by the Rt Revd Dame Sarah Mullally DBE, Bishop of London and former Chief Nursing Officer
‘Coronavirus has our brains pinging on “future threat,” driving global anxiety and shared fear, as we all live in this extreme state of uncertainty.’ So wrote Jan Bruce in Forbes magazine on March 5th. And if shared fear was a reality then, how much more so now? After three months of daily death tolls, R values and government appeals to stay at home, it is not surprising that a certain amount of anxiety might hang over the public’s heads.
This week, the mental health charity Mind quantified the impact. In a survey of 16,000 people, they discovered that 65% of adults and 75% of 13-24 year olds with pre-existing mental health conditions said that their situations had worsened. More than a fifth of those aged 13 or older without prior mental health difficulties described their mental health as poor or very poor.
We needed the stats, the briefings and the message to stay at home. Coronavirus was and is a killer. Understanding the risks helped us to stay alert in a time of real danger. And I’m also acutely aware that many people have faced fearful burdens on top of the virus itself. Those who have lost their jobs or have been put under severe financial pressures. The elderly who were shielding and less able to socialise online. Those who struggle with loneliness at the best of times, finding their feelings exacerbated by circumstances. Others found themselves suddenly trapped at home with abusers. They faced fears not just from an unseen killer but from a visible threat.
But the general climate of fear that has been so successfully inculcated in us, leaves us with a conundrum. How do we encourage one another to wisely emerge from lockdown? How do we begin to navigate this brave new world of face masks and social distancing? A world in which we can meet with six others but cannot sing in church. Some can have a picnic in the park while others remain shut up at home. We have permission to roam but the newspapers warn of a second wave. We want to support the economy but can feel, more than anything, emotionally shattered.
Thankfully, before COVID-19 hit, we had been moving towards a greater awareness of the need to attend to our mental health. Notably the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge spoke out last year. I was grateful to be able to speak on these issues at Lambeth Palace alongside Dr Jacqui Dyer, President of the Mental Health Foundation and the Archbishop of Canterbury last year. The increased engagement with mental health awareness day is evidence of what Justin Welby wrote then: “it feels like something is beginning to shift.” It is becoming okay to not be okay. And in this regard, the Christian story has an important contribution to make.
In the apostle Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians he says:
“We have this treasure,” [the treasure being the glory of God] “in jars of clay” [the jars being us] to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us” (2 Corinthians 4:7).
Paula Gooder, Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral, tells me that there were two types of jar in the first century. One was dark and thick used for display. The other used the thinnest material possible so that it would crack in the kiln. The cracks enabled light to diffuse out from within when a lamp was placed inside. The jar was purposely created to be vulnerable, so that the light would shine through it. This, says Paul is God’s design. Our fragility, vulnerability and brokenness is by design, so that the light of the glory of Christ might shine brightly as we persevere in living for Jesus through it.
All of this means that as we emerge from lockdown, we do well to talk about our mental health. To talk to each other, to make it integral to our ministry life whatever context we find ourselves in, for mental health to be a subject for prayer in public as well as in private. In this way we can each find the comfort and support that we need.
I’m doing all I can to ensure that the NHS provides the mental health services that our nation will need through my role in the House of Lords. But in the first instance, Paul doesn’t point us to specialised support groups but the shoulders to cry on that he provides in the church. The brothers and sisters that should be available to us all. The challenge to us as churches, is to continue to have a culture in which everyone feels safe to share their struggles and feel able to speak openly.
Our fear is not something that we need to hide. It is something that can be harnessed in our walk with God. So often it is when we are at our wit’s end that we recognise our need to cry out to the Lord for help (Psalm 107:27). So often, in God’s peculiar plan for this world, it is when we have received comfort from Him and his people, that we are best equipped to comfort others in return (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).