And how religion fits in.
By: Ilan Preskovsky
As of this writing, COVID-19 has been an unwanted daily presence in our lives for something like twenty months, but if there is one positive side effect to come from all this, it must surely be a renewed emphasis on the importance of mental health.
With the pandemic serving as a hotbed for serious mental health crises – affecting everyone from those with existing diagnoses to those who previously would never even have dreamed of stepping foot in a therapist’s office – it’s hardly surprising that mental health, and its opposite number, mental illness, have risen even further to the forefront of the cultural consciousness over the past two years.
More than just feeding the ever-rising interest in psychology in the general population, the pandemic has both shone a light on just how damaging untreated mental illness can be, and has given mental health practitioners plenty to consider going forward.
A worldwide case study in anxiety, trauma, depression, and loneliness
Because the pandemic has had such widespread reach and has affected people across all classes, ages, genders, nationalities, and races throughout the globe, all while having its effects recorded virtually in real time by anyone with a social media account, it should provide enough material for experts in the social sciences to pour over for years to come. I shudder to mention it for fear of riling up conspiracy theorist whackadoodles, but it’s almost like the whole world became a giant research lab; a controlled experiment by which to study human behaviour. It didn’t and it wasn’t, but the confluence of interconnectivity, universality, and wildly different reactions to COVID-19 will surely have plenty to teach us in the years and decades to come.
Though the most devastating effects of the pandemic are clearly on those who have become seriously ill or died from COVID-19, as well as their immediate circles of friends and family, its most widespread impact no doubt comes from the (necessary) lockdowns, mask mandates, and curtailing of freedom of movement that took place worldwide. All of the above, along with vaccinations later on, immediately became hot-button political markers in a way that was both unsurprising and more than a little disappointing, and the economic disruption of nation-wide lockdowns was the very definition of inevitable, but its COVID-19’s psychological ramifications that may leave the most lasting impression.
In particular, forced lockdowns made all of us confront how we deal with isolation, loneliness, and what it meant to only be able to connect with all or most of the people you know via digital media, even as simple things we all take for granted (hitting the cinema, meeting a friend for coffee, working out at a gym, even just going for a stroll) were stripped away from us. Compound that with the implicit uncertainty of a global health crisis of a scale not seen since the Spanish flu of 1918, anxiety around the national economic impact and lost personal income for so many (except the super-rich, of course), and worry about whether you or anyone you know might contract the virus the minute you step out of strict lockdown conditions, and you have the perfect recipe for a crisis in mental health; a pandemic all its own.
And that’s before taking into account those who actually fell seriously ill with the virus. The profoundly frightening physiological symptoms and the horrible quarantine conditions that removed the comfort of loved ones while so seriously ill must surely have come with profound feelings of anxiety, loneliness, and trauma. “Long COVID” is a term that generally applies to the unknown long-term physical symptoms of contracting any form of COVID-19, but it just as equally applies to the unknown, long-term psychological effects too.
There is, very simply, a lot to unpack.
The personality factor
Needless to say, though, to even begin unpacking all this requires an appreciation of just how much circumstance and personality plays a part in how individuals have reacted to the past two years.
The internal dynamics of someone stuck completely alone, for example, would obviously be quite different from those in lockdown with their families, spouses, or roommates. An optimist, by definition, viewed their circumstances very differently from a pessimist, while the challenges and admitted rewards of being cut off from most other people would be very, very different for introverts than it would be for extroverts – and the differences would be magnified by how far along the introvert/extrovert spectrum (and it is a spectrum) a person falls.
To concentrate for a second just on that introvert/extrovert spectrum – and even then, mostly on the two extremes rather than those who fall in the middle – as only one example among countless psychological predispositions, lockdowns and social distancing have done plenty to both confirm that which we already know about these traits, while also challenging some of our preconceived notions about them too.
Introverts – defined as those who draw most of their energy from within, as opposed to extroverts who draw theirs from without, especially from other people – would, at first glance, seem to be perfectly built to deal with living in lockdown. They might also perhaps deal better with living alone than living with others. But considering that ideal form of social interaction for introverts is, generally, with a small group of close friends and family rather than crowds of acquaintances or strangers, perhaps they would also thrive living with a few other family members or close friends.
Not so fast, as it turns out.
Despite introverts indeed adapting to the early days of lockdown better than their extrovert peers, even enjoying the solitude and lack of social expectations (as an introvert, myself, I can certainly attest to this), the longer the lockdown and the pandemic have dragged on, the less true this was. Indeed, based on a study conducted in September last year by Maryann Wei, introverts actually proved to be significantly more prone to anxiety, loneliness, and depression than extroverts during lockdown overall – and fared worse when locked down with others than by themselves.
Various reasons for why this is so have been offered (including introverts generally being more prone to mental health issues than their extroverted counterparts), but the point is that it’s just one small area where the pandemic has already challenged and/or redefined established psychological paradigms.
