The coronavirus has changed our lives giving us a “new normal” that we are still adjusting to, and while hope looms on the horizon, the fear and anxiety of the unknown can be overwhelming. Mental health professionals and the CDC have warned that this pandemic will cause stress, anxiety, fear, and depression, especially in those with pre-existing mental health conditions or those working on the front lines. Karestan Koenen, professor of Psychiatric Epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health said, “The toll on Americans is becoming both palpable and quantifiable.” 36 percent of Americans say that the pandemic has made a serious impact on their mental health, and 31 percent of Americans say they’re sleeping less because of coronavirus-related anxiety.
Koenan says that the elevated rates of anxiety and stress are backed up by similar survey data from China and reinforced by historic statistics from the SARS pandemic and from the West Africa Ebola epidemic. “Depression and anxiety thrive on social isolation and disruption of routine,” says Rhiana Holmes, a trauma therapist specializing in disaster psychology. “That makes the coronavirus pandemic and resulting quarantines prime for mental health upheavals.”
Relief in an Arduous Time
Hood Theological Seminary’s Center for Chaplaincy is doing their part to help during this trying time. Director Dr. Karen L. Owens, Rev. Brettyanna Bremer, Rev. Emily Viverette, Rev. Maureen Palmer, and Rev. Dr. Swindell Edwards are helping to provide relief for those who are suffering from grief, fear, and anxiety.
Dr. Karen L. Owens says that “levels of immediate grief, anticipatory grief, fear, anxiety, acute clinical depression, etc., are at an all-time high, which become a cause for increased, ongoing spiritual care that includes authentic listening and maintaining the courage to hear.” Each Chaplain is delivering care and comfort through social media and tele-chaplaincy (either video or phone). This gives those in need a chance to talk to someone who will truly hear what they are saying and provide them courage in a safe manner. “We have been developing meaningful creative processes for providing spiritual care to those who are vulnerable during the global pandemic in institutions as well as in church settings and communities,” remarked Dr. Karen Owens. “This also includes caring for those who are ethical decision-making medical professionals while relying on unique resources and practices.”
Being in the hospital, especially quarantined and in isolation, can be difficult and traumatic. That’s why the Chaplaincy is offering chapel services for those who are in the hospital. Their goal is to help those who are sick and stuck by providing spiritual comfort and a reminder they are not alone. Going to chapel may even give some sense of normalcy and connection.
Taking care of yourself is important, especially during this time. The Chaplains are providing counseling sessions and memorial services for medical professionals who are on the front lines dealing with the pandemic. They are reaching out to community clergy to offer spiritual care. Newsletters are being created and distributed that emphasize self and soul-care.
Dr. Swindell Edwards, North Carolina Department of Public Safety Prison Chaplain, has been reaching out and offering spiritual care to inmates. The COVID-19 pandemic brings a unique stress to them as they live in close quarters with others and sometimes cannot communicate with their loved ones. Dr. Edwards is providing radios for offenders to listen to inspirational channels, which include Bible studies, prayer time, and music. Specific, comforting literature is being provided, and prayers are being delivered at designated times of the day.
Losing a loved one is never easy, especially if you cannot be with your family. Pastoral care and mental healthcare referrals are being made for offenders who experience crisis during the loss of a loved one in which they are not allowed to make personal viewings. The chaplain is also coordinating viewings for those who may see the service. “With the loss of loved ones,” Edwards says, “families may video the service, send an obituary and video to the institution for the offender to watch privately, and then return the video to the family in an effort to assist in consoling the offender in their process of grief and mourning.”
“All in all, the chaplains are just doing what they are called to do. This is their job and they are glad to help the community,” said Dr. Owens.
Communication and Staying Together
Kate Morrison, pastor at John Calvin Presbyterian Church, says communication is key during these tough times. “Keep in touch,” she recommends, “even if you hate talking on the phone, it can be so nice to hear another person’s voice. If you have the technology, FaceTime is also awesome just so you can see each other face to face. Also, never underestimate the power of a good old-fashioned hand-written note.”
Even before all of this began, Pastor Morrison and John Calvin Presbyterian Church knew the importance of communication and fellowship. They have a Congregational Care Team that reaches out to members throughout the year, and, during COVID-19, they have really stepped up. The Congregational Care Team has been reaching out to members of the church via cards and phone calls. Session/Board Members have also split up the congregation with each session member being responsible for a certain number of households. The members have been checking in on the households via phone call and text.
John Calvin Presbyterian has moved most of their worship and fellowship opportunities online. They record and post worship to their website every Sunday morning and they host a virtual Fellowship Hour on Sunday mornings at 10:00 a.m. for those who would like to gather. Other activities, such as Book Club, Bible Study, Pub Club, and Choir are taking advantage of Zoom and other technology to encourage fellowship.
“We’ve had incredible success with using Zoom for gatherings and encouraging people to connect there. I know that it’s different than meeting in person, but throughout my conversations with folks, it has been the most like connecting in person. Generally, I’ll schedule Zoom gatherings for an hour, but it’s not uncommon for our groups to stay on for an hour and a half checking in on each other, sharing stories, and laughing. And this is not just younger folks. We’ve had folks of all ages learn how to Zoom so that they can keep in touch with their church family, and that has been so incredibly heartwarming. I think we’re all really craving that human connection right now, and simply being able to see someone’s face and talk with them that way, helps us feel a bit closer to that reality.”
For those not interested in technology, Kate has been reaching out through phone calls and card writing. The church has also put together packets of worship resources so they can worship at home and not feel like they are missing out on too much.
“Personally, I’m doing what I can to try and keep people connected. I’m encouraging folks to pick up their phone and give me a call if they just want someone to talk to. I’m also writing handwritten postcards and notes to folks just for a change of pace and a little bit more of a personal touch,” said Kate.
Kate is encouraging people to feel. “Quarantine has been hard for a lot of us, and I’ve spoken with a lot of people who are doing their best to stay positive. I’m trying to remind folks that it’s okay to feel off. It’s okay to even feel down. A lot has happened over the last few months, and our lives have all changed abruptly.” Kate recommends finding creative outlets to express yourself and your emotions. “And don’t be afraid to reach out if you’re needing some guidance. We’re all in this together, so let’s look after one another with grace as our guides.”
Being located directly across the street from the VA Hospital has given Kate and her congregation a unique view of the pandemic. They have seen many of the essential workers on the frontlines of the crisis. “There will never be enough words to express our gratitude to each and every one of those essential workers for helping us through these times.”
Dealing with Depression and Anxiety
Fear and anxiety about a disease can be overwhelming and cause powerful emotions. It’s important to make sure you take time for yourself and cope with the stress. Coping with stress will make you, the people you care about, and your community stronger.
The CDC and other mental health experts shared some ways to cope with stress:
- Take breaks from watching, reading, or listening to news stories, including social media. Hearing about the pandemic repeatedly can be upsetting.
- Take care of your body.
- Take deep breaths, stretch, or meditate.
- Try to eat healthy, well-balanced meals.
- Exercise regularly.
- Get plenty of sleep.
- Avoid alcohol and drugs.
- Make time to unwind. Try to do some activities you enjoy.
- Connect with others (safely). Talk with people you trust about your concerns and how you are feeling.
In these tough times, it’s important that we take care of each other. Taking care of yourself, your friends, and your family can help you cope with stress. Helping others cope with their stress can also strengthen our community.
For more information about anxiety during COVID-19, visit the CDC’s website.