Caring for mental health

The church we serve has a Covid Advisory Committee. The Committee, formed by the Church Council, serves to advise church leaders on the safest way to conduct the programs and activities of the congregation. Among the members of the Committee are health care professionals and others who are trying to keep up on the latest scientific information. They have, understandably, been conservative in their recommendations. No one wants our congregation to contribute to the spread of disease.

We have developed protocols as a congregation in an attempt to keep people safe. Those who work within the building are vaccinated. We maintain careful contact tracing for others who enter the building. Masks are required for all church activities. Physical distance is maintained.

What the Covid Advisory Committee is not able to assess, and perhaps none of us know, is what other health effects might stem from church policies and practices. While we seek to care for the physical health and well being of all who participate in our congregation, we don’t know if there are unintended emotional effects of the loss of community. Are our seniors more isolated and more vulnerable because they are not able to attend worship in person? Are our children more fearful because of the inability to have in person contact with church friends? Are our parents and grandparents feeling crushed by the strain and pressure of constant Zoom meetings and additional childcare responsibilities?

The mental health consequences of the pandemic are far from fully understood, but other institutions have begun to be aware that these are not only frightening times because of the Covid-19 pandemic, but also because of an increase in mental health issues. The health care system that is struggling to keep up with the pandemic was not well-equipped to provide mental health care before the pandemic, and has even fewer resources for those who suffer today.

Last Sunday was World Mental Health Day. It is an annual campaign by the World Health Organization to raise awareness of mental health issues and to mobilize support for those who are suffering and seeking treatment. Around the world there are severe shortages of resources for the treatment of mental health. In the crush of other pressing matters, we didn’t do anything in the services at our church to mention World Mental Health Day in our worship. It wasn’t that we don’t care, but rather that we are trying to manage so many causes and projects that somehow it slipped between the cracks of our planning.

Mental illness and health, however, remains a critical health crisis in our country and around the world. Yesterday the entire campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill took a day off from classes and usual activities as a mental health day. Campus authorities are investigating two deaths of students within the past month that appear to be suicides. University chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said, “We are in the middle of a mental health crisis, both on our campus and across our nation, and we are aware that college-aged students carry an increased risk of suicide.” The campus newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, reported that two students had attempted suicide.

I loved college and had a very good experience with that phase of my life. But I also remember being very lonely and homesick. Although my experience is not a measure of the experiences of others, being away from home and on one’s own for the first time can be stressful. Having to take responsibility for schedule in an environment with an increased work load and adding in daily living pressures such as laundry, housekeeping, and often a part-time job, students are feeling squeezed. Throw in the increased isolation of the pandemic, uncertainty about whether or not in-person classes will continue, fear of becoming sick and the pressures of juggling additional technology and colleges can become places where mental health issues occur. And campus health care services, like many other health care services in our country, are short of resources when it comes to treating mental health. USA today reported about one UNC student who reported that when she sought treatment at a campus health care facility she was referred to an off-campus provider whom she could not afford.

We know from research that suicides can cluster, especially among persons in their teens and twenties. Exposure to the trauma of losing a friend to suicide can increase the risk of someone dying of suicide. Studies reported by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention found that those who have lost a loved one to suicide are themselves nearly twice as likely to die from suicide as the general population.

While I salute the leaders of the University of North Carolina for recognizing and naming the problems of mental health and suicide, one day off from classes will not solve the crisis. Significant investments in mental health care, including increasing access to treatment for those in crisis, will be required.

There is solid evidence that effective treatment can reduce suicide deaths. Depression can often be effectively treated with medication and behavioral therapy. Among teens and those in their twenties, a suicide delayed is often a suicide prevented. Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) is a proven protocol for successful intervention. It is also a set of skills that can be trained, just like CPR can be trained. Research conducted in the United States, Canada and Australia has shown that ASIST is effective in preventing suicide in nearly 80% of the cases in which it is applied.

While we are doing what we can to prevent the spread of Covid-19, we must not lose sight of our call to provide for the mental health of the members of our community. When I ask others if it is well with their spirit, I am concerned for their physical and mental health. People are struggling and we need to make caring for them a priority.

Today, take a few minutes to call someone close to you and tell them you love them. Ask them if they are OK and be prepared to really listen to their answer. In these stressful times we need to care for one another. And don’t be afraid to reach out when you are feeling down. You are a valued and important member of our community. We need you to do what it takes to be healthy.

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