2020 was a challenging year for all of America. The pandemic created crises on many levels. Economies are still struggling. Governments and scientists are still scrambling. Vaccines are being manufactured and distributed. Political unrest is a heavy presence. Amid this chaos and confusion, we also find ourselves mired in a global mental health crisis. Every person who has succumbed to the virus leaves behind loved ones left to grieve. Our current defense against COVID-19—practicing social distancing—has wreaked havoc with our daily lives. Millions of people have lost their jobs. Businesses have gone under. Millions are experiencing the unprecedented challenges of isolation and quarantine. How in the world do we be strong leaders in our churches as people battle depression?
Defining the experience of what has happened with the pandemic and how it affects people is key to understanding current mental health challenges. In a time where every person has been impacted by COVID-19, how can we provide mental support and care for not only ourselves, but to those around us?
To begin, we need to understand why social distancing and the disruptions caused by COVID-19 has challenged our emotional well-being. Rodney L. Mulhollem, licensed psychotherapist at L. L. Mulhollem Counseling and Psychotherapy explains, “We’re not designed to be isolated, so in being totally isolated you can encourage depressive type feelings and anxiety. More now than ever it is important to be cognizant of the symptoms of depression. We continue finding that people are often unaware that they are becoming clinically depressed. Recognizing depressive behaviors and tendencies can help identify when a mental health check-in with a professional may be beneficial or needed.”
Understanding how the onset of depression manifests itself in individuals can help in determining when yourself or someone you care about needs help. Monitoring one’s exposure to overwhelmingly negative stories in the media during this pandemic should be carefully observed. Mulhollem shares, “Be aware of consistent negative perspectives, or anything that is fear driven. For example, if you or someone is afraid to go outside for fear of getting COVID-19 or if someone is just afraid to go anywhere, thinking that something bad is going to happen can be symptoms of anxiety. You might see someone who will wash the inside of their home, multiple times a day; it’s that kind of perspective to watch for.”
LACK OF SELF-CARE
Other visible symptoms of depressive tendencies can be observed in how well someone is caring for themselves. “A sign of depression, says Mulhollem, “especially in the elderly population, is a lack of self-care: not getting up in the morning, a lack of oral hygiene, not following their normal routine, or maybe just lying in bed all the time without the motivation to get up.”
“In some people you may notice a drastic change in the way they represent themselves. Someone who normally has a very bubbly personality may suddenly become a lot quieter,” explains Steven J. Schedler, director of clinical operations and development with Mulhollem Counseling and Psychotherapy. He has been observing and assisting his own parents who are currently sheltering in place. “There can be outward signs to look out for. Some people may act out and you can see the depression outwardly in their actions. You might see irritability and anger. With other people it’s more internal or inward with further isolating behaviors,” he says.
WHO IS VULNERABLE?
Aside from the elderly, another population at risk to the emotional tolls of the pandemic are people in the prime of life. Specifically those who have a growing family, career, home, and a busy social schedule are susceptible. Schedler notes, “If we were running ourselves a bit ragged, and if we were maxed out in a way that really wasn’t sustainable, then this COVID-19 situation could become particularly challenging. Furthermore, anxiety and depressive symptoms can come from our financial situation. A lot of marital conflict comes from finances. So, if we came into this living paycheck to paycheck, it’s going to be really stressful.”
Colleen Slade, Licensed Educator and National Board Certified Counselor, explains how our current uncertainty can be a trigger for anxiety and depression. “From a faith perspective the media is a constant barrage of negativity attacking hope. People are scared, so they have the news channel on where there’s little encouragement—faith-based or otherwise. It’s just 24 hours of confusion, chaos, and little comfort or hope. During this global pandemic people are fearful for their lives, their jobs, their economy, everything. And too many are just not applying their faith in God. What happens is their belief system is over here on one side, and then their behaviors are on the other side. When the two are not matching, that can bring on depression,” she says.
