Mental health in the pandemic

December 16th, 2020

What is mental health? 

One crucial development in the past century has been the growth in both awareness and acceptance of mental illnesses and the increased attention paid to mental health. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), mental health is more than just the absence of mental disorders or disabilities, it is also “an integral and essential component to health.” While conversations about mental health often focus on diagnosable illnesses — especially common ones like depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder — mental health is important for everyone. A mentally healthy person is one who realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community. Some factors that can affect our mental health include socioeconomic pressures, violence, rapid social change, stressful work conditions, gender discrimination, social exclusion, an unhealthy lifestyle, physical illnesses and human rights violations. 

Between the challenges of the pandemic, the corresponding economic recession, civil unrest around racism and the fractiousness brought about by an election year, the last nine months have likely affected your mental health. According to surveys from the Kaiser Family Foundation, 53% of adults in the United States reported negative impacts to their mental health due to worry and stress around the coronavirus pandemic in mid-July, up from 32% in March. If you’ve had difficulty sleeping or concentrating, found yourself eating more or less than usual, or using alcohol or other substances more frequently, this could signal a change in your mental health. 

To add insult to injury, many of the healthier coping mechanisms that support our mental health are either unavailable or too risky due to the contagious nature of the coronavirus. We may have taken for granted the smaller social interactions that made up our lives, from catching up with people at work to chatting with friends after worship. Though technology can keep us connected in some ways, it doesn’t quite make up for a lack of physical touch or the connection of being with our loved ones in person. We know that social isolation and loneliness are associated with poor mental health outcomes, and yet sheltering in place and refraining from gathering in-person with people outside of our households are crucial to keeping one another safe right now.

More serious effects on mental health for particular groups 

While we are all broadly in the same situation, particular groups face specific challenges to their mental health at this time. Job loss can be a major blow to one’s mental health and is associated with increased depression, anxiety and low self-esteem. In addition to financial stress, work is an important part of our identity in the world. Unsurprisingly, lower income individuals report higher rates of negative mental health impacts compared to higher income workers. Essential workers and frontline medical workers who cannot do their jobs from home are likely to face burnout, as well as anxiety and stress from personal exposure to the virus and the risk of exposing others. 

Social isolation is particularly challenging for older adults. Already prone to loneliness and isolation due to limited mobility, some older adults may not have the means or comfort to engage with the technology that is keeping so many of us connected. Long-term acute-care facilities that house older adults have had to limit or completely restrict outside visitation due to the risks of the coronavirus. For older adults with dementia or other chronic memory issues, the loss of routine and social stimulation can worsen their conditions. 

Individuals with previously diagnosed mental illnesses and those suffering from addiction to alcohol and other substances are also particularly at risk during this time. Prior to the pandemic, the nation’s suicide rate was at its highest levels since World War II. While it is still too early to analyze data in our current context, suicide rates have historically risen during other health crises and economic recessions. Over 40 states have reported increases in opioid-related mortality so far this year, further underscoring the need for access to evidence-based treatment for those with substance abuse disorders.

The church and mental health support

Even though my church is not currently gathering in-person, I remain deeply aware of how many of those in my pastoral care feel like they are underwater. The regular challenges of life — like caring for aging family members, raising children, rocky relationships, unexpected home repairs and pressure at work — seem almost impossible to cope with alongside the added stress of this year. More than ever, I feel powerless in the face of so much suffering. Nevertheless, I continue to assure my congregation of my prayers, love and support for them.

With so many of us experiencing the same struggles, there has been a lot of emphasis placed on self-care. Articles and webinars bombard us with ways to boost our mental health and encourage talk therapy, never mind that therapy for many is not covered by insurance and is prohibitively expensive. The proliferation of mental health webinars in the workplace is well-meaning, but when so many of us are dealing with screen fatigue, this potentially works at cross-purposes with actual self-care. Frustratingly, self-care is often reduced to either buying more stuff or yet another thing we lack the energy to do. 

Fundamentally, we are all experiencing a kind of trauma. The more we remind each other of this fact and tell one another that it’s okay to not feel like we’re flourishing right now, the more we can relieve some of the guilt and pressure we might feel. For churches who are used to springing into action, it can be tempting to institute new programs or ministries to address the suffering in our midst. However, this simply tacks on yet another task, when so many people are struggling to stay afloat. If you’re currently part of a church without an active mental health ministry, now is probably not the time to start one. On the other hand, the community care already active within the church can be meaningful. Sending handwritten cards, making phone calls and dropping off baked goods are a few ways of staying connected and finding a purpose during this difficult time. Giving one another grace if we are slow to respond or drop the ball is another way the church can model care for one another right now. Though there is always a temptation to prove our worth through doing more, now might actually be the time to step back and slow down.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

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