day and take a break from social media platforms where every post seems to have something related to Covid. There is so much published on every platform and much of it is false information. The more you read bad news, the greater the anxiety and fear you will experience.
- Give yourself permission to relax – you are not being lazy when you take some time out. Relax in a nice bubble bath, or in a favourite spot in your house, go for a walk in nature, use mindfulness or relaxation apps.
- Stop putting yourself down – we are all our own worst critics but this impacts on our mental health. Next time you hear your inner voice putting you down, change it to something soothing and supportive.
- Lower your expectations – in other words, be kind to yourself. How often do you find yourself saying ‘I should’? We give ourselves a set of high expectations yet the gap between expectation and reality is often a factor in mental health issues such as depression as you can feel hopeless at achieving those expectations. This is particularly pertinent for all those parents trying to home-school.
- Express yourself - writing, drawing, acting, dancing, singing, painting. The act of expressing your experience releases the emotional burden you are carrying and leaves you feeling lighter and freer and builds emotional resilience.
AB: What can churches do to help those whose mental health has suffered as a result of the Covid pandemic?
AR: I think it is fair to say church leaders have provided pastoral support to their parishioners, but most are not trained to deal with mental health challenges. They will not have faced the extent of mental heath difficulties that many now will. I think to appropriately support, and to be able to understand the situation they are facing, will require churches building relationships with psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists and counsellors. There are churches who have started such relationships with positive effect to both their members and the communities they serve.
Churches need to ensure that those who provide pastoral care also have training. With the severity of mental health we are now facing, if we face it without knowledge and training churches may find themselves struggling.
There are some more simple things as well such as using technology to provide online courses, mindfulness to help mental health (based on a self-management approach), looking at health in a holistic manner, including healthy eating. Technology can also help reach those in the community who are feeling isolated and alone. I think often within church we can think someone is ok because they are part of a group or a family, when the reality can be very different. We cannot have open door church buildings, but we can create open door opportunities where people pop in on a Zoom meeting for a chat and a coffee. Getting the congregation mobilised to drop a card into their neighbours, or baking cookies and dropping a packet to the houses in their street, creating a hug-in-a-mug pack, gathering hand creams and lip balms for care staff and targeting care homes and residential homes – they get forgotten because everyone takes things to the hospital. The list is endless.
It is about expressing love, without agenda, and giving support with open hands.
AB: It’s expected that many people will emerge from the pandemic with some level of trauma. Are there particular ways churches can support people who have experienced trauma?
AR: My response is as above: we need to have trained support structures in place as well as pastoral carers having training. One of the issues with trauma is that without training you can increase the trauma experience and vicariously become traumatised yourself. It is about normalising mental health within the church. People who have mental health issues and trauma are having normal experiences but to vastly abnormal situations. It is normal to be experiencing trauma reactions when you have faced trauma. Churches also need to find a language that is accessible and reaches all areas of society.
Traumatic experiences will not only be seen in frontline staff. One significant area of trauma is around unresolved grief: families having to say goodbye over FaceTime, families on FaceTime with their loved ones and hearing others in the wards dying, not being able to have a funeral with all the friends and family, not being able to touch or hug those in grief. This is trauma, and at the point of typing this, over 100,000 people have died in the last year from Covid. That means hundreds of thousands of grieving people who have experienced the trauma of the death of a loved one and of not being able to be there as their loved one leaves them.
Our response as the Church should be as I have said above; it is about expressing love, without agenda, and giving support with open hands to those who have needs.
The Church has often been where people turn to in times of trouble. Let’s put the Church in the centre of our communities and then we can do the turning – to those who are experiencing trouble.