An Honest Discussion on Mental Health, the Pandemic, and the Church
This article will address topics regarding mental health that may be triggering for some. If you or someone you know is struggling, please seek the counsel of a mental health professional or other qualified health provider. If there is immediate danger, dial 911. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
In the past year, our lives have changed dramatically due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Worry, fear, and stress are normal responses to threats and change, so it’s understandable that the number of individuals developing mental health difficulties for the first time has spiked, and many with existing diagnoses have experienced symptoms worsening or relapsing, according to the CDC. These, and many other concerning factors, have contributed to what experts are calling a mental health crisis.
Though we are starting to see the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, many experts are concerned about the long-term impacts of the pandemic and economic recession on mental health. For this reason, Florida Focus magazine brought together a panel of professionals to have an honest conversation regarding the current realities and to provide strategies and support. The panel consisted of Tim Cook, CEO of AdventHealth Altamonte, Candy DeVore, Counseling Coordinator for Forest Lake SDA Church, Dr. Andrea Tackore, Licensed Mental Health Counselor and Clinical Director, Justin Cunard, Registered Intern Mental Health Counselor, Christian Taylor, Senior Chaplain at AdventHealth Orlando, and Mayra Rodriguez, Associate Superintendent of Education/School Psychologist at Florida Conference, and was moderated by Tim Goff, Executive Secretary of Florida Conference.
Scan the QR Code or visit floridaconference.com/mentalhealth to watch the full panel interview.
How mental health has changed in the past year
DeVore, who leads an anxiety support group, has seen an increase in individuals experiencing anxiety. “[They] wonder ‘What is wrong with me?’ and don’t recognize it’s connected to the pandemic,” she shares. “It has had a big impact in enhancing anxiety and given a great opportunity to share tools to help people understand that our happiness is not connected to the situation, but is connected to how we manage it.”
“Our society functions in a lot of dysfunctional ways,” says Tackore. “People find ways to cope and push themselves past their limits.” However, in the past year, she has noticed many of those dysfunctional coping mechanisms were no longer effective, and people began to see their relational issues, anxiety, stress due to their work schedule, and more. “It’s just been this great unveiling of issues they could no longer cover.” From this “great unveiling,” the issues are often more critical than what we initially acknowledge. “The incidences of drug overdoses and deaths from overdose has dramatically increased during 2020, [as well as] domestic violence and suicide,” says Cook. Cases of child abuse have increased and gone unnoticed, as the closing of school buildings has removed many safety nets for children, including teachers who could discern when something was wrong. “The data really bears out that this is a much bigger thing than [anxiety and depression.] We already were wounded, broken, and struggling…and now this pressure has just really broken those wounds open, and they’re being expressed in a lot of unhealthy ways.”
Opportunities for personal growth and seeking help
“I’ve noticed a shared ownership about mental health that previously wasn’t as potent or even present,” shares Taylor. “There is a lot more understanding that we all own this responsibility to take care of mental health, not just for ourselves, but for others.” He has seen more collaboration around the theme of mental health and has seen people work together to find solutions to a prevalent problem that perhaps they had not previously considered. Cunard also finds the pandemic has pressed people to slow down. “In our nation, we’re so used to a breakneck speed of meetings and go, go, go. I think a lot of us have lost the ability to understand what it means to slow down,” he says. In taking a step back, some have acknowledged they may not be in a great place, and it could be influencing their family, marriage, or job. “A big thing for me has been helping people slow their life down so [they can be] in as healthy a situation as possible.” The strain on frontline workers, teachers, and essential personnel
“It’s an interesting dichotomy that, while much of the world was going through that forced slowdown, there was a big bubble of the world that was on hyper overdrive,” says Cook. “What you saw in the healthcare world was people getting pushed to the max.” Cook relays the story of a nurse whose daughter would ask her every day, “Mommy, are you okay?” and she had to assure her daughter she would be alright. “Yet this bold and brave nurse every day would get up, knowing the angst this was creating in her family, and then show up [for work].”
