A new study has found two-thirds of UK churches identify loneliness as the top issue to tackle after the coronavirus lockdown.
The Hope Beyond report by Allchurches Trust revealed almost 70 percent of churches believe it will be the most pressing concern in the next three months, and 58 per cent of churches believe it will remain a top issue in the a year ahead.
The survey, which involved 638 respondents across a range of Christian denominations in the UK, also reveals that 60 percent of churches plan to introduce initiatives to tackle isolation in older people and 21 per cent plan to do the same for younger people.
Jeremy Noles from Allchurches Trust, which provides grants to churches, told Premier the Church has a big role in responding to the issue.
"There's no doubt that loneliness was already an issue before the pandemic hit and it's just been exacerbated by the pandemic," he said.
"I think, more than ever, the Church has been reminded it's not about buildings, it's about people. And so the people who make up churches can all do something 'off their own bat' in their own neighbourhoods and circles of influence to reach out to those who are lonely and isolated because of the pandemic."
Dame Sarah Mullally, Bishop of London, also acknowledged the problem, saying: "Even before Covid-19 hit, across the Church of England we had been rightly moving towards a greater awareness of the need to attend to our mental health. Then, with the onset of the pandemic, we have witnessed those who struggle with loneliness at the best of times struck by the claustrophobia of lockdown.
"There have been older people shielding, less able to socialise online than some, feeling more isolated than ever. Others have lost their jobs or have been put under severe financial pressures.
"It has been heartening to see our churches provide even greater levels of support to all of these people, and more, over these last four months - whether it be on Zoom, or socially-distanced. The ongoing challenge for our churches is to continue to support a culture in which everyone feels safe to share their struggles and feels able to speak openly."
As experts forecast a surge in mental health issues, Allchurches Trust launched a new grant programme on Wednesday to help churches and Christian charities meet the changing needs in their communities.
Noles said Christian charities can help those who are isolated by giving them better access to technology and providing support groups.
Patrick Regan OBE, founder of mental wellbeing charity Kintsugi Hope, said: "During Covid-19, we quickly moved our Kintsugi Hope Wellbeing Groups training online, enabling over 150 partner churches to reach their congregations and communities with resources to support people's mental and emotional wellbeing. Since lockdown, over 300 leaders have been trained or are undergoing training. They, in turn, are running groups providing a safe and supportive space for those feeling overwhelmed, providing tools of self-management in a facilitated peer-mentoring style setting.
"By taking the groups online, people who would normally not be able to attend - such as parents struggling with childcare, those who are chronically ill or without transport, or those who find the digital environment less threatening than face to face meetings - are getting the support they need from their local church. It's clear from the Allchurches Trust Hope Beyond research that the need for churches to come alongside those who are struggling at this time is growing."
Listen to Premier's interview with Jeremy Noles here: