Timely Tips for Staying Mentally and Spiritually Healthy in COVID Times
Popular psychologist and author Kevin Vost shares insights for Catholics navigating the pandemic.
The stress of the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a spiritual and mental health toll on Americans, and people worldwide, over the past year. While the end of the pandemic is now on the distant horizon, Catholics may need to exercise vigilance more than ever to maintain health of body, mind and soul.
In this Register interview, Catholic psychologist and prolific author Kevin Vost discusses the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on Catholics, some of the challenges and opportunities the health crisis presents, and what Catholics can do in a variety of situations to make it through the rest of the pandemic mentally sound and spiritually awake.
What are some of the main mental and spiritual health challenges in the COVID-19 pandemic you’ve been seeing among Catholics and families?
Anxiety is certainly a big issue. Another one is loneliness. Sadly, even in the years before this COVID pandemic, researchers and clinicians around the world were warning about an upcoming epidemic of loneliness. Greater and greater numbers of people were reporting that they didn’t feel intimately connected with the people around them or part of a broader social network. So now, unfortunately, you have this time of social distancing, which is really having a serious impact on loneliness.
As this goes on, and this anxiety or loneliness mounts, it can put some people at risk for depression also: an ongoing, consistently down mood. There are other possibilities, but that’s what I see at the forefront.
What would you say are the spiritual challenges? And can you also help clarify for people the difference between mental health and spiritual health and how they relate to each other?
One of the greatest spiritual dangers right now may be the risk of what’s called one of the seven capital deadly sins: sloth or acedia, or a general sense of spiritual apathy. If people lose the habit of going to Mass and receiving the sacraments — which could be due to legal restrictions, depending on where they live or perhaps their own fears of contracting COVID, depending on their own physical health or what's going on in their own neighborhoods — there’s a risk there that if we get out of the habit of going to Mass and receiving sacraments, that worldly concerns slowly replace God, as he becomes, in a sense, out of sight and out of mind.
Now, mental and spiritual health are often closely intertwined, though there can be very important distinctions. So for a loose definition of mental health — as a psychologist, I would say mental health basically entails having our thoughts, emotions and behaviors keep in line with right reason, or in contact with reality in such a way that we can live on our lives and fulfill our roles and duties effectively without undue distress.
As for spiritual health, I think it can be seen as the extent to which we direct our mental and bodily capacities or powers, in whatever state they may be, toward the love of God and the fulfillment of his will and commands. And as for a positive interaction, study after study has shown that those who have stronger religious faith and more active religious practices, generally, that would indicate a greater spiritual health tend overall to have better mental health, too.
I want to point out that mental disorders can arise from many causes and are usually from interactions between a person’s genetic predispositions and particular stresses or stressful situations they encounter. So just because a person is suffering from a mental disorder does not necessarily mean they’re spiritually apathetic. So a person who’s feeling down or pressured should not go, “I must have turned away from God.” That’s not necessarily the case. In fact, a person who trusts and hopes in God, despite going through mental difficulties, may emerge from something like a depressive episode stronger than ever before; and having endured it, maybe emerge hopefully with greater compassion toward other people who also suffer.
What are some of the concrete ways during this pandemic that we can pursue to better cope with these spiritual and mental-health challenges?
These effects of the pandemic will vary from person to person. But I think it’s safe to say, for many of us, it actually has opened up more time available to us, because there are so many things we used to do that we cannot do now. In a sense, it has given us a concrete opportunity to be a little less like Martha and a little more like Mary in the narrative from Luke [10:38-42] by giving us more time to reflect, so we won’t be as anxious and troubled about many things and more focused on the needful things of God. Just in general, we can embrace this as a kind of opportunity: I can’t do all those things I used to do, but what are really the most important things? Can I use this time to grow closer to God? Can I use this time to be a better parent? Ideally, we need to think about these opportunities to establish some solid habits that will draw us closer to God through our love of him and also through the proper care of ourselves and love of our neighbor. So this can be in terms of thinking of the ways we can become better stewards of our own health, of our own property, our financial situation, and the way that we care for and spend time with our families. … How can I make this a positive experience to slow myself down, focus on what matters, and then keep those habits and persist in them once all these restrictions are over?
What tips would you have, then, for maintaining prayer and trust in God at this time?
Again, it’s the idea of setting up a pattern, a habit. If you don’t have a particular habit of prayer — and maybe you have some time that has opened now that you didn’t have before — set aside a small amount of time every day to do some spiritual reading, and flow into prayer; or invest some time with Catholic media, with the television or radio, ponder the lessons you learned, and pray to God about them.
One of the ways throughout history that some of the great saints have become stronger in their trust of God is actually also through periods of solitude. You know, during times of that social disconnection, we’re going to purposely try to use that to grow closer to God. When we’re less distracted by all the noises of the world, we can maybe be in a better shape to listen to God’s small, still voice.
So look at your own life situation: Are there ways you could enhance your prayer life, your growth in the knowledge of the faith, your intimacy with God? Take advantage of this, and start forming those habits now and make them strong, so they’re persistent when the world goes back hopefully to normal.
The pandemic has also produced a lot of tension in relationships. Many Catholics have friends or family who are at opposite ends of the spectrum of concern over COVID-19. How would you recommend Catholics navigate this?
