7 January 2022

The more things change …

As we enter yet another year with Covid-19, what now for our mental health and wellbeing?

… the more they stay the same

‘The more things change, the more they stay the same,’ said French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, back in 1849. It’s frustratingly apt as we approach nearly two years of living with Covid-19, social distancing, face masks and lockdowns. Many of us will be exhausted, or at the very least disheartened, by the ongoing impact of coronavirus. How then do we approach 2022 with a sense of optimism catering for the ongoing needs of our churches and communities, as well as ourselves? How do we keep supporting our mental health with all the ongoing uncertainty and upheaval? Amongst all the different perspectives on offer, I’d like to encourage you to focus on what we’re all learning through this experience.

What are we learning?

When confronted with ongoing change and uncertainty with no clear end in sight, it is understandable to perceive everything as yet another challenge or setback. Challenges and setbacks can threaten us, making us feel unsafe and not in control. When our brains perceive a threat, it is not uncommon for us to enter ‘fight or flight’ mode – our brain fires off signals to the rest of the body that we need to take action. Very helpful for immediate or short-term threats but very unhelpful, damaging even, to our mental health if we stay in this mode for too long. Heightened and sustained stress levels can trigger anxiety, burnout or depression.

Therefore, rather than focus solely on the challenges we continue to face, how about we pay attention to everything that we’re learning as well – about ourselves, our communities, and our faith? And as you reflect on your ongoing learning, take care to look for the positive or hopeful lessons as well as the difficult ones. Most if not all of us will have suffered these past couple of years and it’s important we acknowledge and tend to the pain we have experienced, as well as to help others do the same. Perhaps we’ve learnt just how much we need each other and how lonely ministry and life can feel when we’re forced to keep a distance?

And yet, have we not also learnt just how resilient we are and how constant the love of God is? Have we not also learnt how faithful and caring our friends and communities can be, and how we can laugh, cry and carry on together despite everything?

Meaning to life

Holocaust survivor and eminent psychiatrist Victor Frankl gave a series of talks just months after his liberation from Auschwitz. Published for the first time in English in 2019, Yes To Life, In Spite of Everything has a lot of timely wisdom. In it he writes: ‘We give life meaning through our actions, but also through loving and, finally, through suffering.’ Actions, love, and suffering – each of these gives life meaning according to Frankl. We may also consider the lives of St Paul and of course Jesus as exemplars of how action, love and suffering equate to a life worth living and well-lived.

There is much we can learn through the actions we take, the love we show ourselves and others, and yes – the suffering we might endure. Let’s also remember that whatever the ongoing challenges might be in 2022, if we have eyes to see the positive and hopeful lessons to be learnt, we needn’t feel so threatened by the ongoing uncertainty. Some things, such as the love of God and the impressive capability of humans to withstand and transcend challenges, will always stay the same. And the more comfortable we can therefore become with uncertainty, the better for our mental health and wellbeing.

Ben Evans is the founder and a company director of Humantalk which offers training in Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) www.humantalk.co.uk. In 2021, Humantalk delivered MHFA programmes on behalf of St Luke’s for curates in the dioceses of Liverpool, Southall & Nottingham and Bath & Wells, and will work with St Luke’s again in 2022. Prior to Humantalk, Ben worked in senior leadership development for the Archbishops’ Advisers for Appointments and Development.