Covid-19 and a Pastor’s Concern for Our Mental Health

As a pastor I am deeply concerned for the rising struggle with mental health in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic. I recently sat down with two clinical psychologists, two Christians in the church I serve, Dr. John Townsend and Dr. Buddy Mendez, and they shared with me that “whatever level of stress, anxiety, or depression a person had before the pandemic has been greatly escalated by the pandemic.” There are varying levels of struggle with stress and anxiety and the pandemic has been a multiplier to whatever level of struggle a person has.

As a few examples, the Orange County Register reported that calls to a mental health hotline in Los Angeles increased from 22 calls in February to 1800 calls in March – an 8000% increase. Similarly, ABC News reported that calls to suicide hotlines have jumped 891%.

This news is devastating. People created in the Image of God and loved passionately by Him are in deep pain and turmoil.

Why the sudden jump? When we consider what wise therapists and researchers counsel people to do for their mental health we realize that many of those exhortations have been quickly and radically impacted in the midst of the pandemic. Here are four reasons struggles with mental health are rapidly increasing in the midst of a pandemic:

1. Community is harder.

In her book, iGen, Jean Twenge builds the case that social media has not facilitated deep connections with teenagers and thus harmed their mental health. Belonging and being in relationships with people who encourage us is immensely helpful. While many leaders are wisely attempting to change the nomenclature from “social distancing” to “physical distancing” because we still need to be close socially even in a pandemic, the initial term seems to have sadly stuck. In this pandemic there are actual signs encouraging us to “isolate ourselves.” And isolation is a strong predictor for a myriad of problems.

2. Structure has been stripped away.

In his book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, Mason Curry chronicles the daily rituals and habits of many of the world’s most influential artists, authors, poets, and composers. We know from history, and we see in Curry’s book, that many artists and creators suffer with bouts of anxiety and depression, and from their wounds and pain they create. Of Charles Schultz’s regular routine, the creator of nearly 18,000 Peanuts comic strips, Curry commented, “The regularity of work suited his temperament and helped him cope with the chronic anxiety he suffered throughout his life.” Because so much is uncertain, a routine can provide some certainty and solace to a day. Yet in this pandemic routines and schedules have been completely upended.

3. Exercise rhythms have been challenged.

In his book, Spark, Dr. John Ratey shares compelling research of the impact of exercise on anxiety and depression. He wrote that exercise is medicine and “influences the same chemicals that antidepressants do.” The “stay at home orders” has challenged exercise rhythms, and this adversely impacts mental health. If you played basketball or went to a gym, those have been suddenly taken from you.

4. Meaningful work has been disrupted.

In his book, Lost Connections, Johann Hari talks about the importance of meaningful work in providing mental health and peace. Work that you enjoy, that you believe makes an impact, and that you know contributes to some greater good is good for you. Yet in the middle of a pandemic, meaningful work has been disrupted. Certainly this is true for those who have lost jobs, and it is also true for those who feel uncertain about their industries or disciplines as so much is in flux.

A pandemic level of disruption to community, structure, exercise, and meaningful work is having a devastating impact on people’s mental health. We should be deeply concerned and compassionately work to help people in the midst of this struggle, in the midst of their struggle. We must also be aware of our own struggles. I will share more thoughts for ministry leaders later this week.

One final note: Sadly, when one raises concerns about the ramifications of the cure for Covid-19 (the implications of “stay at home orders”), that person can be portrayed as not caring about the spread of the virus. But it is possible to be deeply concerned about the virus and the implications of responding to the virus. The polarization often occurring in the media (from both sides) is not helpful and often untrue as we all have friends and family who care about both limiting the spread of the virus and about the damaging ramifications of the necessary response to Covid-19.

Life and leadership often feels like a game of whack-a-mole as when you feverishly and rightly work to solve one problem another one can quickly emerge. The emergence of a new problem does not mean you should not have been solving the former one. And addressing the new problem does not mean you should no longer care about the former problem. Responsibility means recognizing that solving one problem often produces unintended consequences that also must be addressed.