As Australia begins to loosen restrictions and open, mental health becomes a top priority for national cabinet. On the 29th March, the National Mental Health Commission welcomed the Federal Government's mental health response to COVID-19 by accepting an initial commitment of $74 million to support essential mental health services and mental health support for all Australians. Australians are anxious and fearful about what the future brings as expectations of another great depression are broadcast over mainstream media and the secondary effects of the health and economic crisis hit. The shut-down of the economy has forced many businesses to close and high unemployment rates are plaguing Australians. With disturbing images of Centrelink lines streaming down streets, Centrelink works around the clock processing claims. As anxiety and depression skyrocket, people muse whether the cure is worse than the virus itself.
Retrospectively, Australian health experts have led the world in the fight against COVID-19. South Australia celebrates what appears to be the successful elimination of the virus as zero cases are recorded while a "new normal" of social distancing and hygiene are promoted. As the economy begins to reopen, there is a glimmer of hope. But why isn't spirituality being valued as part of health and wellbeing? Places of worship are experiencing the most severe restrictions indefinitely.
The biopsychosocial model of health is used by allied health professionals alongside clinical practice in the treatment of health and disease. It recognises the interconnection between biological, psychological and socioenvironmental factors and the impact that these interconnections have on people's health and wellbeing. Spiritual wellbeing directly impacts the biological and psychological health of individuals, especially their mental health. Spirituality is of utmost importance to the health and wellbeing of people of faith, but spirituality is not given the importance it deserves while mental health becomes a top priority for national cabinet.
Places of worship are significantly more restricted compared to shopping malls and education with most places unable to reopen indefinitely. Places like Ikea are allowed to gather 2550 people at one time and David Jones is allowed to gather 400 people per floor at the Adelaide stores. Schools are allowed to gather more than 1000 people at once. Even funerals and gyms are prioritised over places of worship by allowing greater numbers to gather. But places of worship are restricted to a mere ten people, irrespective of the size of the building, completely devaluing the health benefits of spirituality. Spirituality is part of the biopsychosocial model of health used by health professionals yet places of worship amongst the most heavily restricted in the Government's three-step strategy to reopen the nation.
Gathering with other believers is essential for people of faith. When COVID-19 first hit Australian shores, churches willingly surrendered their freedom to gather in an act of goodwill for public health. In fact, churches led the way by working with Government to put services online and broadcast their message. But an online message does not in any way replace the health benefits that gathering with other believers to sing, praise and worship provides.
Pentecostal and charismatic churches are known for their exuberant praise and worship services. The health benefits are dynamic, especially the impact on mental health. These health benefits are lost when services move online. A message that is delivered online becomes little more than a motivational advertisement, lacking the spiritual wellbeing benefits that the assembly worship experience provides. Spirituality as part of the biopsychosocial model of health is lost when moving online. So why are churches being restricted more than other areas of society in the three-step phase to reopen the economy? People of faith are alarmed about how the deeming of what is important during COVID-19 is going to impact religious freedoms into the future.
Places of worship must be afforded the same opportunity to reopen and be an example of responsibility and integrity during this time. If schools allow more than 1000 people onsite at once to provide education, places of worship must be given an opportunity to provide spiritual wellbeing to their members. Positive wellbeing is most commonly and consistently reported between religious involvement and mental health.
With a Christian Prime Minister leading Australia through the times of COVID-19, religious leaders had trust and faith that through the closing down of Australia, religious freedoms would not be scathed. Having an ally in national cabinet would surely secure their fate. But where are the leaders that will advocate for the equal treatment of places of worship? How will the devaluing of spirituality during COVID-19 impact religious liberty in the future? Religious leaders must encourage their members to send letters to their local Member of Parliament requesting places of worship to be given equal rights as others. Who else will speak out?
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