Healthcare workers also experienced a significant amount of pressure in the pandemic’s early days when there was so much unknown and things were constantly changing. “Think about the anxieties caused in our country when people you trusted to give answers didn’t have them,” adds Cook. “The hyper politicization of this issue created a whole other layer of angst and distrust.”
Our educators, according to Rodriguez, have been on “a warpspeed ride.” “Virtually overnight, we asked teachers to revamp how they were doing things and learn technology that none of them had used before,” she explains. “Learning how to teach a subject online is one thing, learning the technology is [another], but learning to engage students was altogether a new experience for everyone.” Educators learned and eventually excelled at teaching online, but when a new school year started in the fall, they now had to learn to teach a hybrid of online and in-person classrooms. “All of it has been, I would say, stressors put on steroids,” comments Rodriguez. Yet, educators have continued to give more of their time and effort, like a teacher in East Pasco named Melissa, who told Goff she spends five hours every Sunday preparing for the next day. “[Teachers] are not in it for the money; they’re in it because they want to help [students],” conveys Rodriguez.
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, research shows that essential workers face unique threats to mental health and wellbeing. A third of U.S adults are essential workers— those required to work on-site versus at home during the pandemic. Research from June 2020 shows these individuals reported mental distress, burnout, symptoms of anxiety and depression, substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts at significantly higher rates than non-essential personnel.
Loss of loved ones, connection, and security
When it came to not being able to visit family and friends to keep each other safe, Cook explains that many people intellectually understood it, but it was still difficult emotionally. Especially when it came to COVID-19 patients who were in the end-stage. “It was very difficult for staff to have to be the go-between in that moment. A nurse never prepares to have to be the intermediary between a dying father and their son.”
“The value of togetherness has never been so appreciated because of those family members who are not able to be with their loved one,” adds Taylor. “Some of the hardest [situations] have been the compounded deaths within a family. We would have multiple family members on the same floor, only doors apart, and they don’t know that their loved one is a few doors down.”
In March 2021, the U.S surpassed 500,000 deaths from COVID-19. “Behind every one of those numbers is a family, [whether it’s] grandma, grandpa, mom, or dad,” suggests Rodriguez. They have left behind loved ones who may have to continue working and dealing with a pandemic, now compounded by a devastating loss. “We know from a mental health perspective that we are all wired to handle a certain amount of stress, but when it gets to be so overwhelming that our adrenaline system is going nonstop, that’s when the mental health breakdown occurs.”
When Tackore works with clients who feel a loss of connection from their loved ones, she encourages them to honor and acknowledge that feeling. “You’ve been robbed of the opportunity to be with your loved one. We understand all of the logical reasons why that had to be so, but let’s sit and honor the fact that this is a significant loss on top of loss,” she shares. “If we don’t do this now, it’s going to come back and haunt you later.” Tackore also notes that grief has taken on many forms during the past year, including grieving as a community. “In Scripture [you see] beautiful examples of community or even national grieving, coming together and acknowledging losses. [We also need to discuss] the losses that people have experienced, at the same time as a pandemic, in terms of social, racial dynamics that have been going on at the very same time. We have a community subset that is processing an additional layer of loss, stress, and fear.”
How to tell when a child is struggling
Even amid chaos and bad news, Cunard suggests parents and caregivers slow down and assess their children’s behavior. “When parents are struggling, it trickles down to the kids,” he says. “Maybe they’re acting out, maybe they’re not listening to you, maybe they’re defiant. We take this as disrespect, not realizing they haven’t seen friends in weeks, they haven’t been able to play their sport, or engage [with others.] On the flip side, a sign that is often missed is when children withdraw. We may be thankful for a few quiet moments but don’t recognize it’s also a cry for help. “It’s not healthy because they can go in their own dark place and feel even more alone and isolated.”
Rodriguez adds that it makes a big difference where the children are in their developmental stage. “For young children, the biggest [sign] to watch out for is a big change in mood or behavior. Perhaps things this child enjoyed before, all of a sudden they become apathetic about,” she explains. “Younger children take their cues about life from the significant adults around them. If they see [adults] stressed, they can pick that up from the vibes in the air, and then they become stressed. Those are the kids who are a lot less verbal, they’re going to show you their stress level in how they act.”
