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Clergy tell of the effects of the ‘unknown enemy’ for people with mental-health problems

01 May 2020

Efforts made to help with mental health and rural isolation


PEOPLE who are used to being in control are among those most affected by the stress of the coronavirus lockdown: they can feel helpless in the face of a problem that they cannot deal with, a psychotherapist and studies have said.

One priest who works as a group analytic psychotherapist, the Revd Dr Anne Holmes, said that the “underlying angst is a very hard thing for people who are normally high-functioning. Adjusting puts a strain on them.” Describing the virus as the “unknown enemy”, she continued: “Because everyone is aware this is a unique situation and unknown to our usual living experiences, people with important positions have tended to downgrade themselves and might not be asking for help for themselves because it is not important in the great range of things.

“Those whose identity is tied up with being the one in charge are at risk of grandiosity and are likely to falter when faced with a situation over which they have no control.”

She compared the current crisis to her experiences as an army wife living in Belfast during the Troubles. “In Ireland, you got used to checking the car and having your handbag searched. You knew what you were dealing with. The difficulty with this is that it could be anywhere, on anything. People even worry about their shopping.”

The Revd Hilary Ison, who has just completed a three-year study on the effects of trauma and tragedy on Christian congregations, said: “One of the key elements of trauma is being rendered helpless or powerless and not being able to fight or flee. ABC 1 types probably thrive on being in control and using ‘fix-it’ energy to sort things out and exercise power over processes and people. In this Covid-19 pandemic, the hero leader is powerless to deliver people or the church from this situation.”

In the affluent west London parish of All Saints’, Fulham, some of the more well-to-do parishioners were not coping well, the Vicar, the Revd Penny Seabrook, said. “There was a great deal of anxiety when it first kicked off about finances and so on, and quite a lot of them had a knee-jerk reaction, and it has taken a while for that to settle down and for them take a more strategic view of how to deal with things,” she said. “They work in ‘overdrive’ and, when they can’t do that at work, they do it in other directions; they are now diverting that effort into other areas such as volunteering. They became hyper-vigilant, and they are having to cope with that.”

She also found that some others who already have pre-existing mental-health problems are actually doing better. “They have previously thought of themselves as not very important; not having friends, not able to keep up with people, felt overwhelmed by social media showing people having a wonderful time. At that level, the pressure is off them.”

Mrs Seabrook believed that her community was beginning to settle into a routine. “We are trying to keep a rhythm and structure which replicates what they had before: daily access to an online service, friendship group networks, a lunchtime eucharist on Zoom, first-communion preparation online. We are keeping our heads above water; we had to learn amazingly fast in the first two weeks. Morale does seem to go up and down without any particular trigger. There is a panic or an uncertainly just under the surface. The older generation are much more resilient. They have lived through much more and are less grumpy now than they were before. They have sort of accepted it.”

Dr Holmes said that an unexpected benefit of the epidemic was community growth. “I am interested by the Thursday clapping on the streets. I have noticed that more people are coming out. Although we are all keeping our social distance, we are waving and shouting to each other.

“It has been a big adjustment for clergy: they can’t visit; churches are locked down; streaming for churches was hard. But I was struck by the creativity, and I have been really impressed by their flexibility. Little choirs have started singing online, material is going online for children, and there is a real concern to meet people’s needs. My hope is that there will be more of a community sense.”

She also thought that it was beneficial for the nation’s well-being that Boris Johnson had returned to work. “Whatever your politics, or what you might have thought of him a year ago, it is important the Prime Minister is back as a figurehead,” she said. “It is important that the Queen is all right. It is important that we can regress into a more infantile dependence; so we need our figureheads.”

One feature that emerged from her counselling was the importance of nature. “People realise they can see a much bluer sky; nature is beginning to reform itself. There is quite a strong hope that one of the things we might not return to is the old ways of polluting everything.”

The Revd Claire Maxim, the chief executive of the Arthur Rank Centre, which seeks to combat rural isolation, said that she had seen “an extension and outpouring of the kindness that was already there and waiting to happen. I am seeing a lot of care, kindness, and love manifesting. That’s where I see God and the Spirit at work. I know that Covid-19 is a dreadful thing, but it makes me optimistic for the future, provided that we don’t go back to what we all thought was normal.

“I pray that there could ultimately be some benefit from all this in the end. As we transition out, just how can we keep this care going for the community, this love for each other, effectively loving our neighbour as much as we love ourselves? There is a need to be vigilant and to be kind more than anything else.”

The Centre has put together an online service, Together Apart, which directs users to sites where information on specific issues can be found. It also offers resources, ideas, and help to churches on combating rural isolation and loneliness, ways to connect with people whom they might not otherwise reach. “We are not mental-health experts,” Ms Maxim said, “but we do see the obvious link that is drawn between isolation, feeling lonely, and decline into mental health.”

