We were hoping COVID lockdown wouldn’t happen again in NSW but, once the cases kept coming, it was not surprising when the Premier extended the stay-at-home order yesterday for Greater Sydney.
Just like 2020, our work and life patterns have been mucked up. And, just like 2020, anxiety and depression have reasserted themselves in the lives of many people – if they ever went away.
“For people who have still not recovered from last year, this has pushed all sorts of buttons,” says the Rev Dr Keith Condie, co-director of the Mental Health and Pastoral Care Institute and Mary Andrews College.
He adds that this lockdown is worse for some whose mental health was adversely affected by 2020 because “they were hoping it was all over. This has just tapped into the difficulties of what happened last year, and there’s that sense of ‘I can’t do this again’.
“Some people did pretty well last year, and a lot of that comes down to having good social support. So, I’m locked down with my wife – we’re fine, we’re happily married. But if you’re living alone, or you have small children, or you’re in a family situation where things are not at all straightforward, this might be a very difficult time.”
Dr Condie was one of three people Anglican Media spoke to early last year about COVID’s effect on mental health, and it seemed timely to ask for their thoughts about how Christians should respond this time around.
The long COVID journey
Psychologist Bronwyn Wake, who works at St Andrew’s Cathedral School, saw mental health referrals increase last year as the city returned to a more normal rhythm.
“I think that was because when we experience a crisis often the adrenalin kicks in, we put our head down and push through it... and once it feels like the end is in sight we start to relax and process everything,” she says.
“My concerns are around the fact that people had started to let their guard down, so because of this they may have been less prepared. I get a sense that for those people in a mentally good place, there’s an acceptance and a familiarity to it this time... but for those who aren’t it could be quite triggering.”
Inquiries have tripled at the practice of clinical psychologist Valerie Ling, who also works with staff and students at Moore College and with clergy through the Centre for Ministry Development. She believes this lockdown is simply part of the “journey” of COVID in Australia, noting that research from last year (and previous disease crises) suggests we will feel the effects of the pandemic up to three years from now.
“A few months ago I was also looking at the Google search trends between the different states,” she says. “I wrote something about the statistics – that more people are using mental health strategies than ever before – [and] in the state of Victoria you were finding more people Googling burnout and exhaustion, which is a factor of multiple lockdowns.
“I think we haven’t seen the full consequences of the pandemic yet, and it’s not just related to lockdown.”
What do we do?
There are plenty of things that we can and should do – and not do – as we work our way through this latest COVID chapter (see box).
Mrs Ling advises people to go back to basics: work on good sleep practices, have regular (COVID-safe) exercise, and be on the phone often to family and friends – which is good for us as well as them. She also suggests those working from home pace themselves and have realistic expectations about what they can achieve.
“Another issue is that, because we’re so fatigued, we’ve lost a lot of the gumption to persist with [Christian lockdown supports],” she says. “We need to continue to create those Zoom breakout groups and Zoom prayer meetings. Hebrews talks about not giving up and persisting... and at a time when we can’t meet physically we need to press on, continuing to keep the digital world as the viable option even though it tires us.
“This is a time of trouble and trial, but the health and holiness of the church is extending love and care in the messages of grace and hope.”
Mrs Wake adds that rather than ruminating on things we can’t control, we should turn our thoughts and actions in a more positive direction. “I can’t control the fact that I need to stay at home at the moment, but I can control what I do with my time... and change the focus from that sense of uncertainty and lack of control to lifting my mood,” she says.
“The impact of routine is really important at the moment because when there’s so much that’s out of our control, to have a structure and a routine is really helpful. It brings a sense of normality to the day.
“You can also seek to help others. I can check on my neighbour. I can offer to buy groceries. I can bake cupcakes and leave them on their doorstep. I can meet a friend who’s struggling and we can go for a walk together.”
What is God doing?
Dr Condie observes that “lots of people are feeling this way” but adds: “Let’s follow the example of the psalmist, take our questions and concerns to the Lord and be honest in our dealings with him.
“Let’s share with him what’s on our hearts, but at the same time just go back to Scripture and remind ourselves of the constancy of his goodness and his love: that he is our refuge and strength, the resurrection hope that we have – and that he did not spare his own Son.
“He’s done the biggest thing, so although this is really hard for lots of people, in God’s providence there are truths revealed to us in Scripture that we can cling to.”
Adds Mrs Wake: “You haven’t been stripped of power in this situation, even though it can feel like you have been – and for most people that’s where anxiety can come from. God is in control in terms of that bigger picture.
“As church communities we can encourage each other to lift our eyes from the things that are our everyday experience right now. Also, when you put an eternal perspective on it, this is not all that there is. There is a hope and future that we have through Jesus, so connection to that eternal perspective is really important. That knowledge of hope as well as community I would see as being very important for churches right now.”
How to respond
- Limit your time checking news updates
- Call friends and family – particularly those living alone
- Work on good sleep, eating and exercise habits
- Spend time outside appreciating God’s creation – or find ways to bring nature inside with you
- Stay in the word and prayer, and be sure to pray for others
- Do the Zoom groups and the prayer sessions with people from church
- Spend time on activities (baking, hobbies, exercise) that lift your mood
- Think of simple ways to love and encourage friends and neighbours