The upheavals of the last few months have taken their toll on many of us, including our mental health. Bryan Jones from the Dwell Counseling Department offers some insight and suggestions for gaining your footing:
We are in a time of great disruption, and in this uncertainty, it is vital that we protect our spiritual and mental health. Stay-at-home orders have brought about many changes, including a loss of routine. Our social lives have been hacked to pieces and replaced with a digital imitation. On top of that, we are potentially looking at an ongoing cycle of easing and extending of these restrictions.
Many of us have been thrown into a time of financial difficulty. Numerous workers have been laid off, fired, or furloughed. We are in an economic decline which will likely have repercussions for years to come. Parents at home with children are trying to explain what is going on. Medical and frontline workers are regularly confronted with people who are sick, and the tensions of maintaining health in highly interactive environments. We are worried about getting sick ourselves or are concerned for loved ones with potential complications. Some of us have gotten sick. Others already know someone who has died.
Then we add in the continual bombardment of the news. Every day articles are piling up, often contradictory, reminding us of the dangers and deaths, the economic implications, and the political interpretations. We are also facing internal battles on maintaining restrictions, identifying our freedoms, and choosing if we sacrifice in ways that might be considered risky. Perhaps you find yourself comparing yourself to others and welling up with self-righteousness or defeat. After nearly three months of upheaval due to COVID-19, we are now facing national upheaval in the wake of a black man’s death at the hands of a police officer. That tragedy has ignited a wave of dialogue, protests, and (unfortunately) destruction across the country.
If you have been feeling off, you are not alone. A March 2020 APA poll reported that 36% of Americans believed the Coronavirus and subsequent stay at home orders were already having a ‘serious effect’ on their mental health. Over half of the respondents were worried about their finances, someone in their family getting the virus, and personally being infected. Then again in April similar results were reported in a Gallup poll, where 26% of American adults were already reporting some level of mental distress. Then again in late April and early May, Author and Professor Jean Twenge reported that rates of moderate to severe mental distress tripled after the lockdowns to nearly 70% of Americans! The Census Bureau (May 7-12) reports that a third of Americans are showing symptoms of anxiety, depression, or both. Similar results have been reported in America and other countries as well.
Mental Health Lag
Following a natural disaster and other traumatic events there is frequently a mental health fallout that follows. There is generally a 60 to 90 day lag from the “acute” phase of a crisis before the full psychological fallout is felt. After the calamity passes and surviving is no longer the main focus, people begin to grapple and process what they have been through and what it means for the future. In economic downturns the full effects aren’t usually realized for a couple of years. The impact begins to show up in upticks of suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, insomnia, overeating, PTSD, and a host of other new mental health cases. For instance, a comprehensive study reviewing the results of many previous quarantine/outbreaks saw increases in many of the above-listed issues. Of particular note was the sharp rise of PTSD instances. It has also been widely studied that suicides increase after many major life difficulties.
All of this is incredibly confusing. Lockdowns have been easing, and yet no one knows with any certainty what the battle with COVID will look like. Will it decrease in virility or will there be a wave of new cases? Will a vaccine be developed? When might it be available? How long will it be until some form of herd immunity is reached? What will be the outcome of the current protests? Will there be social reform? For now, these questions and many others have no answers, which heightens uncertainty and will stretch the "acute" phase along with our mental fortitude.
The questions that naturally arise in times like these are: What is God doing? And what am I supposed to do?
As Christians, we need to reflect on what God says about Himself and the world around us. Of particular importance is that we see and understand God’s sovereignty and His promises to take care of us.
- Reflecting on God’s sovereignty and immutability:
Psalm 102:12 But you, Lord, sit enthroned forever; your renown endures through all generations…25 - In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands…27-28 But you remain the same, and your years will never end. The children of your servants will live in your presence; their descendants will be established before you.”
James 1:16-17 Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.
Colossians 1:16-17 For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.
God does not change. God is not surprised by our current events. All of this was not only known but planned-for by Him. This should both be comforting and yet perplexing—perhaps even frustrating. We, like the psalmist and many other figures we find in the Bible, find ourselves at odds trying to understand God’s plans and His goodness in trying circumstances. Yet, we are encouraged to speak with God and wrestle over the concepts of justice, mercy, calamity, and God’s character in the midst of the discrepancy we see in our present life. This is explicitly how God tells us He is going to give us wisdom (James 1:5) and how He develops our character and gives us true hope (Romans 5:3-5).
