July 17, 2020

COVID-19 and Mental Health in the Church

Larry Steller

Mental health challenges are more common these days than we think - even in the church. For many people, dealing with mental illness and finding any kind of support or spiritual guidance can be challenging. And if help is available, those in the church often don’t seek it out because they view it as a sign of personal weakness. However, scripture teaches us that as we care for the body and nurture our spiritual walk, nurturing the mind is also very important.

If you are like me, you are weary of hearing about COVID-19 night and day. But if we are honest, this crazy virus has not only wreaked havoc with the body but it has also played with the mind. For instance, according to the American Psychiatric Association, more than one-third of Americans (36%) say the Coronavirus is having a serious impact on their daily lives. Sixty-eight percent (68%) fear that the virus will have a long-lasting impact on the economy. Many small business owners go to bed each night wondering if they will have a business when this thing is over.

I have been asked what pastors can expect when churches reopen, as far as mental health is concerned. I believe there are at least four mental health issues that seem to be emerging from COVID-19. I call them “The Big Four” - they are enemies of the mind, but there are “tools” available that will build greater mental health to the saints.

First, there is Fear.

Delores and I were on our evening walk when an elderly woman with a cane was walking toward us. COVID-19 was in full swing, and as we got closer, this woman stepped over on the lawn to let us pass, although there was plenty of room on the sidewalk for all of us. She began to teeter back and forth and I thought she was going to fall. She regained her balance, but I will never forget the look of fear written on her face. She thought she would get the virus if she passed any closer to us even though we were clearly within the six-foot “social distancing” requirement. COVID-19 has moved us from pandemic to pandemonium in our country.

Fear is defined as “an unpleasant notion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous and likely to cause pain.” While fear may be mild, it can also be so intense that it
paralyzes the mind.

Even Christians suffer from fear that is more than just being afraid of the dark. Perhaps that is why there are at least 366 “fear not” in the Old and New Testaments. Most of us have experienced fear in some form. Counselors tell us that there are at least 2,000 kinds of fear - everything from the fear of heights to the fear of peanut butter stuck to the roof of your mouth.

There is a remedy to fear, and I believe it is wrapped up in what we preach and how we preach it. When you preach faith, you will see hope begin to rise within those whose default is always fear. Fear can silence faith. On the other hand, faith will silence fear. Perhaps a great sermon series as people begin to return to church would be, Faith in God’s Power…. Faith in God’s Purpose…. Faith in God’s Presence…. and Faith in God’s Provision. It’s in the Bible!

Second, there is Stress.

Dr. Archibald Hart, Ph.D says this about stress, “It is exceedingly clear that the chronic stress of twenty-first-century living is not a mere inconvenience, but a major problem that needs to be recognized and treated seriously. Unless we learn to slow down and change our hectic, worrisome lifestyles, we will continue to suffer from cardiovascular disease, immune deficiencies, depression, increased fatigue, and severe psychological disruption of life.”

Here's a thought: If you were Satan (I am glad you are not!) and you wanted to destroy God’s people, wouldn’t you use these wretched diseases to do it? All you would need is stress!

COVID-19 has added to our stress! None of us had ever heard of “social distancing” before this virus. We are told we need physical distancing to help stop the spread of this virus. But what we really need is social connection more than ever. Calling it social distancing has inadvertently caused more people to avoid others to the detriment of their mental health.

Because of COVID-19, my neighbor was going to skip his son’s birthday party this year even though all the precautions were set in place. I am thankful he relented and attended the family gathering. In addition, being alone or feeling lonely can cause people with addiction problems to slip back into unhealthy habits.

Another stress maker is listening to the channels spewing out terrifying projections and showing scary images in an effort to “keep us informed.” That alone is enough to fire up the fear and anxiety centers of our brain.

Also, being faced with too many options and opposing viewpoints among the “experts” can add stress, such as “wear masks,” “don’t wear masks,” “wear masks sometimes.” Another example is listening to all the conspiracy theories as to why we are experiencing all this world’s craziness.
I find that there are at least four biblical tools to combat stress.

First, disinfect your thoughts. “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he” (Proverbs 23:7). Living a lifestyle of negative thoughts will most certainly bring about undue stress. Scripture encourages us to think about things that are “true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, and admirable.” As a result, we are promised God’s peace.

Secondly, find some “me” time. Jesus modeled this well as we find Him often leaving the crowds to find a quiet place for prayer and reflection. Finding “me” time is not a selfish endeavor as some believe. Actually it is the opposite because if we busy people do not find time to re-charge our batteries, we will soon find ourselves without enough spiritual energy to offer stressed out saints.

Thirdly, we must exercise the physical by boosting our blood flow. When we exercise, we send more blood to the frontal lobe of the brain, which helps us think more clearly and thus make better decisions.

Fourth, we must learn to share our stressful feelings with a friend. Whenever I begin to feel stressed out, I have a friend I can call. He is an encourager.

Finally, and this one is a bonus when feeling the stress begin to take hold I put on some soft praise music to calm my spirit. It really helps, just like it helped Saul and David in the Old Testament.

Third, there is Anxiety.

Jesus said, “Do not be anxious about anything (Philippians 4:6).” So why do so many saints experience anxiety? According to the AACC (American Association of Christian Counselors), people fall into different points on the anxiety continuum: mild, moderate, or disorder. Anxiety disorders are present in up to 13% of individuals in the United States and constitute the most prevalent subgroup of mental disorders. Of course, anxiety can be normal in any given stressful situation such as taking an exam. Anxiety becomes a problem, however, when feelings becomes excessive, all consuming, and interfere with daily living.

Tools to use against anxiety? First, if it reaches a panic attack, for yourself or for others, get help from a qualified godly counselor. Second, learn to relax. Again, just like Jesus, get away from the crowds. Third, discipline yourself digitally. Fourth, increase your quality and duration of sleep. Five, get plenty of quality exercise.

Fourth, there is Grief.

Grief is a natural response to loss. It’s the emotional suffering you feel when something or someone you love is taken away. The more significant the loss, the more intense the grief will be. And, grief comes and goes like waves of the ocean.

COVID-19 has brought to our world significant loss. Some mourn the loss of a loved one, while others feel the loss of a job or even their own business. Some even feel like they have lost their church family. There are daily practices and routines that may never return to the way it was before this virus hit the world. Any loss can cause grief. And that is why we include grief as one of the big mental health issues of today.

Recently I talked with someone who said, “I often wake up in the morning with a sense of a heavyweight resting on my shoulders.” She went on to say that she had not seen anyone from her church family since the beginning of COVID-19. Some of her friends had been laid off, and she was worried about them. Grief is very real. And if you don’t deal with grief, it will sometime later deal with you.

Here are some tools I have found helpful when it comes to grief: First, stay very close to Jesus because He knows grief very well. The Bible declares, “… He has born our grief and carried our sorrows” (Isaiah 53:4). Second, refrain from isolation and choose instead to be around positive godly people as much as possible. Third, I have found biblical meditation to be very helpful and will work to bring healing to any one of the “Big Four. “

Our mission is to meet the needs of hurting people. We do this because we are people who care and because we are Christ-followers. Our goal is to move people toward personal wholeness, sound mental health, and spiritual maturity. We must remember that “If one member suffers, all suffer together… “(I Corinthians 12:6).

I am thankful for you. Thanks for your ministry. This promise is for you… “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid, do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9).

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