Mental health experts all agree that having a hopeful outlook is important to our overall mental well-being. Current disruptions to income, our daily lives, interactions with loved ones and friends, and no schedule for a return back to normal create conditions ripe for feelings of fear and desperation.
To help combat negativity, “during a time when the future is uncertain, adopting a positive perspective is critically important. I would say that hope is the foundation for mental health,” says Mulhollem. “If you find yourself losing hope and everything in life seems bleak and you don’t have the desire to do anything then that becomes concerning. People who choose just not to focus on anything, and instead just loaf around is something to keep an eye on.”
Ways to Help Avoid Depression
The good news is that there are practices and behaviors people can choose to follow to help stave off depression.
“Diet, physical exercise, and sleep are our three things that work together and can have a big impact on our mood and how we’re feeling,” says Schedler. “If we’re doing well with those and bringing in our spiritual practices, then there’s a good chance that, we can have a more positive experience here, even in the midst of this pandemic.”
Do your best to stay connected with people. Utilize the benefits of technology to help stay in touch. Schedler encourages regular contact with loved ones as much as possible. “There is video conferencing, Facetiming, and different ways to connect virtually, which can be extremely helpful,” he says. “Some people are going to be less engaged socially than others and that is normal. It’s about keeping center from moving too far one way or the other. Stay connected to know how our loved ones are doing. Keep lines of communication open, check in with each other. Hopefully, go a little deeper and share challenges each are dealing with.”
Having a regular schedule is proven to help with maintaining positivity. “With ourselves and especially aging parents, you want to maintain some type of routine around the house, and if you can get out and walk, that’s a bonus,” says Schedler. “As part of the day our kids are Facetiming their grandparents. So, my parents have ability to see the grandkids, even if it’s by video. I think this interaction can be important.”
Staying connected with spiritual practices can tremendously benefit those affected by stay at home advisories and quarantining. If there were spiritual practices before the pandemic, then continue those while social distancing. Most churches now offer online church, where people can view live services and attend virtual ministry gatherings.
“Gratitude journaling every day,” says Slade, “can keep the mind going down what I sometimes think of as a neurological path, if you will, that leads to hope, and that leads to righteousness. Personally, I’m practicing a thanksgiving journal where I list five new things I’m thankful for each time.”
SHARING & LISTENING
“The local church has had an ingrained mindset of preaching and prayer, leaving no place for people to share their sorrows and talk about their struggles,” Slade says. “When the church can move into conversations where the pastors and lay leaders start talking about their fears from the pulpit or in small groups, then that encourages and models for other congregants to start talking about their fears. Suddenly there’s this safe, normalizing environment where it’s okay to talk about fears, versus what we’ve seen in churches in the past. We need to be active listeners for each other, and that is one of the things [I brought] up in the CFX Webinar – listening without judging and developing skills which don’t really come naturally to us.”
RESOURCES / GETTING HELP
Fortunately, local churches are increasingly encouraging people to reach out and get help for mental wellness. Many larger ministries may employ Care Pastors or Counselors. Smaller churches often will provide a list of trusted Christian-based counselors they can share to those seeking support.
Slade also encourages people to be intentional in looking for churches who support recovery groups, such as Celebrate Recovery. “If you find a church that sponsors or supports crisis pregnancy centers and homeless shelters, for example, you know you’ve found a church that is nonjudgmental, cares about the weak, the poor, the disadvantaged.”
As COVID-19 has encouraged creativity in multiple industries, the options for people to receive counseling have also changed. “People have been able to participate in counseling sessions online, virtually, which has not happened previously. Insurance regulations and restrictions have all been lifted, and we’re seeing all of our clients online. We’re finding that people really benefit from the counseling often as much as they would in a traditional, in-the-same room setting. So, counseling is very much available and is really helping a lot of people through this time,” says Schedler.
Being a strong leader in our churches is vital. Take the steps today to determine how you can help yourself and those struggling with depression during these unprecedented times.