MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: the coronavirus and mental health.
NICK EICHER, HOST: Many of us could sum up the last five weeks in a single word: isolation. Although stay-at-home orders may be aggravating, for most of us they’re manageable.
But for those who struggle with mental health, the isolation and uncertainty can be dangerous.
WORLD reporter Sarah Schweinsberg now on what Christian counselors and pastors are doing to help.
SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: Lindsay Emery has struggled with anxiety and depression for much of her life.
EMERY: A lot of the anxiety and depression was based in being alone. It was being the youngest of four girls who was the last one in the home and for my senior year my mom took a job outside of the home for the first time and so I spent a lot of time alone.
And after Emery married, she suffered multiple miscarriages.
EMERY: That just increased my depression and anxiety.
After several years of therapy and medication, Emery’s mental health began to improve. Last year, she weaned herself off the medication. But then quarantine, stress, and change came.
EMERY: Sorry I’m getting emotional about it, but it really has been a very difficult season this last month.
Emery works as an orthopedic surgical technician. With elective surgeries on hold, her hours have been cut. That means spending almost all day, every day at home.
EMERY: Even though I’m technically not alone, my husband is around, missing the connection with multiple people is a huge lack.
Haesue Jo is a marriage and family therapist at BetterHelp, an online counseling platform. She says the coronavirus pandemic has triggered similar feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and depression in many people.
JO: I do think that there’s a lot more people now that are just starting to feel the pangs of being isolated of not having people to talk to. And on top of the being isolated, being alone, I think there is just so much more worry about what the future holds.
In response, many counselors are migrating to online platforms like BetterHelp or switching to video conferencing with clients.
JO: It’s just been a higher volume, I think of people searching for online options to find and get connected with a licensed professional…
While some people seek out professional help, many more will not. Those are the people pastors and ministry leaders are trying to reach.
JUDE: Well, I think we will just go ahead and start… Today, specifically addressing the issue of mental health and the Covid.
On a recent afternoon, a group of Denver pastors and ministry leaders met on a Zoom call with Christian Thurstone, a psychiatrist at Denver Health.
THURSTONE: We do a lot of things that dismiss anxiety. We will say you shouldn’t feel that way. Or don’t feel that way. And the subtle message under all of that is that it’s not OK to have anxiety, which we now know makes anxiety worse. So just basic reflective listening and being present is a huge acceptance intervention.
Dr. Thurstone also told the pastors most of the time anxiety is connected to something people care about. Helping them identify that is also powerful.
THURSTONE: So anxiety during COVID could be health, safety, something about making money, job, providing for your family. Trying to get at the other side of that coin will help you move the conversation.
Kenneth Haugk is a pastor and psychologist. He heads Stephen Ministries, which trains pastors and lay people in mental health care. Haugk says over the past month he’s seen increased demand from churches as their congregations look to them for comfort.
HAUGK: I think people wanna talk to people and I think they’re wanting to talk with their pastors. They’re wanting to talk with their deacons or elders.
So many churches are trying to give people tangible reminders that they care with phone calls, Zoom meetings, and drive by prayer trains. Staff at Lindsay Emery’s church sent her a personalized box of snacks.
EMERY: For them to put the effort into finding something that I could truly eat and enjoy was such a special thing for me. And that kind of pushed away that feeling of being forgotten that I struggle with. I still have the box on my counter so every time I pass it, I think OK they recognize me.
Other Christians are reaching out to healthcare workers on the frontlines of caring for coronavirus patients. Gina Graves is the head of pastoral care at the Swedish Medical Center in Denver. She spends her days walking the halls of her hospital dressed in Personal Protective Equipment.
GRAVES: So that they can visibly see me and I have conversations with them about silly things, to earn the opportunity that when something significant happens in their life… that I’m the one that they’ll turn to and say, Can I talk to you about something? And that gives me the opportunity to speak into their life.
Graves says it’s difficult to get medical workers to open up about their mental and emotional struggles. And it can happen at the most random times. So it takes just being present, day after day.
GRAVES: Plant as many seeds as you can and God will take care of the rest.
Reporting for WORLD, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg.