As Depression, Anxiety, Grief Spike During Pandemic, Churches Offer Hope

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The Banner has a subscription to Religion News Service and occasionally re-publishes articles of wide Christian interest, according to the license. This story has been edited for length. The original story can be found here. Grace and Peace Church, featured in the article, is a Christian Reformed congregation.

Not long into the coronavirus pandemic, Sandra Maria Van Opstal, a pastor at Grace and Peace Church in Chicago, Ill., 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.

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.

The Humanitarian Disaster Institute has created and compiled a number of resources to help 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 hard to achieve 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.

Related: Conference on Youth and Mental Health Encourages ‘Walking Alongside’ (May, 2019)

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.

Grace and Peace Church, the Christian Reformed church where Van Opstal is a pastor, doesn’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 to 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.

ⓒ Religion News Service

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