Bishop Paul Mason – Coronavirus, healthcare and mental wellbeing

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We are living in unprecedented times. Nobody could have predicted the nature of the Covid-19 outbreak, and it is a challenge which will most likely change the course of our country’s, and the world’s, history forever. Health and mental wellbeing have never been so prioritised, and our healthcare workforce has never been so admired and respected.

Thank you

The support shown to NHS healthcare workers on the evening of Thursday 26 March was overwhelming. Videos and images have emerged of communities showing their appreciation for our committed healthcare workers, without whose expert care and dedication to others we would simply not be able to fight this virus. In the past, people working for the NHS, a workforce made up, in part, of immigrants and low-paid workers, might have been traditionally ‘less valued’ among the general public. It is safe to say that this is a habit which will change, shown not least by the huge numbers who have volunteered to help the NHS in the last week and contribute to the effort to fight coronavirus.

There are of course many other people for whom acts of recognition might not come in the same way as they did on Thursday evening, but who are just as worthy. A healthy and nourished spiritual life is central to mental health and wellbeing, and hospital chaplains, priests, parish staff and parishioners are all continuing to work quietly and tirelessly to give spiritual support on a daily basis to those most in need.

Local efforts, too, have proven that social distancing does not have to mean losing our sense of community. There have been heartening stories of ordinary members of the public going that extra mile to organise themselves around the most vulnerable in society – the elderly, the disabled, those with serious health conditions, and of course, those who are ill with this virus.

To all of those who are working to support not only themselves and their own families, but also those around them who are unable to do this, I say thank you.

Mental health in a time of crisis

Health and mental wellbeing have never before been so important to our society.

Anxiety, loneliness, and tragically for some, bereavement, will touch our lives in the coming weeks and months. Others will struggle with their existing conditions, such as OCD or depression, and there will be many for whom this is the first time they have struggled with mental health.

It is, then, a comfort to see the attention being given to ensuring that mental health is protected during this time of social distancing and isolation. Not only does it signal that mental health is recognised as being just as important as our physical health, but it also shows that the stigma around mental health is continuing to fall away, as we suddenly all find ourselves potentially affected by struggles which we thought might have only touched others before now.

The loss of stigma, accompanied by an abundance of resources supporting those struggling with mental ill health during this crisis is reassuring and will, I hope, give some comfort to those who are suffering.

Spiritual wellbeing

Public Masses were suspended in England and Wales from Friday 20 March until further notice. Following the Prime Minister’s historic announcement on Monday 23 March, all churches were completely closed to the public, also for an indefinite time.

As Catholics, we know the importance of going to Sunday Mass which is why the Church tells us that not going is a grave sin. However, this does not include those who are physically unable to get to Mass through no fault of their own. This means if you are unwell, in self-isolation, or for some other reason you cannot get to Mass, you are not committing a sin because in those instances you are not required to attend Mass.

Nonetheless, the current situation will of course be a cause of distress and disruption to Catholics, but we are fortunate to live in a time when technology can be a great help for the development of our spiritual lives.

Thanks to this technology, not only have we been able to regularly receive guidance about our physical and mental health throughout this pandemic, but it has also meant that the closure of our churches has not put a stop to our coming together as a faithful community.

The broadcasting of Masses online and creation of online prayer communities has offered Catholics across the world the opportunity to join together in prayer.

On Friday 27 March, in his extraordinary Urbi et Orbi address and blessing, Pope Francis reminded us of Jesus’ words after he had calmed the storm: ‘Why are you afraid? Have you yet no faith?’ The Holy Father continued: ‘Faith begins when we realise we are in need of salvation. We are not self-sufficient. By ourselves we founder. We need the Lord like ancient navigators needed the stars.’

We are living through a challenging, sometimes frightening, and potentially life-changing time, but Pope Francis’s words assure us that Lord hears us, especially during our dark night. God will comfort and guide us when we are afraid.

Towards the end of his address, Pope Francis urged: ‘Let us allow hope to be rekindled.’

We receive this hope as a gift from the Lord. It is a hope which gives us the strength to come together as a community, to understand that we achieve more together at the service of the common good than we ever could alone, and to work together in harmony as a state, a society and as individuals to overcome this great challenge.