COVID-19 has exacerbated mental-health difficulties. Social isolation, financial uncertainty, and the sudden halting of normal life have all played a part.
Many churches want to support members of the congregation and parishioners who are experiencing mental-health problems. The question is how.
Before the pandemic, Holy Trinity, Clapham, in south London, was already working in partnership with the counselling service Heart and Mind, which offers counselling by accredited Christian counsellors. “At HTC we speak about an A to H of values, and the first of those is A for Authentic,” says the Revd Jamie Mulvaney, an associate minister at the church.
The arrangement operates as an external referral process. Holy Trinity offers a free room at the church for counselling. Until the pandemic, this is where all sessions took place. “Heart and Mind oversee it. We refer people to them, and then it’s a client-counsellor relationship. . . We’re not privy to what goes on there,” Mr Mulvaney says.
After lockdown restrictions, the counselling sessions moved online. There was initial concern about practicalities. Heart and Mind wondered, “How are we going to make it work?” its founder and director, Michael A. Ruegg, says.
The service operates a sliding scale of fees according to the client’s income. Heart and Mind is able to help more people this way, but its financial status is often precarious as a result. “We’re self-sustaining. We don’t get any funding,” Mr Ruegg says. “The challenge is really to keep afloat financially.
“What we’ve seen is a lot of people asking us for a reduction in their fees. Either they’ve been furloughed, or they’ve lost their jobs, or there’s just a fear around: ‘I can’t afford this, because I don’t know what tomorrow’s going to bring.’”
Mr Mulvaney says that even now, when counselling is given place off-site, it still “sends quite a powerful message to the community that God cares about our emotional and mental health, and the church wants to help”.
He sees meeting mental-health needs as “a call for us to become more biblical. We’re the Church of the Psalms, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes. We worship a Saviour who has experienced the full gamut of emotions. . . His physiology was under such extreme pressure that he sweated blood.
“Most of us will suffer with mental-health needs at some point in our lives. When people look to the church, they’re wanting hope; and we can point people in the right direction.”
HOPE is at the forefront, too — albeit with a specialism in mind — at St Alban’s, Gossops Green, and Bewbush, on the edge of Crawley, in West Sussex. “I’m diagnosed with general anxiety disorder, which has helped me to be even more aware of the importance of mental health and how we might support it in our church,” says the assistant curate, the Revd Lizzi Green (Comment, 30 October 2020).
“We’ve really noticed an increase in anxiety: many people reporting finding it hard to sleep, feeling like their eating patterns are affected — comfort eating, or finding it hard to eat — and those with more severe mental-health conditions finding it much harder to access support.”
It was children’s mental health, however, that, St Alban’s felt, needed significant support. “My son struggles with anxiety as a result of his autism, and that really highlighted for me how much this was a problem across our local area,” Ms Green explains.
“For adults, there were avenues of support, even if it was more difficult to access them; but many children receive emotional support through school.” The closures last year on top of school holidays caused serious disruption to support services.
After seeking advice from officers for special educational needs and disabilities, the church launched a project: Make Summer Special. Packs designed to support emotional and mental health through practical activities were delivered weekly throughout the summer holidays to 50 children aged between three and 13.
“One week involved thinking about the things they liked about themselves; another week involved thinking about people who could support them when they were finding things hard,” Ms Green says. “We got absolutely brilliant feedback.”
THERE are still large strides to be made in supporting mental-health issues such as anxiety and depression, as well as illnesses that can be harder to discuss, such as eating disorders, addictions, or bipolar diagnoses.
“So often, we don’t talk about those conditions,” Rachael Newham says. She is the founder of the ThinkTwice charity, and the author of Learning To Breathe: My journey with mental illness (SPCK, 2018). “It’s about being aware about what these conditions look like, and how they can present themselves, so we can give the best care.
“A church service could be really overwhelming for somebody with psychosis, or bipolar; so how do we meet them where they are?”
One church seeking to do this is St Cuthbert’s, Croxteth Park, in Liverpool. “We need to listen to the real needs of people,” its Vicar, the Revd Laura Leatherbarrow, says: “really listen, giving our full attention. We’re not medically trained, but we can all be listeners, someone willing to engage in people’s lives and stories. We need to remember we are caring for people, which is what God asked us to do.”
Ms Leatherbarrow describes the pandemic, and all its subsequent restrictions, as like a “slow drip of mental torture” for several members of her congregation. “Those who already had a mental-health diagnosis found themselves floundering. People who didn’t consider themselves diagnosed with a mental illness were suddenly finding themselves at their GP’s in tears,” she says.
St. Cuthbert’s responded with several initiatives, including its online Sanctuary course: a nine-week exploration of mental health, including issues such as bipolarity, addiction, and suicide.
It was after this course that Ms Leatherbarrow started delivering mindfulness sessions over Zoom, with separate sessions for over-13s and under-13s.
She talks enthusiastically about the sessions’ positive effects. “The young people who are 16-plus and just starting A levels find them a way of taking back the control they felt they had lost,” she says.
The sessions “allowed one lad to be able to admit to his mum that he is depressed, and they’ve now made a GP appointment. One girl even attended a session while in hospital, because she wanted to use it to keep a grip on the anxiety about missing school work, and the effect that Covid has had on her life.”
There are challenges, mostly financial, that limit what St Cuthbert’s can do. “There does feel like a north-south divide when it comes to church finances,” Ms Leatherbarrow says. “I know Liverpool, while being faithful, is struggling financially. . . We are one of the poorer dioceses in the country. This needs to be overcome.”
But she remains positive. St Cuthbert’s is planning to embark on The Wellbeing Journey, an eight-week course looking at well-being holistically.
THE effects of the pandemic on mental health are expected to continue into 2021. “There is going to be no vaccine available for the effects of Covid-19 on mental health,” the co-founder of the charity Kintsugi Hope, Patrick Regan, says.
Stigma remains one of the main barriers in the way of seeking help, he says, and this needs to be more widely recognised in the Church, especially after all that the pandemic has exposed. “Covid-19 has challenged our church culture. What is a church? Surely, it’s more than a service or a building. It challenged our theology: we need to allow people to lament, listen to the needs of our community, and come alongside the most vulnerable.”
Mental health is receiving renewed attention in the public life of the Church of England. The Archbishop of Canterbury hosted a mental-health summit at Lambeth Palace and has spoken of his own health problems (News, 21 October 2019).
“The Bible . . . has a lot to say about mental health and well-being,” says his former Chaplain, Prebendary Isabelle Hamley. “It is full of stories and poems about people in pain, trying to make sense of life and God, and what has happened to them.
“Churches need to follow the example of Jesus — by not just looking out for those we know and love already, but making an effort to seek out those who may be invisible and unheard.
“Statistics tell us that all of us at some point will either know others who struggle or struggle ourselves with our mental health. So it is something that is part of the fabric of our lives and, therefore, part of the fabric of our faith.”