The role of religious faith and community
Another area in which there has already been a significant amount of research is on the role of religion in the mental health response to the pandemic. Studies have been conducted on the general public, but, intriguingly, also very specifically on how the religion of Orthodox Jews in the United States has affected their reactions to COVID-19.
“COVID-19, Mental Health, and Religious Coping Among American Orthodox Jews” by Steven Pirutinsky, Aaron D. Cherniak, and David H. Rosmarin details the results of a survey taken of hundreds of Orthodox Jews about their response to the pandemic, its impact on their religious faith, and whether their religious faith has helped them cope with the difficulties of living with that pandemic and the complications that have arisen from it. Participants were from across the Orthodox spectrum, but most lived in the New York/New Jersey area and 90% of them were fairly evenly split between Modern Orthodox and Yeshivish.
The results were, in short, as good a rebuke against the anti-theistic argument (ie. that humanity would be better off with no religion) of people like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins as you could hope to find. Backing up other studies on the impact of religion on mental health by looking at the specific beliefs and practices of the Orthodox Jewish community, the simple conclusion was that religion has a high correlation with better mental health during times of distress. “In aggregate, these results support the consistent line of findings that religious individuals turn to G-d when they experience troubling times (Hood et al. 2018) and the idea that religion proffers the most benefit for mental health under conditions of high distress (Granqvist 2020).”
If the former point is rather obvious, the latter is really quite the statement and, no doubt, needs to be understood within a much larger context of mental health and the severe limitations of religion and religious leaders in dealing with actual mental illness. I’m almost reluctant to even quote it. And yet, it does show the power of what the authors of the paper term “religious coping” – the way that the combination of living a meaning-driven life, trust in a Higher Power, and the communal aspects of religion can decrease anxiety, trauma, and depression during times of crisis.
This does actually have a flip side, though. First, the way that COVID-19 forced us into isolation meant that the communal benefits of religion were at least dampened in this particular crisis, which is why the pandemic had a greater negative effect on the religiosity of Orthodox men than on Orthodox women: the religious life of the former is centred more on the shul or yeshiva; the latter, the home.
Secondly, while the faith of religious people relatively secure in their beliefs seems to result in better mental health during a crisis, the opposite is true for those struggling with their religion -especially in terms of theodicy, where the question of evil in the face of an apparently benevolent G-d leads to a distrust of and lack of reliance on G-d. This “negative religious coping” actually leads to an increase in things like anxiety and depression during the pandemic and other crises, not least in the fear of contracting the virus and becoming seriously ill from it.
More than that, previous research by the same authors revealed that “difficulties with religious coping precede emotional concerns, and not the other way around”, and the results here very much backed that up. This means that though religion often guards against increased depression and anxiety during times of crisis, when that religion manifests as a spiritual struggle, it can actually do the exact opposite and not just exacerbate negative mental health, but cause it.
It’s interesting, though, considering how Judaism relies far less on blind faith in G-d than most other religions and in many ways calls for us to struggle with various aspects of our religion (it’s not for nothing that “Yisrael” literally means to struggle with G-d, or that the central text of any yeshiva is the Talmud: a collection of often extremely heated arguments), Orthodox Jews did not, in fact, buck the trend in general society of the pandemic causing an increase in religiosity and interest in religion. Those whose faith was shaken by the pandemic were dwarfed by those whose religiosity either stayed the same or grew stronger.
This, no doubt, deserves a whole scholarly article of its own.
Where to from here?
This really only scratches the surface of just how momentous an impact this pandemic has had on our understanding and appreciation of mental health. Whether we’re talking about your average man on the street who previously had little interest in or understanding of the devastating effects of mental illness suddenly being confronted with it head-on, or mental health practitioners and researchers being presented with all sorts of new information that will undoubtedly resonate in the profession for years to come, this is one of many aspects of our lives that will forever be changed by COVID-19.
To conclude with something that really needs an article (or a book) of its own, but at least deserves a mention at this point, is the impact that these new insights into mental health will have on Halacha and the pastoral role of community rabbis for years to come. Respected educator and author, Rabbi Yoni Rosensweig, is literally writing the book on the subject with an in-depth, scholarly work that draws on the insights of both mental health experts and poskim (halachic authorities) from across the Orthodox spectrum to tackle mental health in Halacha on an unprecedented level. He has also already started a very welcome programme that trains rabbis in the basics of mental health.
There will, no doubt, be more to say on the subject once the book is published, but though the impetus to write the book came before the pandemic hit, Rabbi Rosensweig has admitted that the pandemic did give his work an added urgency. Most profoundly, in an interview with Rabbi Joseph Dweck, Rabbi Rosensweig divulged how enthusiastically his work has been received so far by the many poskim he has approached for the book – even by those of a more… conservative outlook than his own Modern Orthodox/Yeshiva University background, who may not always have agreed with his conclusions, but admitted their appreciation of how necessary such a work is.
Might they have said the same before the pandemic hit? Quite possibly, but it is hard to imagine that like everyone else, they weren’t and won’t be affected by the mental health repercussions of this (please G-d) once-in-a-lifetime, global pandemic. How could they not be?