According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 5 individuals lives with a mental health issue. This was true even before COVID-19 came into play, and it’s more true today.
One in four American adults is now likely to be experiencing symptoms of depression, a threefold increase from last year, according to a study released Sept. 2 by researchers at Boston University’s School of Public Health.
Ken Duckworth, chief medical officer at NAMI and a professor at Harvard University Medical School, said, “The toll on mental and physical health from the virus has been great, and it isn’t over yet.”
For anyone stressed by the pandemic, “First of all, take care of your own self. Not everybody needs a therapist,” Duckworth said. “Get exercise, don’t use substances to excess and put down all media after dinner. Talk to people. Stay connected. Don’t be a loner. … Really work the family/friendship angle. Really work it.”
But for those who have a diagnosed or undiagnosed mental health condition, tips like these often aren’t enough.
Nick Longshore, pastor of worship arts at Lifepoint Church in Albertville, said in many cases even faith isn’t enough.
“Sometimes the Bible isn’t enough. Sometimes prayer isn’t enough,” Longshore said. “Mental illnesses are like chronic physical illnesses in that there is no cure. If you are sick, you need professional treatment to be able to live as healthy a life as possible.”
Charisse Parker, one of the presenters on the NAMI production “In Our Own Voice,” said she has had a difficult time adjusting to the stress of the pandemic while also coping with several mental illnesses.
“Not being able to physically be around those who were a constant part of my life and ongoing recovery has led to increased feelings of anxiety, depression and outright fear,” Parker said.
Having untreated depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia can be literally life-threatening, and during the pandemic people are even more are at risk.
“Social isolation protects us from a contagious, life-threatening virus, but at the same time it puts people at risk for things that are the biggest killers in the United States: suicide, overdose and diseases related to alcohol abuse,” said Jeffrey Reynolds, president of the Family and Children’s Association, a New York-based nonprofit.
Even before COVID-19, mental illness ranked second in a National Institute of Mental Health list of risk factors for suicide.
Know the symptoms
Awareness of symptoms can help those who wouldn’t otherwise seek help because of the social stigma of mental illness, according to the Association for Psychological Science.
The most common mental health issues are anxiety disorders. But severe depression is a close second.
The difference between normal anxiety and a disorder or between being sad and being depressed is determined by the severity and impact on daily life.
According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms of an anxiety disorder include:
- worrying out of proportion to the impact of the event
- perceiving a non-threatening event as threatening or overthinking to worst-case scenarios
- indecisiveness and fear of making the wrong decision
- inability to set aside worry and relax and/or trouble sleeping.
Signs of major depression include:
- loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
- significant weight loss or gain
- inability to sleep or sleeping too much, fatigue
- feelings of worthlessness
- suicidal thoughts or attempts.
Resources for those having trouble coping or with active thoughts of suicide or self-harm
- Crisis Text Line — text “NAMI” to 741741 to chat with a trained crisis counselor
- National Suicide Prevention Hotline — 800-273-TALK (8255)
- Trevor Project Resources — call 866-488-7386, instant message a counselor on their website or text “start” to 678678.
Physical illness not the only threat of COVID-19 pandemic
The physical effects of the coronavirus aren’t the only cause for concern as churches — and the whole nation — navigate
COVID-19. With much uncertainty over the virus itself, professionals report increased anxiety and stress due to health concerns, unemployment, social isolation and more.
Mental health must be taken into consideration the same as the physical side of health, said Brad Schwall, CEO of The Center for Integrative Counseling and Psychology in Dallas.
“We’re created for relationships,” he said. “We thrive on social interaction, and the lack of that interaction certainly has an impact.”
Churches historically have provided care for those in need, and Schwall thinks churches can be active resources in their communities to help connect people to care for mental health needs during COVID-19.
“Churches are significant partners in our work. People regularly go to the church if they’re dealing with a crisis or dilemma in life,” he said. “The church is another connecting point with communities to help people to be healthy.”
Anxiety on the rise
A wide-ranging study of 2,700 people by Qualtrics at the beginning of the pandemic found 67% reported higher levels of stress, 57% had greater anxiety, 54% experienced greater day-to-day sadness and 42% said their overall mental health had declined since the outbreak. These numbers run parallel to what Schwall sees in The Center’s work — both the number of clients and number of sessions have increased throughout the year and also in comparison to last year.
And in an unusual twist, therapists now find they often share the same circumstances as their clients. Eric Minton, co-owner and psychotherapist at Minton Family Therapy in Knoxville, Tennessee, said the coronavirus has created a sense of solidarity among many people. But it also has created a sense of loneliness because people feel like they can’t ask for help when everyone has the same problem.
“So rarely in my life am I having the same kind of traumatic experience, at the exact same time, as every person I’m working with,” Minton said. “Literally everyone has the same problem, and no one is OK.”
Minton suggests that churches reach out to mental health care providers in their areas to find out what services are provided and collaborate to share resources. If the church has the means, he even suggests designating budget funds to support mental health initiatives.
“Reach out to providers in your area, build relationships with them and bring them on board to help them be helpful to your congregation,” Minton said. “And then creating a community where we’re educating people constantly in terms of how do you care for yourself when you notice you’re not yourself. Churches have a really amazing opportunity to be something helpful for people in our community.”
Grace Powell Freeman, a hospital chaplain in Georgia, predicts anxiety levels will continue to rise, compounded even more as people traverse the reopening of businesses, workplaces and schools.
“I see the weariness in their eyes. People are just tired of it,” Freeman said. “It’s not just nurses and doctors, but it’s me, my young adult children, it’s everyone. I think that’s leading to some of the mental and emotional struggles people are having of what do you do to take care of yourself in the midst of all this.”
Freeman suggests people consider talking about how they are feeling, and she believes the church can be a proponent for this. Although sometimes in church people are expected to “put on our happy face,” it is OK to let people know you are struggling, she said.
“For so long, mental health issues have had such a stigma about them. I’m a firm believer in going to a therapist, having a time to talk to somebody who can help you work through something,” Freeman said. “It’s OK to let someone know you’re mad or sad or anxious or whatever you might be. I think if anything, the church could help by saying that out loud.” (Baptist News Global)