The Bishop of Carlisle, the Rt Revd James Newcome, who is the Church’s lead bishop on health and social care, said on Thursday: “After an initial surge of adrenaline, and a healthy dose of British grit and optimism, we are acutely aware of the way in which for some individuals and families things are slowly beginning to unravel.

“Instances of domestic abuse have increased greatly; home-schooling presents its own challenges and strains; and the loss of family members and friends to Covid-19 combined with the constraints of lockdown and social distancing is a huge burden for many to bear.”

Clergy were not exempt to the pressures of the pandemic, he said. “Many, especially chaplains, are having to cope with the additional stress of ministering to those who are ill, afraid, or bereaved under what are frequently very difficult circumstances.”

St Luke’s Healthcare, the charity that seeks to promote health and wellness among the Anglican clergy, is offering dioceses a weekly virtual well-being programme. The first, issued last week, was created by Mrs Ison, who is one of its trustees. She advises people to take time off during the day, and to set boundaries about what is work time and what is family time. “Tend to your own self-care; listen to what our bodies are telling us about ourselves. Remember you have coped in the past and this won’t last for ever.”

In her programme, she warns that trauma can be a shock event like an accident or attack, “but it can also be a slowly unfolding situation over a period of time, as in the current crisis that we are all facing personally and professionally. Our normal capacities to cope become overwhelmed, and we feel that we can’t handle all that’s coming at us.”

Additionally, the breaking of physical connections means that there can be no consoling touch or hug. “In parishes, families are distressed not only by the loss of a family member, but also by not being able to have the funeral they would have liked to celebrate and honour the deceased. Our understanding of who we are and how we connect as ministers is being shaken, and how we understand the world and God is being challenged. “

The Clergy Well-being Adviser for St Luke’s, Jan Korris, said that the Centre believed that the key support needed by clergy came by listening to them. “Understandably, directives and advice are coming from all quarters, particularly top-down, but clergy need first to be helped to care for themselves and their families at this time if they are to be able to minister safely and creatively in the weeks and months ahead.”

Bishop Newcome said: “We are hugely grateful to St. Luke’s. . . This valuable resource helps clergy to process feelings ‘specifically around loss, whether that be in the form of death or identity, spiritual disciplines or sense of control’.

“In addition, a small group of experts in this field is meeting regularly to explore other ways in which clergy can be encouraged to maintain their own mental well-being as well as helping other people with theirs.  We recognise that this is not an issue which is likely to be resolved in the immediate future but will do everything we can to help.”

Among the most vulnerable are farm workers, who often work alone. Rob Walrond, a rural chaplain and organic farmer in Somerset involved with the Christian support group the Farming Community Network, said that, at present, farmers were busy catching up on a backlog of work delayed by the wet spring, but he expected calls to the network to start coming soon. “When there is physical work to be done, they get on with it and put off making calls and addressing issues, but the problems have not gone away: it’s just that people are occupied,” he said. “There has been less time to dwell on the situation, but I think that will come in the weeks ahead.”

A spokesperson for the Samaritans said that one in three calls received were about coronavirus. “We are continuing to hear about struggles with mental health, access to services, as well as the impact on basic needs such as food, housing, and employment. Now more than ever, it is important to keep in touch with the people we care about and reach out to those who may need extra support. Those worried about their own mental health or someone else during the coronavirus outbreak can find some useful online resources and advice at www.samaritans.org.”

The effect of the lockdown on clergy has been manifest. In Norwich diocese, senior clerics had contacted every parish to see how they were coping. “Many have spoken of their unease at the difficulty of offering proper support to bereaved people given the restrictions around funerals,” the Suffragan Bishop of Thetford, Dr Alan Winton, said. “There is anxiety about people who are vulnerable, with particular concerns around domestic abuse, and children who will be more open to abuse. In some parishes, energies are focused on the basic need to get food to those who are struggling financially.”

The diocesan counsellor and pastoral adviser, Jane Keeton, sent out a paper, “Reflections and survival tips in the current situation”, which was also posted on the diocesan website.

Dr Winton said: “In all of this, it’s clear that the effects of the restrictions are far harder for some, depending on personality type, and personal circumstance. Admiration and concern for those doing frontline work in the NHS, care sector, and other essential roles is also at a high level and puts our own challenges into perspective.”

The Church has put together a resource “Supporting Good Mental Health”, a series of reflections written by Professor Chris Cook, accompanied by “have-a-go” habits, developed by Ruth Rice, and Christian meditation techniques. Topics include living in isolation, God in our struggles, time well spent, and Blessed are those who mourn. It has also published five tips for tackling loneliness and isolation, and directs people to the Mental Health Foundation website for further support.

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