The spring of 2020 is unlike anything any of us have ever experienced, and we have lost a great deal. It is important to acknowledge that, while we may be grateful for many things, many things have changed, and in some cases, things have been lost that cannot be regained. This is not only true in the most obvious and terrible reality of human life cut short in the COVID-19 pandemic, it is true for the graduations, weddings, baptisms, varsity sports seasons, plays, concerts, family gatherings, neighborhood BBQs, reunions and travel that have been canceled, re-worked or delayed so significantly that they are almost not recognizable. Being grateful for what is still stable and good in our lives, while important, won’t bring back important events or people, or restore them to what they were. The wounds we bear from this time necessarily bring about the grief that comes with loss.
What can we do for ourselves and for our families to ensure we move forward in healthy ways? What is our responsibility as the church to our members and to our communities that are hurting? What can we offer? Answering these questions depends on understanding the importance of mental health services and the relationship to what we uniquely offer as Christ’s church. We can use the categories of recognition, perspective, hope and faith as a framework to discuss this.
It is important to recognize that we are collectively living through a long-term traumatic event. Even the most psychologically stable people can have trauma-related symptoms. This is more than feeling a bit sad, afraid, or anxious. We need to name the feelings being experienced in our families and in our churches, and to acknowledge that they can be very different. They are not necessarily related to “how much” a person or family has gone through or whether it “affected them directly.”
It is also important to recognize that life as we know it has changed and will almost certainly continue to do so. This time of pandemic is different from previous national traumas because it has changed everything about our daily lives, and many aspects of life will probably remain changed. Change brings grief and loss and is its own sort of trauma. We need to recognize and make room for these feelings as well, and we need to ask God to show us what things are truly essential and must be restored, adapted or re-made, and what things we can let go of because they weren’t well suited to our lives even before this pandemic.
Committing to practice all these kinds of recognition, consistently and with intention, will help us discern when the disruption and sadness of trauma (and the changes that flow from it) have become a problem requiring professional intervention and treatment. It will also help us to adjust routines, patterns, and expectations so that we can all heal and can remain as healthy as possible. This will allow us to truly help those in desperate need of help and prayer because we will begin to gain perspective.
Working as a chaplain with the Red Cross at Ground Zero and other locations after 9/11, one of the most important things I learned was that trauma produces complicated reactions. In many people this can mean anger (sometimes disproportionate anger about smaller, unrelated things) or unusual reactions (such as drinking to excess or having an affair). It can also mean that people start regressing or behaving in a less-mature way in response to trauma.
Most of us are not trained in therapy, let alone treating trauma. However, having some perspective on what can happen and practicing awareness of emotions can help us as Christians to have a sense of when it is important to suggest that someone may need to talk to a professional or to know when we need that ourselves. It will also help us to see that, as this pandemic and its aftermath drag on for months and even years, our clergy will have a heavier load of listening and praying with folks in distress. Care for our clergy will be important, and allowing how we do things in our parish communities to change will make room for people to grieve and move forward.
Developing a mature and sophisticated perspective will allow us to act with greater gentleness, compassion, and wisdom. Helping ourselves and others do this necessary emotional work, supported by professionals when needed, is a vital ministry now and for what follows. As Bishop Hughes reminds us, despair, suicide and all sorts of addiction and abuse were already epidemic in Northern New Jersey before this. Scripture’s call to “bind up the broken-hearted” is very real and present, now and for the foreseeable future.
Naming our emotions and having a good understanding of the need for mental health treatment frees us to offer our Christian hope in a new and powerful way. We live in a world consumed by greed and the desire for comfort and success, but we have what John’s Gospel calls the “water of life.” We are made by God for God; our hope is in the unending love and mercy of God and in the stability that gives us, no matter our situation. Understanding that this is different from – although related to – mental health lets us model and minister with authenticity. Jesus isn’t our “get out of jail free” card, he is our way, our life. In times of crisis and trauma this is something we offer as Christ’s church that the world cannot.
We can support the serious need for healing and for mental health services by knowing that they are from God also. Our job is two-fold: to get people in need safely to clergy or others who can better determine appropriate actions, including possible treatment; and to offer and develop ways for people to connect to God and grow in that relationship. We will need to be spiritual oases and centers of spiritual teaching and growth in the days, weeks, months, and years to come. People need to be shown the love of God and then shown how to be in relationship with God.
One meaning of faith is “that which we set our heart upon”. Knowing that our hearts are fixed on God and that is what we have to offer is the faith that we are always called to share with the world. It will be more important than ever in the times to come. Developing skill and perspective around mental health will be an important component of doing that well.
I am convinced that in addition to all the vital and practical things we do so well to minister in our communities (such as church schools, providing diapers and formula, feeding ministries, etc.), this sense of the faith that we have to offer is the solace the world needs. It will also give us a way to continue to shape the vision for what we do next, what it means to be the church in this pandemic and after. The very nature of living a Christian life is to never deny the brutal and horrible reality of the cross, while living into the promises of the Resurrection given at baptism, this Eastertide – and always.
There are additional resources on mental health available on the website on the COVID-19 page.