Everyone is aware of the physical health crisis caused by COVID-19. However, as a country, we are facing a new danger. It is coming in the form of mental health distress – increased anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress, and suicidal impulses. Those who are vulnerable, isolated, or ill-equipped to address mental health effects of the pandemic have turned to alcohol, marijuana, porn, and over-eating in significant and quantifiable numbers. Our country is dealing with rising cases of domestic, sexual and child abuse. These problems often lead to a cascade of other medical and social problems, and our medical and public health systems are not well prepared to respond.
I’m encouraged by the agility of the church we’ve witnessed over the past two months. While our governments have done what they can to address the many needs of Americans, local churches have often been the ones to meet financial, physical and emotional needs in very efficient ways. Church leaders are deeply plugged into the specific needs of their communities, and, most importantly, they have a heart for providing spiritual support and care.
However, many pastors find it difficult to speak about mental health challenges from the pulpit. In a 2018 survey, nearly half said they rarely, or never, speak on the subject to their churches in sermons or large group messages.
The good news is that church leaders have the trust of their congregants. Many congregants will ask you or your staff for emotional help before they consider going to a professional. They believe that God can heal, and they believe that their faith and prayers play a significant role in helping them to recover.
They are not wrong.
But the current situation is complicated. As a seminary graduate and a licensed psychologist who has worked with many pastors, I have seen that many of our faith practices are helpful, even speeding recovery for those experiencing a mental health crisis. But it is also clear that when our communities do not encourage the use of appropriate medications and psychological care, people can feel isolated and not recover as quickly or holistically.
Just like we’d pray for healing for someone who has the coronavirus, while still trusting them to the care of medical professionals, we must pray and encourage with Scripture those struggling with their mental health, while also trusting them to the care of mental health professionals who can help them on their journey. In fact, what I love about counseling is that as a Christian psychologist, I can lean on God and His Word in my practice.
Certainly, this year and likely for many years to come, we – psychologists and pastors alike – must anticipate addressing the mental load weighing heavily on people around the world as a result of the coronavirus. By the time the world is “normal” again, fear, loss, trauma, and skepticism are likely to take root in the hearts of a majority, even those who are deeply committed to the Christian faith.
As we prepare for that future, here are a few ways church leaders can help those who searching for spiritual and emotional support:
1. Acknowledge emotional struggles are real and not a sign of spiritual weakness. In 2 Samuel 22, David recounts the distress he experienced while under attack from his enemies. He recalls the flood of death and destruction that was about to sweep him away. In that moment of peril, he remembers to do the only thing he could do, “But in my distress I cried out to the Lord: yes, I cried to my God for help” (v.7).
Notice here that God did not give David a lecture to remember to trust him. When Elijah, after a stunning victory against the prophets of Baal, turned and ran for his life and asked God to let him die (1 Kings 19), what does God do? Does He call him out for his weak faith? Give him a sermon? No. He provides for his physical needs and then, only after some time, begins to ask him some questions. Even Jonah, in the midst of ungracious rage at God (Jonah 4), receives kind and gentle questions.
The Bible is filled with stories of people crying out in their distress to a God who is listening to them.
Traumatized and distressed people need to know that what they are feeling is real and important. Being in distress is not a sign of spiritual weakness. It is the reality of being a human. When church leaders validate pain and distress without sermonizing or giving the deeper theological answer, people in pain often feel understood and less alone —thereby often reducing the pain they feel. There is a temptation to offer perspective as a means of comfort, but our presence helps more than our insights. If you find it hard not to jump to exhortation, try asking these three questions first: “What happened (what is causing your pain)?” “How does that make you feel?” “What has been the hardest part?”
2. Invite your congregation to express their questions and laments to God. When was the last time your congregation lamented together the pains suffered within your community? Consider offering everyone in your church or community space to express their deepest questions, and even complaints, to God as an act of corporate worship.
In fact, take the risk and lead the way with your own laments. The COVID-19 crisis has certainly taken from all of us — our health, our financial security, our relationships, our ability to worship together, and so much more. You might wonder if this will make people feel even more ungrateful and bitter. Ironically, there is evidence that suggests that those who express their anger toward God may increase their sense of connectedness to Him. Keep in mind that when you admit the aches of your soul to God, you are not whining. You are having honest conversations with one who knows everything about you and has called you by name.
3. Preach on God’s care for and tenderness towards traumatized and distressed people. Have you ever considered that the Bible is primarily written about and to traumatized people? In nearly every story of the Bible, we meet distressed and overwhelmed individuals. The Pentateuch is the story of the call of God’s people out of slavery and into a land surrounded by enemies. The story of Israel and Judah is a story of turmoil, political upheaval, threats of war, and oppression by foreign governments. The New Testament is also filled with the same sorts of troubles, ending in persecution and a final battle.
What can we learn about our God who has communicated to us in our suffering? God pursues us, even when our suffering is by our own hand (Gen 3). God is moved by our pain (Exodus 3:7). God keeps track of our sorrows (Psalm 56:8). God bears our burdens and rescues us (Psalm 68:19-20). God comforts us in our suffering so that we can participate in his kingdom work (2 Cor 1:4). Let this God of the oppressed, who does not crush bruised reeds, shine in your sermons.
4. Continue the journey of healing. You and your church are well positioned to provide ongoing practical spiritual and emotional support for the long journey ahead. Just as many of you already provide healing groups for those dealing with grief and addiction, consider using some of the free lessons and discussion guides found at Beyonddisaster.bible in small group meetings. These materials created by American Bible Society, along with the core Bible based trauma healing program, have shown great evidence to reduce trauma and distress symptoms, increase positive spiritual coping, prepare your congregation to become the hands and feet of Jesus to hurting people.
Dr. Philip G. Monroe is a licensed psychologist and is currently serving as Director of Trauma Healing Training at American Bible Society in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His areas of specialty include church leader mental and spiritual health, trauma, global mental health, and sexual addictions.