- Meditating on God’s promises to take care of us
Matthew 6:25-34 “For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they? 27 And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life? 28 And why are you worried about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, 29 yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more clothe you? You of little faith! 31 Do not worry then, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear for clothing?’ 32 For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. 34 “So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
God is not only unchanging and powerful but also incredibly tender and nurturing. God in His lovingkindness invites us to not worry more than is necessary because His watchful eye also sees our needs and wants to meet them. God knows that there are issues which are too broad to be fully understood by anyone, and He is offering a solution which supersedes the wisdom provided—the incredible promise that when we focus on God, He will unveil things before us but also take care of things out of our control. This mirrors promises given all over scripture (Joshua 1:9, Isaiah 43:1-3, Proverbs 3:5,6…) which speak to God’s closeness with His people and the provision provided when we focus on His concern for us in the midst of chaos.
These are just a sample of verses which focus upon God’s unfailing character and promises to us that are His children. Obviously there are many more but this should serve as a basis on which we move forward in adversity.
Here are some practical suggestions and some godly instruction to help steady our mental health:
- Find ways to remain socially involved. Psychologists have established strong evidence in many studies that loneliness is correlated to higher levels of anxiety, depression, alcoholism/drug abuse, and also causes physical harm including the likelihood of getting sick. Lonely people report feeling higher levels of pain and higher levels of suicide.
- We should find and engage in social interaction to the level our consciences allow--if that’s meeting over Zoom or another multimedia platform or following guidelines for social-distanced hangouts. We should actively engage in meeting regularly with other Christians and engaging in vulnerability. (Of interesting note, the rate of suicide in those who attend religious services is 5 times less compared to those who do not attend - see footnote 10)
- Dwell counselors are available. The department is partnering with licensed clinical professionals for additional help during this time and as a result has expanded the services available. Find out how to connect at xenos.org/counseling.
- There is financial help for this available. The Counseling Department has had a long-standing core value of not allowing financial need to stand in the way of people getting spiritual and Biblical counseling.
- Serve when possible. The Dwell website has opportunities to help and serve others at xenos.org/coronavirus/volunteer. There are plenty of other great places to volunteer as well. God says we are blessed when we take our minds off ourselves and take some time to worry about the needs of others (John 13:17, Acts 20:35).
- As has always been the case, Dwell has a benevolence fund available for members who are hurting financially. During this time, extra money has been allocated for those in need. Ask your home church leaders how to apply.
- We should look for opportunities to talk with those who need comforting and/or don’t know God. Taking with others who are trying to understand God’s plan and action in a falling world both sharpens us and them.
- Here are some additional suggestions from CDC and WHO, with which we agree:
- Pay attention to your mental health and be checking in with others--particularly those who were already prone.
- While hospitals, fortunately, haven’t been overwhelmed in Ohio, we should still look out for frontline workers. We should particularly be vigilant if we see an uptick in infections/hospitalizations.
- Talk with our children and explain to them some of the confusion they are seeing
- Keep a routine
- Eat well
- Limit media intake
- Avoid burnout
 A Chinese study looked at the immediate psychological responses to COVID-19. The researchers found that 53.8% of the participants rated the psychological impact of the outbreak as moderate or severe. In addition, 16.5% reported moderate to severe depressive symptoms and 28.8% reported moderate to severe anxiety symptoms.
 The study saw increases in anxiety, anger, disturbances in sleep, depression, and PTSD were noted. In separate studies of SARS patients and people affected in a 2003 coronavirus outbreak found that between 10% and 29% suffered from PTSD. Many of the stressors associated with previous quarantine are present today including infection fears, frustration, boredom, inadequate supplies, lack of information, financial loss, and stigmas associated with contacting/prevention methods for the disease.
 A comprehensive viewpoint article from JAMA Psychiatry sites numerous current complications that are correlated with an increase in suicide. These factors include economic downturn, social isolation, decreased access to community and religious support, and barriers to treatment. Of particular interest is the finding that weekly attendance of religious services has been associated with a 5 fold lower suicide rate compared with those who do not attend.