By IHE Fellow Brandon Vaidyanathan
The COVID-19 pandemic has now ravaged the world for more than a year. Beyond the damage caused by the virus itself, the pandemic has produced adverse effects on mental health globally, both through worries about infection and the challenges posed by lockdowns. Yet is it possible for people to flourish in spite of the pandemic?
One place to which we might look for an answer is faith communities.
Significant research attests to the positive effects of religious participation and practice on well-being. But the pandemic has forced congregations to restrict their activities and gatherings, if not shut their doors altogether.
To assess how faith communities are being impacted by the pandemic, we conducted online surveys between October – December 2020 in Christian, Jewish, and Hindu faith communities in four states. More than 1600 persons participated in the survey — predominantly members who were highly active in their communities.
To assess flourishing, we used the Harvard Flourishing Measure, a 12-item survey scale developed by the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University, which measures overall happiness and life-satisfaction, physical and mental health, meaning and purpose, character and virtue, close social relationships, and financial and material stability.
Using this measure, we find that participants overall seem to be flourishing in spite of the pandemic. Even though religious service attendance has been affected, spiritual practices like prayer and scripture reading have either remained constant or increased, and contribute to the relatively high levels of well-being and flourishing among members of faith communities.
In our statistical models, we discovered that one of the main predictors of flourishing is sharing one’s problems with others. Frequency of talking about personal problems with others in one’s community is associated with significantly higher levels of mental health and overall flourishing.
However, very few people actually share their problems with others in their faith communities. This does not seem to be an effect of the social isolation caused by the pandemic. In fact, in congregation surveys we conducted both before (in 2018 – 2019) and during the pandemic (Oct. – Dec. 2020), more than two-thirds of participants each time reported that they either rarely or never share personal problems with others in their faith community. Keep in mind that these participants are highly involved in their faith communities. The vast majority of them also report that they find the leaders and other members of their community to be welcoming and supportive.
Our research confirms that one of the most important mental health resources a congregation can provide is close friendships — supportive persons with whom one can share one’s life struggles. But this turns out to be a severely under-utilized resource.
Pastors we spoke to suggested a number of reasons why this might be the case. Perhaps people who don’t share their problems don’t want to burden others; they may think their own problems aren’t as important as those of others. But as our research shows, non-sharers have worse physical and mental health than frequent sharers (Fig. 1).
Some suggest that this finding may reflect cultural preferences for privacy. In our data, African-American Baptist participants share personal problems with one another much more frequently than others. Jewish and Catholic respondents have significantly lower levels of personal sharing than others (Fig. 2).
Others suggest that highly active members in their community may feel the need to keep up appearances as “good” religious people. The community may not offer them the psychological safety in which they can be vulnerable with each other regarding their personal problems. Perhaps they believe they will not be accepted if people knew their struggles.
Given the serious mental health toll of the pandemic, more work needs to be done to understand the reasons for such isolation and how to help congregations become communities where people can develop deep friendships.
Brandon Vaidyanathan is a professor of sociology at The Catholic University of America.