Mental Health During COVID-19: How Should Christians Respond?

Girl sitting by the ocean

Simply choosing any news source will bring forth much information about a menacing virus that has brought about world-wide attention and many types of crises such as loss of health, distance from loved ones, loss of income, impact on community resources, and more. Christians are not exempt from crises.

Biblical scripture reveals national and individual levels of crises as shown in Kings when Elijah addresses King Ahab and in Job as he endures afflictions and losses beyond his own doing. Numerous people in the Old and New Testaments including Adam and Eve, Jacob, Esther, Peter, Joseph, and Paul experienced situational and personal crises.

In the United States today, it is the unstable and unknown nature of this current virus that promotes psychological distress. In April 2020, a survey by SAP, Qualtrics and Mind Share Partners concluded that two out of five (41.6%) participants reported a decline in mental health since COVID-19's inception. Anxiety, stress, fear of unemployment, being less busy and working from home were the top five reasons for this decline among the two-thousand individuals surveyed.

These findings took center stage in May as the U.S. observes Mental Health Awareness Month. As the pandemic has unfolded, concerns are growing over the impact that COVID-19 will continue to have on mental health. KFF polling data suggests that social isolation is connected to poor mental health. Forty-seven percent of those sheltering in place reported a decline in mental health, as contrasted with thirty-seven percent out of those who are not sheltering in place. Moreover, job loss plays a key factor in increased symptoms of depression and anxiety.

In an interview with ESPN last month, Michael Phelps opened up about his personal battle with depression during the pandemic. "It has been one of those months. Nonstop, my mood jumping up and down and all around. The pandemic has been one of the scariest times I've been through, Phelps told ESPN, "I'm thankful that my family and I are safe and healthy. I'm grateful we don't have to worry about paying bills or putting food on the table, like so many other folks right now. But still, I'm struggling."

How should we as Christians respond to the growing reality of mental health struggles in a society affected by COVID-19? We must approach the arena of mental health during this pandemic with great care. If we desire to magnify God in this unprecedented time, our individual and collective responses need to be carefully crafted according to biblical principles.

First, we must recognize the reality of mental illness. Heath Lambert, assistant professor of biblical counseling at Boyce College and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, says that caring for people means being alert to physical problems that require medical treatments and spiritual problems that require Christ and his Word. The response, therefore, must be two-fold, acknowledging both the physical and spiritual elements of mental health.

Our response should be defined not by selfish disinterest but by a willingness to break the cultural stigma associated with mental health and nurture a safe environment in which it can be discussed. God is our creator and He has provided resources to attend to our innate physical, emotional, intellectual, relational and spiritual needs. Abraham Maslow, an American psychologist, suggests a hierarchy to human needs.  A person is motivated to seek fulfillment of physical drives such as hunger and shelter; once those are met then the motivation shifts to safety and stability followed by social belonging and feeling loved, and once that is perceived in a content manner then the focus becomes on improving oneself.

This paradigm emphasizing human motivation provides guidance for each Christian attempting to minister to others and insight into our personal struggles during this crisis. As ministering Christians, we must meet the basic needs of the individual before offering assistance at another level. The unemployed individual has needs different from the employed.  The parent with hungry children has needs different from empty nesters.

American Christians are already being criticized for their response to COVID-19. Jonathan Merritt, contributor for The Atlantic, urges Christians to be on guard against "self righteous insensitivity." As a Christian, are you imposing your view or your needs on those whom you purport to be ministering or are you meeting them where their needs are?

"If the coronavirus is a test of our collective character, some American Christians are flat-out flunking," Merritt observed. Austin Maddox, a graduating senior at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee, remarked that "the Church should be a place of safety and community, where those who are struggling can be honest, ask people to rally around them in prayer, and be assisted in seeking professional help." Is your approach leading others to  Christ or hindering the development of meaningful relationships?

Another integral part of the Christian response is reaching out to others. The CDC emphasizes the importance of supporting loved ones through social media, phone calls, and video chat. Since social isolation has threatened mental health, churches can promote the mental health of their members by checking up on them as well as encouraging them to stay in contact with unbelievers who are also struggling. It is important to listen and discern basic needs that may need to be addressed to assist in stable mental health and follow through with actions that correspond to your words. 

We must learn to rest in God's sovereignty and remind others to do the same. In this historic time, we have a divine opportunity to encourage those around us with the truth that we know, that is, the hope of the gospel. For the believer, God's sovereignty is something in which we can rest. Habbukuk 3:18 (NIV) states "yet, I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior" even though the circumstances were not optimal at the time. As Christians, God provides us a different lens to view our circumstances. 

Francis J. Grimke was pastor of Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church during the 1918 Spanish Flu. After the ban on public gatherings was lifted, Grimke shared his commentary on the historic event:

"While the plague was raging, while thousands were dying, what a comfort it was to feel that we were in the hands of a loving Father who was looking out for us, who had given us the great assurance that all things should work together for our good. And, therefore, that come what would—whether we were smitten with the epidemic or not, or whether being smitten, we survived or perished, we knew it would be well with us, that there was no reason to be alarmed. Even if death came, we knew it was all right."

As COVID-19's impact on mental health unfolds, the Church's response will be critical. The Church is poised to be a source of community and support during the pandemic. Both individually and collectively, we must face this battle against poor mental health by meeting practical needs while also speaking the hope of the gospel to a struggling world.

Dallas Baptist University and international ministries such as Samaritan's Purse are involved in activities to address the physiological, emotional, and spiritual needs of communities by providing counseling, medical interventions, prayer, and personal supplies to assist the present human predicament. Local churches are creatively adjusting their ministerial approach to address mental health struggles including the utilization of on-line support strategies and emphasizing small group interaction.

Written by Dr. Parnell Ryan

Dr. Parnell Ryan is Assistant Professor of Psychology for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Dallas Baptist University.

Written by Arianna Hathcock

Arianna Hathcock is an IGE Contributor.

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