It’s virtually everywhere. We’ve been talking in recent years about increasing political polarization, and I think we do see this real polarization here in the way many people react to COVID. With one extreme, it’s taking virtually no precautions or almost pretending it doesn’t exist; and for others, it’s almost living as recluses in ways that really aren't necessarily. Hopefully some people are somewhere in that spectrum, but, yes, it certainly does give rise for potential conflict, as people tend to feel very strongly about either their lack of a perceived serious threat or their perception of this as being a very, very dire threat. So that’s really real; you see it acted out in various families, parishes and dioceses even.
But what are we going to do about it? Well, one thing to keep in mind is remember that for the other person who reacts to [COVID risk] differently than you do, in some way that makes sense to them. They have some rationale behind that [behavior]. So we want to be sure not to jump in and try to demonize them or antagonize them, or even gossip behind them about their back. “Oh, did you see so-and-so wearing (or not wearing) a mask, or wearing two masks?” In that case, we should probably focus more on what we can control, in terms of our own safety, our own families, what we will do in terms of the precautions that we think are appropriate for us, and not be so concerned about other people when their precautions are different.
Now maybe you believe that someone close to you is engaging in some kind of very dangerous behavior. You certainly could feel free to talk with them in the spirit of fraternal correction, while realizing that your advice might well be rejected. You can also pray for these people. But I would just keep in mind what we’re all trying to figure out the right thing. So we certainly don’t want to treat each other in a hateful or spiteful way as we’re trying to make the best of this situation.
The pandemic has certainly taken a toll on children. Are there proactive steps you would recommend for Catholic parents to help keep their children mentally and spiritually healthy as best they can?
There’s of course going to be differences depending on the age of the children and the nature of the particular family. One of the best things that parents can do is … if we, as parents, despite the hardships, are not going to be constantly grumbling about them, or are not going to pass on to our children a sense of worry and danger; if we can instead pass on to them that there are still joys to be obtained from life, that we can still cherish our time together, that God is still always there with us, then that can help them a great deal. We don’t want to project that sense of fear onto them because, of course, many children do not understand the dynamics of COVID, and depending on their age, they may be completely unable to.
Some kids may have very exaggerated fears of their own risk of mortality from COVID. The American Academy of Pediatrics just reported a study with 43 states plus Guam, and, thank God, the number of children’s deaths from COVID are extremely small compared to adults. And they even had 10 states that reported zero deaths. Another recent article in Time magazine reported on some studies that found, in 38 countries, fewer children age 15 and under died in 2020 than the year before. They’re trying to figure out exactly why, and depending on the child’s age, you may not want to expose them to this kind of data, but just in general, give your children a sense that this is a serious issue; it’s not one that can prevent them from living healthy, happy lives. So we’ll follow the restrictions that we’re required to for our own sakes and for the sake of our loved ones. But we’ll let them know it’s not something to live in constant fear [of] because, of course, one day, death is going to come to us all. And none of us ever knows when, or if it’s tomorrow, but God is always there watching over us.
Another thing parents can also do, if they have additional spare time, is to enjoy that time with their children to try to engage in happy interactive activities with them; maybe even setting a goal of decreasing time spent on screens and increasing times spent interacting with each other, just talking, playing games, and doing what you’re able to do.
What about the older adults or seniors in our lives. How can we care for their mental health and spiritual health, as well?
That’s a very important issue, because especially with the elderly, even before the pandemic, as we mentioned, a loneliness epidemic was growing there. So now we have a time when — in certain cases, maybe they’re in a nursing home or somewhere else — you’re physically unable to see them; or maybe for reasons of prudence, they decide not to participate in family gatherings because of the risk, especially if they’re really up there in years or have medical problems. So now we really need to think hard in terms of … what can we do to maintain those connections? Can we do a daily phone call? If they’re involved in the internet, can they do chat through the different internet interaction tools? Can we make some regular contact with our older family members to show them we care?
Years ago, when I was a young man, I would get home from a day’s work. And after my wife would make a supper, I would just relish calling my mom every night with one of those old phones on the wall that had a big long cord and just talked to her the whole time I was doing dishes. And you know, it meant the world to her to have that daily contact. So that’s one thing we can do now: Within what’s allowed, how can we reach out to those family members who may be more disconnected than ever before? And hopefully that will set us a goal, that once this disease is under control, once the restrictions are lifted, to do as much as we possibly can with them face-to-face to show them how much we’ve missed them and how much we care about them.
As we wrap up, how do we maintain our hope in Christ through the stress of this time?
One thing I should say about our hope in Christ is the actual theological virtue of hope is the hope that we will attain heaven, that we’ll be there in bliss with God someday, and that God will give us all the graces, all the means we need, to get there. Keep that in mind: that God is there for us. So even in times of struggle, the graces are available; they’re there. It’s maybe one of those hard teachings, and it’s not an easy pill to swallow, but I always think of the first verses of the Epistle of St. James [1:2-4], when he says count it all joy when you meet various trials, because the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. So when we undergo hardships, there’s a purpose for it. God has given us the graces we need to endure it, and we’re going to come out stronger from that.
This interview is edited for length.