Nearly nine months into the COVID-19 pandemic, nobody in the United States needs a public health official to help us realize that most of their fellow Americans are suffering. This suffering takes on different forms: physical suffering, social suffering, from greater isolation and reduced in-person communication, and, more crucially, mental suffering.
Before the virus reached our borders, the U.S. was hardly an ideal country in terms of mental health, and perhaps this pandemic has revealed a nationwide mental health crisis that has been largely brushed to the side. The National Alliance on Mental Illness reported that 19.1% of American adults (47.6 million people) and 16.5% of youth (7.7 million people) experienced some mental illness in 2018. This is alarming; what is even more alarming is that only 43.3% of adults with mental illness received treatment that year. The most tragic effect of that statistic is suicide, the 10th leading cause of death in the country and the 2nd leading cause of death among people aged 10-34.
A common term recently deployed by media figures, some public health officials and others to describe an acute uptick in mental health issues is “mental health pandemic.” Information on Google Trends reveals that the search term ‘mental health pandemic’ spiked from 0 to 100 within a few weeks in March and its popularity is peaking once again. This is bad terminology for a variety of reasons, but at least it shows that people are realizing that they are not alone.
A CDC survey in late June found that around 41% of American adults reported some elevation in mental health symptoms caused by the pandemic; anxiety, depression, trauma-related symptoms, substance abuse and even suicidal ideation were reported. It is important to note that this does not mean that more Americans are suffering from mental illnesses because an uptick in symptoms does not always reveal an underlying disorder, but it is certainly an unwelcome trend.
Along with psychological suffering is spiritual suffering, and they should not be perceived as two separate or conflicting spheres. This is not an article decrying public policy during the pandemic nor affirming theological principles, but rather explaining the importance of houses of worship as a crucial social institution for society’s welfare.
While Americans are less religious nowadays, as seen by low attendance at religious services and other statistics, most American adults still think that religion is very or somewhat important. Even for people who attend church only on Sundays, that one hour or two a week can still be a valuable time for the ability to see friends, do something as a family, and find some peace amidst the chaos of ordinary life. I firmly object to the extreme reduction of religion to some social function vaguely involved with morality and personal development, but it is undeniable that religious practice is fundamentally social and that this is a common perspective of religious adherents.
Houses of worship are also very different environments from other social environments. A bar or pub is certainly a social environment, but in rare circumstances would a group of friends in a small town bar contemplate the transcendent and seek greater things—at least without an extreme BAC level. Social institutions like the library or the market or even the theater are not much better. With religious practice, we see people not with a price tag according to some abstract economic or social value, but as spiritual brothers and sisters with an immeasurable value.
As a Catholic, many of my friends lament on the loss of receiving the sacraments in addition to not seeing friends at Mass because we view the sacraments as a way of life. Protestants often look highly to the church not merely because of the social function, but because it is a life line and a way of life. When a way of life is cut off, especially to a significant extent, there are going to be negative consequences to people’s welfare, and this is what we have been seeing to an elevated affect since March.
During a difficult winter where many Americans will feel increasingly isolated and depressed, let us take a positive step forward and change our attitudes towards brother and sister. Even though we are often limited to digital communication, we can still make an impact on people and make these lonely and cold times more manageable. Even if religious services are limited, there will likely be service opportunities which can make someone’s winter much more bearable, especially if they are suffering greatly. We can be the change no matter how much longer the pandemic lasts, and we should not be demotivated by the surrounding chaos.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.