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Pandemic pressure on clergy has tripled psychiatric referrals, says St Luke’s psychiatrist

14 May 2021

More online services and poor financial and human resources have led to breakdowns

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PRESSURE on clergy to deliver additional online services against a backdrop of diminishing financial and human resources, has contributed to an unprecedented increase in clergy referrals for psychological care, a psychiatrist said this week.

St Luke’s Healthcare for the Clergy, which provides access to advice and clinical care for clergy and their families, provided 146 psychological appointments in the first ten weeks of 2021 — up from 43 in the first 12 weeks of 2020.

Dr Gary Bell, a psychiatrist who serves as both a trustee of St Luke’s and a consultant, expects consultations to double this year. “This is the highest level of demand for help from clergy that I have experienced over the ten years I have been associated with St Luke’s,” he said.

The increase had highlighted “the many and varied ways in which the pandemic has adversely affected the life of the Church. Clergy are now under immense pressure to deliver more than ever before, their traditional ministerial roles being added to by the demand for an ongoing online presence, with correspondingly diminishing financial and human resources. It is hardly surprising that rates of anxiety, depression, and burnout have skyrocketed.”

The chief executive of St Luke’s, Dr Claire Walker, said that she had been “encouraged by a growing desire and openness to talk about mental health, by dioceses and individual clergy”. The Covenant for Clergy Care and Wellbeing (News, 31 July 2020), she said, had “opened doors on this, and I believe Archbishop Justin’s willingness to go public on his own need for psychiatric support is very enabling for other clergy to talk about their challenges, too.”

The past year had been “incredibly difficult” for clergy, many of whom had been taking funerals for those close to them, and it was important not to pathologise all reactions, she said. “Clergy need to accept that it was a very strange year, and the feelings they have are normal.”

She hoped that dioceses would allow clergy time for this process of integration, and “listen to how exhausted they are” rather than “just move on to the next initiative, the next problem”. A preventative approach was also important; among the workshops that St Luke’s is offering to dioceses is one on conflict. Dr Walker is sensing some increase in this at parish level.

Every psychological referral to St Luke’s — all of which are supported by a GP letter — secures funding for treatment. The charity continues to struggle with a deficit (£170,000 last year). Dr Walker emphasised that, without more donations, it would be difficult to keep meeting the growing need.

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