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The emotional toll of Covid-19

by
16 October 2020

Some have been hit harder than others, report Andrew Village and Leslie Francis

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ONE thing that we have learnt during the past few months is the usefulness of statistics. Another is how difficult it can be to interpret them. Even things as apparently clear cut as infection rates or the number of deaths are not always what they seem.

The psychological effects of the pandemic are even harder to measure, but may be no less crucial, in the long run, for the Church. Individual stories of stress or resilience can concern or inspire us, but they do not tell much about the bigger picture for people of faith. Coronavirus, Church & You was an online survey promoted through the Church Times and running from May to July. It collected 5347 responses from people in the Church of England (News, 26 June; Podcast, 10 July). A key section of the survey asked respondents to rate how they had been affected psychologically and emotionally since the lockdown began.

Our data reveal some important variations between groups. When it came to stress, for example, 38 per cent of clergy reported increased stress over lockdown, compared with 32 per cent of lay people. For exhaustion, the gap was even bigger (48 per cent versus 29 per cent), and so, too, for fatigue (54 per cent versus 40 per cent). Stress, linked to fatigue, exhaustion, and anxiety, hit clergy harder. The demands of trying to develop new patterns of worship, while also trying to service the needs of congregation and community, must surely have left their mark. Yet this was a specific effect, and clergy generally maintained an upbeat mood, and very few reported that their relationship with God had suffered.

Younger people were generally more stressed than the elderly, and the gap between clergy and laity was most apparent among those of working age. There were also differences in well-being between people living in different environments. Those from the inner cities reported higher stress and more negative emotions than those living in towns or suburbs, and the latter, in turn, reported higher levels than people from rural areas. This trend seemed to persist across the age range and for clergy and laity.

 

IN THESE respects, church people probably reflected trends in the population at large. The UK’s response to the virus was shaped all along by the fear that it would overwhelm the NHS, and by the more serious effect that it has on the elderly.

The paradox that it was those least likely to get ill from the virus who had to make the biggest changes in lifestyle has not gone unnoticed. The greater strain this response put on young adults than on the middle-aged or elderly emerged clearly in this survey. We can see how this trend persisted across men and women, across ordained and lay, across town and country, and across various traditions in the Church.

One lesson to take into any future lockdown might be to focus support where it is most needed, and, apart from those who actually have the virus, that is not necessarily old people. It is hardly surprising that, post-lockdown, it is younger adults who have reverted most readily to previous lifestyles and who are now the main target for the virus.

Some trends in our data may reflect the particular circumstances of the Church of England. Anglo-Catholics had similar stress scores to other traditions within the Church, but scored higher on negative affect and lower on positive affect. Something about the crisis seemed to create a more negative mood among Anglo-Catholics than among Evangelicals or the majority of the “middle-of-the-road” Anglicans.

We also saw significant differences in opinions about closing churches or how the crisis was handled, which suggests that the lockdown hit certain types of faith expression harder than others. In adjusting to a world in which Covid-19 is a ubiquitous presence, we may need to watch out that we do not unwittingly discriminate against particular traditions within the Church.

 

ANOTHER severe and national lockdown in the winter looks more likely than it did a month ago. What, then, have we learnt about how the Church of England at large coped with the Covid-19 crisis from May to July?

Stress and psychological well-being were unevenly distributed. Younger people and working clergy felt most stressed. Anglo-Catholics and those in inner cities reported more negative emotions. Most people in the C of E felt that they coped well or very well with the lockdown. Those who coped less well tended to be the more stressed, but being well-supported, especially at home, seemed to mitigate some of the pressures and increased the sense of coping.

 

The Revd Andrew Village is Professor of Practical and Empirical Theology, and Canon Leslie J. Francis is Visiting Professor of Theology and Religious Studies, both at York St John University.

A fuller report on the survey can be found here

Listen to Andrew Village and Leslie Francis discuss the survey findings on a recent episode of the Church Times Podcast.

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