By Joi Thomas
For the past two years, we have all lived through the uncertainty of a worldwide pandemic. We have done our best to stay healthy, keep our family and loved ones safe, and carve out a new normal.
The church has had to re-envision how it operates and ministers to its congregation and those in need during this time. Many churches have seen members pass away during these two years and were not able to grieve them collectively.
Now that many church doors are open, services are still socially distanced, and the fellowship that was once available is not able to happen now. All of these factors and many more contribute to our mental health. It is important that the church focus on the mental health of its leaders and membership to ensure everyone is processing our collective trauma.
Carla Debnam, LCPC, executive director of the Renaissance Center, has seen an increase in the need for mental health awareness in the church.
“Fear and anxiety have increased, along with loneliness and isolation, due to the initial shutdown and not being able to control the spread of Covid,” she said. “Since then, people have coped in different ways, sometimes with addictions, anger and risky behaviors.”
“Therapy and Jesus” is a popular term used to promote mental health in the church. Debnam agrees the church should promote mental health to its members.
“Therapy is important because it can help people navigate change, help get through a crisis like divorce, loss of a loved one and of course helps if you have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder,” Debnam said. “It is important for our churches to come alongside those struggling and normalize seeking help like we do for other health conditions like diabetes, obesity, cancer or heart disease. This is especially important since many people go to the church first when they have these difficulties.”
Rev. Brent Brown, senior pastor of Greater Harvest Baptist Church, has also seen a rising need for mental health awareness.
“I have noticed a mental health struggle among some members. Seniors who live alone oftentimes don’t receive a hug until they come to church on Sundays or Wednesdays and
] have felt very lonely,” said Brown. “While phone calls and check-ins help, they do not replace one on one interaction. Some of our youth were experiencing anxiety and the pressure of a different type of social interaction.”
“There are a number of members who are still just as scared in March 2022 as they were in March 2020.”
Often, people are experiencing problems, and those around them do not recognize the signs.
Debnam says that, depending on the disorder, there are various signs that someone may be experiencing a mental health issue.
“They can include sleeping too little or too much, loss of appetite, or overeating, mood swings, irritability, excessive worry, loss of interest in normal activities, trouble thinking, unexplained physical problems like headaches, back pain or heart palpitations, avoidance of social contact,” said Debnam. “If you notice you are not your normal self, then make an appointment with your primary care provider for more guidance.”
Though pastors are used to providing support and making sure the needs of the church membership concerns are met, their role became all the more important during the pandemic.
When asked about the importance of pastoral mental health, Debnam said, “As leaders, pastors have a lot of responsibility from sermon preparation, visiting the sick, teaching, overseeing the operation of the church, and caring for their congregation.”
“This comes with a lot of stress and can become overwhelming. They also have to care for their family. This makes it hard for them to rest and relax,” said Debnam. “Self care is important for them, and having genuine friendships with others who understand their journey is important.”
Pastor Brown found a new hobby during Covid to help him maintain his mental health.
“During the pandemic, I picked up a hobby I’ve been wanting to learn for some time now, golfing,” he said. “In May of 2020, I took my first golf lesson and fell in love with the game of golf. It has and continues to be a great outlet and stress reliever.”
Moving forward, the church can continue to be a beacon light of hope to all those in need and include mental health resources.
“The church can help by providing a place for people to gather safely since isolation and loneliness increased over the pandemic, also hosting mental health information sessions and support groups along with community events,” said Debnam. “Church attendance and spiritual development are key to psychological strength, and this will help as churches begin to reopen.”
At Greater Harvest Baptist Church, Pastor Brown encourages mental health with his membership.
“There is a mental health and counseling center less than five mins from Greater Harvest that we like to encourage our congregation and community to seek help through, Transformation Health 312 N. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, Suite 300. The second place that we encourage our congregation to receive help from is The Renaissance Center at 6665 Security Blvd.”