“Children that are middle school age are going to be very concerned about losing touch with friendships,” continues Rodriguez. Much of their group structure is continually changing as some students are back in school, yet others continue online. Rodriguez stresses the importance of having conversations with your children. “Don’t be afraid to ask them, ‘What are you thinking? How are you feeling?’ Parents assume that if there is not an earth-shattering event that their kids are okay when they’re sometimes not.”
DeVore also adds how important it is to ask open-ended questions. “Our children mirror our emotions, they absorb them, and they reflect them,” she says. “We [tend to] frame questions from our own fears. If we ask a child, ‘Are you afraid?’ they may think, ‘Well, I wasn’t before, but is there something to be afraid of?’” Devore says it is crucial to ensure we are not projecting our own emotions on children by asking, “Did you have a bad day?” instead of, “How did your day go?”
Advocating for others and saying the right things
“Asking people ‘Are you okay?’ is in our mind a functional, good question,” says Devore. “But in reality, we might be missing what needs to be asked instead.” She emphasizes that paying attention to those who may be struggling is crucial. We should not ask questions that meet our needs or questions that allow us to walk away and feel like we’ve taken care of it. “Instead, [I should] ask the questions that are going to give you the opportunity to share with me how you’re feeling and what you’re really going through.”
Cunard says we should also avoid pointing out the “silver lining” to those who are struggling. “We go ‘well, at least this didn’t happen.’ I work with a few pastors, and I tell them, ‘Scripture is wonderful, but don’t throw that at people because [all you do] is create distance. People are [coming to you] in a time of a pandemic where we all want connection, community, and ties. When we give these distanced responses, there’s, quite frankly, a bit of coldness to it.” It’s also necessary to take care of yourself, so when someone comes to you needing a listening ear, you have enough space in your “emotional tank” to engage with them.
Devore adds that we should also avoid saying, “God’s got this; He’s in control.” “For some people, that’s going to lead them to a deeper faith and searching in God. For others, it’s going to make them say, ‘What’s wrong with me, that I don’t have that faith and I’m broken, and now I don’t even have God?’” Goff suggests that perhaps, “God’s promises are better at this time for us to claim individually, rather than projecting them on people who aren’t ready for them.”
How the church can move us forward
There is hope in this mental health crisis. Our experiences from the pandemic, what Rodriguez calls a “collective experience of misery,” have inspired many to seek help. Cunard shares it is now easier to seek counseling. People can connect from their phones or computers without traveling in traffic for an appointment. Tackore adds that it’s been a blessing to see people in counseling because they are no longer able to “happily ignore” lifelong issues. “When I think about what their lives are going to look like on the other side of this, it’s so exciting.”
“The gospel is about healing.”
Cook points out that the church now has an excellent opportunity to be a “leader and not a lagger” when taking mental health seriously. “One important thing [we] can do is take the stigma head-on,” he says. “You can look through the Bible from stem to stern, and you will find how God uses the most unique situations to minister and put salve on wounds. The Bible is so clear that every part of us is connected, and that’s the mind as well.”
“The gospel is about healing,” says Taylor. “It’s not just a cute catchphrase to say Jesus loves you. We have a huge opportunity within this pandemic, and as we grow from it to heal people who are struggling mentally, physically, and spiritually. As Christians, how can our efforts reach their soul? That’s our goal.”
Questions from “Audience”
We reached out to constituents across Florida Conference and brought their questions to our mental health panel.
