Shu Xian Leong has spent most of the year in a small Sydney apartment, thousands of kilometres from her family in Singapore. “Being in isolation kind of took a toll on me,” the third-year design student says. “I was in the same space that I was working, eating and resting, and that ultimately made me feel really lonely.”
Shu began neglecting her uni work to binge-watch TV and YouTube for up to 12 hours a day. It was a “bad cycle” that brought on stress-related migraines. Her withdrawal was noticed by university friends in Credo, an evangelical Christian organisation Shu joined in her first year.
“They would check up on me and [ask] how they could pray for me,” she recalls.
But it was a gift from one of the group members — a passage from the Book of Psalms — that helped Shu find comfort in her faith.
“The [book’s] authors were writing about when they were facing trials and tribulations — some were lamenting to God, and some were rejoicing — and I felt I could relate to that,” she says.
“God is someone that I can place my trust in, so I don’t feel like I’m out of control because I know, ultimately, he’s there to support me.”
Shu’s experience is one shared by many young Australians. According to research conducted by the ABC in partnership with Vox Pop Labs, women and people aged 18-34 experienced the largest decline in mental health between April and June this year.
But it’s not just anxiety and depression that have been on the rise. During the early days of COVID-19, researchers found that Google searches for “prayer” had also surged.
A pandemic of loneliness
Mahsheed Ansari, a lecturer in Islamic Studies at Charles Sturt University, says it’s understandable that people have used their religious beliefs to help them cope with mental hardships during the pandemic.
“There’s a predeterminism in the Islamic tradition, which is also part of the Judeo-Christian and Abrahamic faiths,” she explains.
“It’s this view that God is actively involved with our personal life — with our global socio-political life — so that gives us a bit of psychological relief knowing that ultimately things are running through their course.”
This belief doesn’t negate the devastation of 2020, Dr Ansari says, but it drives people to seek deeper spiritual meaning and “see the mercy” amid calamity.
While Dr Ansari found the initial weeks of lockdown deeply isolating — at the time, she was caring for her mother who’d recently returned from hospital — she’s chosen to view the pandemic as an opportunity for spiritual growth.
“I felt really disabled at the beginning,” she says. “But then I started feeling empathy for other Australians — people who are lonely, who don’t have family, friends, social lives; our homeless people, our Indigenous people.
“It really is a pandemic of loneliness as well.”
‘I thought I had the coronavirus’
For lawyer and mediator Tina Ng, Buddhism helped her through the isolating experience of lockdown. “I was so sick, I thought I had the coronavirus,” she recalls with a laugh.
“It was early on in March when we still didn’t have a lot of data about it, and [medical] centres were either closed or full so I couldn’t get in. I tried to call the home doctor, they wouldn’t come over.
“The only thing I could really turn to was my Buddhist faith … to help me deal with the worries, the fears and the anxieties, and really come face-to-face with my mortality.”
Tina set up an online form called ‘Ask a Buddhist’ where Buddhists — and members of the broader public — seeking solace could ask questions.
“Some people just want to talk with someone because they’re worried about their own welfare, or because someone they love is sick or has the coronavirus.”
The rise of meditation in iso
According to Sydney monk Bhante Sujato, it’s a teaching of Buddha that suffering gives rise to faith.
“When people have these challenges, that’s when they think they need their faith,” he says.
“If everything is going well, ‘Oh well, bye-bye God, bye-bye church, bye-bye temple!'”
But he believes faith systems should offer more than solace.
“We should be providing something which is more of questioning of our values, and an aspiring to a deeper sense of values,” he says. During the pandemic, he’s been trying to offer just that, through live-streaming meditation sessions three times each day. “Meditation is a way of taking into your own hands your mental and emotional wellbeing,” he says.
“It allows you to identify your own emotional space, your own thought patterns, your own tendencies of mind.” He says in many ways the Buddhist practice has prepared him for the COVID-19 lockdown. “I don’t know if it’s bad to say this, but for Buddhists it’s like, ‘This is our moment,'” he laughs.
“We’ve been training in meditation, in stillness and in self-reliance, that’s the essence of the Buddhist path. So, for us as monks, to be spending a long time in lockdown and so on, this is just normal.”
‘That’s being human, nobody is perfect’
At her university apartment, Shu has now replaced binge-watching with being active in Bible studies and other Credo activities. Her parents in Singapore have also been checking in and sending online sermons for her to watch. “They do look out for me, in terms of my faith as well as my daily wellbeing,” she says.
Shu says acknowledging that she wasn’t coping was the first step to feeling better. “I am privileged I have a house, I have food to eat, I haven’t lost my job, and there are so many ways God has provided for me,” she says. “I assumed that [I didn’t have] a reason to be sad or depressed, but that’s being human, nobody is perfect.”