Loneliness and mental health have always been intertwined issues and this will continue to be the case in the future. Whilst loneliness is not a mental health condition in and of itself, it can (and does) often lead to mental health problems. These can include various types of social phobia, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, sleep problems and increased stress.1 Equally, mental health problems of varying types and levels can often lead to significant experiences of loneliness and so the two issues can exacerbate each other.
In July 2020, the Campaign to End Loneliness published a report called ‘The Psychology of Loneliness’ 2 and this explored the relationship between mental health and loneliness and made a number of recommendations as to how individuals and agencies could address this growing problem. These included:
- Increasing understanding about the effects of loneliness
- Groups addressing loneliness exploring ways to incorporate the effects on mental health and psychology
- Offering more one to one opportunities for those with complex needs
These issues were already being discussed prior to Covid-19 in terms of an ‘epidemic’ and since March 2021 there is evidence that the numbers of people experiencing mental health problems and loneliness has increased and has been affected people of all ages, backgrounds and geographical area regardless of levels of affluence or deprivation. The ONS found that ‘up to a million more people became chronically lonely as lockdown continued – increasing the total to 3.7 million adults by the beginning of 2021.3 Within this, churches also expressed similar concerns and in a report published in May 2021 by Church Urban Fund, over 90% of [church leaders] said that loneliness/isolation and mental health are affecting people “a little more” or “much more” than before the pandemic.’ 4 (See graph and click to see source report))
However, there were many inequalities in the impact of lockdown on specific groups. A report by Campaign to End Loneliness found that ‘people who were already lonely were likely to get lonelier, as were those at greater risk of loneliness because of factors such as health, income, ethnicity and sexuality. Those with strong social connections were likely to feel less lonely as they spent more time with family and in their local community’. 3 The same report expressed concerns about those facing barriers to reconnection coming out of lockdown – such as mental or physical health.
How can the church respond to loneliness & mental health?
Although many of the measures required to respond to Covid-19 are gradually being reduced in the UK, the impact of lockdown, bereavement and other side effects are still being felt by many people and are unlikely to be resolved for many months or years. We have become aware of an increase in those showing signs of Agoraphobia, anxiety and hesitancy to leave the home and we expect this to continue for some time.
Many churches across the UK have been addressing issues around mental health and loneliness either implicitly or explicitly for many decades. In recent years, however, there have been a number of initiatives set up at a community level by churches and Christian organisations which specifically aim to address this, including support groups, counselling services, community activities and events, befriending/ mentoring services. Another recent development has been the emergence of some great community franchise models and charities which provide a framework and processes for churches to address these issues in a safe, professional and effective way which is appropriate for their community. These include Kintsugi Hope, Care Home Friends, Parish Nursing Ministries, Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries, Renew Wellbeing (among others) and ourselves at Linking Lives UK.
As a charity, we are now focusing on the need to provide a wide variety of resources and means that churches and individual Christians can use to address loneliness and mental health in local communities. In some instances, this will be by creating a befriending scheme (using our Two’s Company Befriending model) and in others, churches and Christians on an individual level will be in a position to informally support those around them by becoming more aware of these issues and also understanding the Biblical challenge to express the love of God to all those in our communities.
As we enter this next phase – following what has been a serious pandemic – churches (and church leaders) require support to adjust and respond effectively to address the needs both of their congregations and their wider communities. This needs to be done with sensitivity and awareness of their circumstances and priorities. However, the church is in a pivotal position to lead the way in addressing loneliness and social isolation over coming year due to existing long term presence (often for decades or centuries), experience, passion, Christian values and calling.
We are currently inspired by the verse ‘I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland’ (Isaiah 43:19) and we believe that God is preparing His church to become a key part of the response to the period of barrenness over recent months and we trust Him to bring ‘streams’ of refreshment and new life to many people over the coming months.
If you would like to know more about ways in which you can respond in your local area, please contact us using the form below for more information.
1 ‘About Loneliness’- Mind Website
2 ‘The Psychology of Loneliness’ – Campaign to End Loneliness, July 2020
3 ‘Loneliness beyond Covid-19’ – Campaign to End Loneliness, July 2021
4 ‘Church in Action: A Survey of Churches’ Community Responses to the Pandemic’ – Church Urban Fund & Church of England, April 2021