Churches offer mental health aid amid pandemic, protests
CHICAGO – Not long into the coronavirus pandemic, the Rev. Sandra Maria Van Opstal, a pastor at Grace and Peace Church on the West Side of Chicago, began to hear from congregants who lost their jobs and were struggling financially as the city closed nonessential businesses to slow the spread of the virus.
Some congregants were essential workers who were anxious about their exposure to the coronavirus and staying apart from family members so they didn't risk bringing the virus to them.
Some had lost loved ones to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Others were unable to celebrate births or graduations.
And all that was before the nationwide protests following the death of George Floyd, a reminder of the systemic racism that exists in the United States and the trauma that it has caused communities of color.
"I don't think we can ever underestimate the level of trauma we're all experiencing," Van Opstal said.
As Americans deal with the impacts of the pandemic and the country's reckoning over racism, many Christian leaders, organizations and churches are providing resources not only to care for their spiritual and physical health, but also their mental health.
The Chicago pastor said churches have a key role in helping people deal with the fears and anxiety raised by the current crises.
"It's giving people a sign of hope, not just through our words, but the church has an opportunity to give people a sign of hope by how we live," she said.
Jamie Aten, director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College, told Religion News Service that congregations now are helping people deal with a wide range of mental health challenges.
And the challenges that existed before the coronavirus haven't just gone away, according to Aten.
Those include depression, anxiety, grief and addictions, as well as child abuse and domestic violence.
"The pandemic is compounding those mental health struggles and amplifying them, plus creating new mental health struggles that people may not have been experiencing prior to the pandemic," Aten said.
The number of Americans reporting depression and anxiety symptoms has more than tripled since the beginning of the pandemic, according to data from an emergency weekly Census Bureau survey.
Those numbers have spiked among Asian Americans as they've experienced increased racism in the months since the coronavirus first appeared in China, according to The Washington Post. The numbers have been highest among Black Americans in the weeks following Floyd's death, the Post reported.
Black and Latino Americans across the country have also been disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus, according to CDC data recently made available by The New York Times.
"While we're experiencing this trauma of the pandemic, this trauma of institutional and systemic racism in this country, we're also being asked, 'Well, how does that make you feel? What's going on? How are you living with it? How do you digest it?'" said Tiffanie Henry, a licensed psychotherapist based in Atlanta.
"And it really is too much."
The pandemic, the racial divide and stories of police brutality can be re-traumatizing for many, said Henry, who is Black. Every headline or viral video can make people relive their past experiences, their losses and their fears. And discussions of racism also can be difficult.
When white people ask people of color to explain their experiences of racism, she said, "what you are essentially asking them to do is to re-traumatize themselves for your benefit."
Organizations like To Write Love on her Arms and the Humanitarian Disaster Institute have created and compiled a number of resources to help individuals cope and churches respond to the mental health challenges the moment brings with it.
HDI's research has shown that positive spiritual support can reduce stress, trauma and anxiety amid crises, according to Aten. But that often happens face to face, he said, which is problematic when people are asked to stay at least six feet apart.
"What we know is what helps people sometimes the most is what could also put them at risk," he said. "That practical presence can be difficult to do when we're isolated, but, at the same time, we still can help and still offer practical presence even when we're isolated physically from one another."
Aten encouraged church leaders and others to get into a rhythm of checking in with others and watch for any changes in behavior or red flags that someone might be considering harm to him- or herself or others.
He also encouraged people not to let their own self-care fall by the wayside, though that may mean joining a friend for coffee over Zoom rather than in person.
And he pointed to research connecting spiritual practices like reading Scripture, journaling and meditating to better mental health outcomes.
"Some of the research that we've done at HDI has shown that when something horrible and unexpected happens, it threatens our meaning. And when our meaning is threatened, it can start to turn our life upside down, where what we thought we knew about the world suddenly no longer makes sense," Aten said.
Impact Church, a United Methodist congregation in the Atlanta area, already was having open discussions about mental health before the pandemic, according to the Rev. Olu Brown, its lead pastor.
"One of the biggest things we do is to normalize therapy and not downplay the need or the benefit, while at the same time highlighting the spiritual discipline aspects of meditation and prayer and counseling and all of those kinds of things," Brown said.
In May, Brown preached an online sermon that highlighted several tips on managing stress during the pandemic from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): notice how you feel, take breaks from COVID-19 news coverage, make time for sleep and exercise, stay connected and reach out if you feel overwhelmed.
In the sermon, Brown also shared that he was seeing his therapist more frequently because of the stress and anxiety of the pandemic.
"I not only need the support of God, I need the support of God-credentialed people like therapists and counselors to talk me through, to walk me through," he said.
After a virtual staff retreat with Henry, who attends Impact, the church has included her in conversations about reopening its building for services.
"We became aware that we really needed her input in helping us think through the reopening because people have been through some form of trauma in this COVID-19 experience, from loss of loved ones to loss of space to loss of normalcy," Brown said.
Grace and Peace Church, the Christian Reformed church where Van Opstal is a pastor, also can't assume any of its congregants are doing OK, Van Opstal said.
Church leaders have been calling church and community members to check in, according to the pastor. They're praying for those who come pick up food from the church's weekly distribution and have put together lists of mental health professionals who specialize in treating people of color.
Leaders also have asked members who have resources to help pay for counseling for members who can't afford it, she said.
"I believe that churches can do a lot to remind people that they're seen, that they're not forgotten, especially those of us that pastor in communities where people feel afraid and forgotten," Van Opstal said.
– This content is written and produced by Religion News Service and distributed by The Associated Press. RNS and AP partner on some religion news content. RNS is solely responsible for this story.