By Nicholas Perkins
The pandemic interrupts our lives and may awaken us at night. It disrupts our sense of control and leaves us fumbling for answers. It has obliterated consistency and predictability, two qualities that are important to mental health.
We hear a lot in the news about the economic fallout from the pandemic. But we hear much less about policies and programs that involve mental health – a problem that existed before the pandemic and will remain when it ends. Adults in America, in one large nationwide survey, were three times more likely to screen positive for anxiety and depressive disorders, compared with one year earlier.
Mental health comprises three parts: emotional well-being, psychological well-being, and social well-being. I liken it to an elaborate network that supports life and opens it to awe and mystery. When one of those parts is out of balance, it disrupts the other two. Imagine how a tiny blister on the foot of a runner causes a gradual breakdown in form and rhythm, and you can understand the intricate system that makes up our mental health.
Like many of my colleagues, I’ve seen how COVID-19 has affected mental health. Recently, I had to deliver the personal effects of a patient who died from COVID-19 to her husband and son. I remember the weight of the bag and the question this 14-year-old boy asked me as I handed his mother’s belongings to his father: Please tell me how I am going to live without my mom.
I felt small in that moment and reflected on how this pandemic has altered our understanding of grief and complex trauma. A complete appreciation will surface after we experience some kind of a return to normal. It would be a huge undertaking to list the many ways in which this virus has changed our lives and altered how we relate to one another. For instance, my health and welfare – perhaps more than any other time in living memory – is in the hands of others as much as theirs is in mine. We are called to practice a collective consciousness that respects the common good.
But mental health reaches into so many other manifestations of the pandemic. Instructions to wash hands and to refrain from touching certain objects can affect individuals who struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Orders to wear masks can cause people who are claustrophobic to feel more confined. I often reflect on the guilt and sadness that families feel when I call to tell them that their loved has died; they want to know if someone was present during that important moment.
Do we even think about what individuals with depression feel during this health crisis when the seasons change and there is less sunlight? I have a friend in New York City who has depression, and the experiences she shares about her isolation and loneliness mimic the emptiness that pervades the city’s once-active streets. I listen during these moments and do my best to be a source of hope and love.
This pandemic has also changed how we worship and gather as communities of believers, two other components that are important to mental health. Daily Mass at my hospital remains suspended, while many parishes in the diocese require a reservation in order to attend services. This virus strikes at the central theme of the Advent season: spiritual preparation for the birth of Christ and seeing God who takes on flesh in our relationships and the eyes of others.
When will legislators and policymakers make mental health a priority? When will news networks and other media platforms initiate dialogue about how this global pandemic affects mental health? The vitriol around which populations will receive the vaccines when they arrive eclipses the hope and joy that should accompany this significant moment.
Our responses to the pandemic can be a cure for it or a symptom of it. The well-being of the entire world has been compromised, but it is time to reinforce our connections. The anticipation and hope of Advent is important to our mental and spiritual health. I believe the day will arrive when lockdowns and restrictions are things of the past. Until that time, let us remain alert to how we can love and serve people who face myriad mental health challenges as a result of this global crisis.
Nicholas Perkins, BCC, is a chaplain at Franciscan Health Dyer in Dyer, IN.