Mental Health in a Pandemic - Part 1

As I sit down to write this blog, I am coming off a weekend where I conducted a 2 hour mental health seminar for several churches in Canada, followed by a mental health seminar for 1,600 college students.  And while Florida has been mostly open for awhile, I am reminded again that the COVID-19 pandemic is taking a costly toll on people’s mental and emotional health.  Allow me a moment to share a few thoughts from those seminars that may be of help to you, or someone you love, as you work to handle mental health in a pandemic.
There are two important distinctions to make in mental health in a pandemic vs mental health outside of a pandemic.
Under more usual conditions, mental and emotional health can be seen as having an abnormal response to normal life conditions that overwhelm one’s ability to cope. 

Under a pandemic, we are seeing normal responses to extremely abnormal life conditions that overwhelm one’s ability to cope. 

In other words, this situation is so extraordinary that the normal, healthy responses that we have to these conditions are actually overwhelming our ability to cope.  There is not something wrong with us.  There is something wrong with the situation.  And our normal, proper response to these exceptional times, is causing us distress.  Because the situation is not normal.  So, if this pandemic is difficult for you, that actually makes you normal.
There are 3 abnormal challenges this pandemic is causing, due to our normal responses to the abnormal conditions:

1.Isolation-  Genesis 2:18 says, “The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for man to be alone’.”  We are not created to be alone.  And God said that it is not good to be alone.  Which means that the normal response to being alone, is for us to not be doing good.  The isolation many of us feel during the pandemic is not good for our souls.  So our normal response to the abnormal situation of isolation is to be “not good”.  It is not sinful to be struggling with isolation.  It’s not a sign of a lack of faith.  Struggling with isolation is simply a reality for humanity.  Which is why a church family, a life group, a band of brothers, or a few good friends is so important to even the most introverted among us.  We need one another.  We need one another live and in person.  We need relationships.  It is not good for us to be alone.  The normal response to the abnormal condition of forced isolation is to be “not good”.

2.Disappointment-  Proverbs 13:12 says “Hope deferred makes the heart sick”.  2020 was a year of deferred hope.  So many things we looked forward to were cancelled or delayed.  Students missed graduations, families cancelled vacations, couple delayed weddings.  Whether large disappointments or small disappointments, every person was left with the feeling of death by a thousand cuts.  And when hope gets deferred, or disappointment is constant, the heart gets sick.  It is a normal human response for our heart to get sick when disappointment is constant and repeated.  Because constant and repeated disappointment is an abnormal condition.  This is especially true when the cause of the disappointments is beyond our control.  There was nothing any of us could do when life started to shut down.  The problem was bigger than us and we had no say in what was happening.  We were helpless as our children’s disappointments began to accumulate.  Everyone lost something…many times over.  And this deferred hope makes our hearts sick.  So you are not being small, or petty, or ungrateful, or weak, if the disappointment caused you heartache.  Your response, to this abnormal time, was likely normal.  But it still hurts.

3.Uncertainty-  In Matthew 6:34, Jesus said “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own”.  Prior to COVID, many of us had a sense of what the future may hold.  Even if we did not know the details of the future, we at least had a sense of optimism or progress.  The pandemic created a sense of uncertainty about the future.  Job prospects disappeared, industries struggled, we worried about our safety.  Things we took for granted about tomorrow suddenly caused us stress and uncertainty today.  And Jesus said that when we bring the concerns of the future into the present, we will be troubled.  Worrying about the future causes us to be troubled today.  That is the normal, healthy response to having an abnormal level of uncertainty about the future.  
When we consider these 3 challenges the pandemic has created, and when we consider the normal response that God said we would have to these challenges, we see that it makes sense that our mental and emotional health are struggling at the moment.  All of the challenges, and our normal responses to them, can overwhelm our usual coping systems.  In fact, if you are struggling at the moment that makes you normal, because this situation is NOT NORMAL.

In the next blog post, I’ll address what we can do to cope with the challenges of the pandemic.

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