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The pandemic, mental health and Catholic priests

Posted : Nov-28-2022

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How has the pandemic affected the well-being of priests? Three priest researchers from the Southdown Institute in partnership with an economics researcher from the Catholic University of Eichstaett-Ingolstadt in Germany studied the implications of priests as frontline workers. Below, Fr. Innocent Okozi and Fr. Stephan Kappler share their findings.

1. What was the impetus behind conducting this study?  

Frontline workers are those who were at greater risk of contracting COVID-19 and/or experiencing the negative mental health consequences related to the COVID-19 pandemic. A lot of research studies often identified those in the medical field as the frontline workers. We noted that Catholic priests shared in the commonly reported characteristics of frontline health care workers. Hence, we wanted to examine the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the psychological well-being of Catholic priests.

2. What impact has the pandemic had on the psychological well-being of Catholic priests in Canada?

First, we found that the distress of COVID-19 pandemic was negatively associated with the psychological well-being of priests in Canada who participated in the study. There was a strong negative correlation between the experience of depression and loneliness and the psychological well-being of the priests. Secondly, we found a significant positive association between the experience of positive religious coping and higher psychological well-being, while those who endorsed negative religious coping reported experiencing higher distress and lesser psychological wellbeing. We also found that the distress of COVID-19 was negatively associated with the loss of meaning in relation to the professional identity and restrictions on the ministry of the priests in Canada.

3. Many may not connect Catholic priests to being frontline workers. Can you share the unique stressors they faced in this role?  

True, many people may not connect Catholic priests with being frontline workers – especially if their focus is solely on the physical health of the population, while ignoring or neglecting the spiritual component of the human person. In fact, some journal editors to whom we initially submitted our research manuscript questioned whether priests could be accurately designated as frontline workers. Given that at least 36 per cent of the Canadian population identify as Catholics, one cannot deny the fact that religious faith and spirituality form part of the strengths of many people in Canada. These are the people that clergy, religious men and women, and lay ministers and volunteers ministered to in Canada. The priest respondents of our study reported being affected by the total and near-total restrictions imposed by the various provincial and regional governments. During the height of the pandemic, some priests reported being directly exposed in their ministry to the risks of COVID-19, for example, when they celebrated funerals, weddings, or anointing of the sick, or to patients struggling with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

4. What was the most surprising finding of the study?  

One of the most surprising findings was the fact that anxiety and traumatic distress were not significantly associated with the psychological well-being of the priests. Another surprise finding was the positive association between helpful spiritual activities and priestly satisfaction and a negative association between counseling received and priestly satisfaction. This finding would require further exploration, as it was also apparent that only a very small percentage of priests did engage in professional counseling. This raises a red flag regarding the ongoing stigma related to mental health treatment.

5. How can this knowledge be applied to help priests in the future?  

We consistently encourage clergy and diocesan leadership to foster positive religious coping activities and spiritual activities as well as develop additional mutual support structures for priests. Additionally, leadership of the CCCB has expressed interest in the findings of our study and are open to working with us to facilitate the application of the knowledge gleaned from our study to their local clergy and pastoral personnel. This also includes an exploration of how one can better address loneliness within the clergy. We also work on motivating clergy and religious to reach out or seek mental health consultation or services with mental health providers who respect religious/spiritual faith, such as Southdown. To offer an unbureaucratic and easily accessible mental health support to clergy, our team at the Southdown Institute offers two free consultations to clergy, religious and lay ecclesial ministers through its outpatient therapeutic services. If the study can help bring a renewed focus to the area of mental health, then one of our goals has already been reached.