What are some ways that frontline workers can grieve appropriately and decompress appropriately, especially those caring for COVID-19 units? Erica, nurse, 30
“Nobody wants to be alone at that time, and nobody wants to hear a lot of flowery rhetoric. When you’re there with your teammate, in the moment, I think God can use presence sometimes far more than words.” – Tim Cook
“Grieve together with the same soldiers on the battlefield; they are the ones who most understand what you’re going through. Make sure those moments are embedded in your day for you to use the restroom, eat and drink more than coffee, and take time to talk and be heard with the people who care with you.” – Christian Taylor
Sometimes individuals who struggle with mental illness feel that if they have enough faith, they will be okay. This leads them to deny the role of psychiatric medicine. What can be done to help individuals with this type of thinking? Ben, pastor, 38
“When I [work with people] who are struggling with this, I talk about physical health. I ask them, ‘If your doctor told you that you were in the initial stages of diabetes, that you need to start taking insulin, would you be comfortable pursuing that?’ Most of the time, people say, ‘Of course I would.’ We understand that we live in a fallen world, and our bodies are subject to that fall, so these things happen. God has so graciously provided these tools through doctors and medications. I stay curious with the person to explore why, when something is going on with the brain, we somehow feel God’s gifts of medication and medical care are not available to us. I want to respect that person’s conviction… but I’m going to provide an air of curiosity to put the conversation in a certain direction.” – Dr. Andrea Tackore
“The biggest gift a pastoral team can give their congregation is to begin the process of reversing the stigma [around] the belief that, if you have an emotional difficulty, then that must mean you’re not believing or praying hard enough. God made us whole beings, and in making us whole beings, He started providing for our psychological needs right from the Garden of Eden. Why would we serve a God that would want us to ignore that?” – Mayra Rodriguez
Can school and being a student cause mental instability like anxiety, depression, or low self-esteem? What can we do when we feel like this, or when we see our friends struggling? Claudia, student, 12
“School is a place where a certain amount of stress is placed on children. You are asked to challenge yourself and learn, and learning takes risks. So, even in normal circumstances, [school] places you in a situation where it’s stressful to take risks, especially in front of others. But, if you are willing to take those risks… if you can learn to manage stress and enjoy yourself in the process, [you can see that] what you are engaging in is worthwhile. When you are stressed, the biggest thing you can do is talk to somebody, because keeping it to yourself makes you feel like you can’t handle it.” – Mayra Rodriguez
Some studies indicate that a higher percentage of people sought help for mental disorders from clergy, rather than psychiatrists or medical doctors. How do we equip our leaders and clergy to respond to the mental health needs of the church, especially in the black community? Garry, pastor, 51
“It would be helpful for pastors to get to know the counselors in their community, know what their skill sets are [and if they are] comfortable talking to a client that wants faith-based talk. The best way to equip yourself is to know what your limitations are, to know when [something is not in your toolbox] and be able to refer [parishioners] to professionals you’ve vetted and trust.” – Candy DeVore
“We can help our people in the black community understand that it’s okay to be weak. So much of our experience, so much of our legacy, has included being strong. It’s very similar to my cancer patients. All around cancer is this fight language, ‘I got to be strong, I have to fight.’ I go in there and help them learn to be weak. It’s a long, drawn-out, extended process, and they won’t last if they always think they have to be strong. Helping my people in the black community understand that it is okay to be weak, you don’t have to ‘handle it,’ there is a space for you to be weak, is completely appropriate. Even the Bible says, ‘when you’re weak, I am strong’ or ‘my strength is made perfect in weakness.’ Sometimes, we don’t even let God be strong because we’re so busy doing so much. From a clergy standpoint, we can help people understand that to be weak is the perfect opportunity for your community and for God to be strong.” – Christian Taylor
I am very concerned by the statistics on suicide and discouraged by stories I have heard of cases even in my own church. What leads a person to that breaking point, and what can we do to prevent it? Elizabeth, church member, 65
“It’s a dark place. [You feel] hopeless, powerless, and like nothing is going to change. I have nothing to grab on to, so I need an exit. [Someone feeling like this needs a counselor] to engage with them and ask them the hard questions. They need to feel they are not alone. You’re not going to necessarily talk somebody out of feeling that way, but just your presence may be the one thing they can hang on to.” – Justin Cunard
“Physiologically and neurologically things are happening [to this person], so it’s not always a thought-out, conscious choice.” – Dr. Andrea Tackore
“When that terrible situation happens, [many people say] they could see the signs in hindsight. The realization is, if we’re human, we’re capable of slipping into that dark spot. If that’s the case, then we ought to look for those opportunities to encourage and connect, even if it’s difficult with our busy lives.” – Tim Cook