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May 31, 2022

Offering an ongoing response to mental health needs

By Jessica Young Brown

ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF COUNSELING AND PRACTICAL THEOLOGY
Jessica Young Brown is an assistant professor of counseling and practical theology at Virginia Union University and the director of the school’s Barry Young Center for Ministry Formation, which provides vocational and formational support to seminarians and local clergy. She is a licensed clinical psychologist with a practice focused on equipping faith communities to understand mental health from a holistic perspective.

Composite Illustration by Jessamyn Rubio / iStock: PRImageFactory, Bortonia

As Mental Health Awareness Month draws to a close, we must continue to be responsive to a national crisis worsened by COVID-19.

It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on our mental health. A recent study from the World Health Organization indicates that instances of anxiety and depression increased by a whopping 25% during the first year of the pandemic.

A report from the American Psychological Association links increased violence in our nation’s schools to a combination of factors — the already-established impact of unresolved trauma in school-age children, combined with COVID-related stressors and a lack of resources for coping.

Anecdotally, many of us can identify that our interpersonal interactions have changed — we’re seeing shorter tempers, less patience and more conflict. Divorce rates are on the rise, and suicide rates have risen for the young and for people of color. As a country, and as communities of faith, we are not OK. Our brains and bodies have been hijacked by a world spinning out of control, and many of us don’t feel like ourselves.

As Mental Health Awareness Month draws to a close, it is important that we continue to attend to our mental health as a part of what it means to be healthy and whole, now more than ever. It has always been important, but such a wide-reaching mental health crisis in our country demands that we talk about mental health openly and honestly in every area of our lives. This job is too big for medical and mental health professionals alone. All hands on deck!

So what does it mean for faith communities to attend to mental health as we continue to recalibrate? One priority is to be trauma-informed, recognizing that people in our communities have experienced events that have disturbed their sense of safety and drastically changed the way they understand the world.

This was a best practice before the pandemic but is even more crucial now as larger numbers of us begin to recognize and name the ways we have been affected by tragedy, both as individuals and as communities.

When we attend to the reality that we are all affected by trauma, we recognize that our emotional responses to devastating events are felt throughout the mind, the body and the spirit. Our relationships are changed, and the lens through which we view the world is altered. This also means that the way we understand God and our space in Christian community is touched by the traumatic experiences and reactions.

Being trauma-informed means recognizing that some of the behaviors we see as problematic or frustrating must be contextualized within the reality of how much struggle we have endured individually and collectively. As my students have heard me say over the years, “Bad behavior is the expression of an unmet need.”

Sometimes, we behave badly because we don’t know what else to do. As we seek to be in community and be whole and well, we must commit to being in relationship no matter what. This doesn’t mean we don’t hold people accountable, but it does mean we acknowledge that sometimes our worst moments are reflections of our deepest suffering. Grace is a necessary component of our plan for a way forward. When we can lower our guard enough to really see each other, when we can slow down and connect to the God in each of us, we open up space to heal together.

Above all, the big question for us as we seek to attend to mental health in congregations is, “What does it mean for us to be — and feel —safe?” It is one thing to declare that we are safe in the hands of God but another to actually feel safe in our bodies and in relationship with each other.

Safety can look different in different congregations. For some, it might be evident in our continued careful attention to COVID safety protocols so the most vulnerable among us will feel comfortable gathering, and our continued support of virtual options of connection for those who do not.

For other congregations, it might be seen in our commitment to do justice in the community by addressing issues like housing insecurity, food deserts and community-based violence. For all of us, it entails the explicit permission to acknowledge our fear, our concerns and our frustration.

We must actualize and live out the reminder from 1 Peter 5:7 to cast all our cares on God. If we are to be the hands and feet of Christ, our churches must be places where people feel empowered to bring all their burdens and to seek solutions.

While admitting our struggles is a first step, it’s not the only step. When we open our communities of faith to be places where our pain and frustrations can be expressed, we must offer concrete information and direction to help address those concerns.

We need lists of resources for mental health, educational support, health care and social service needs, and the myriad ways people show up in need. We cannot do it all. But our mental health is not in a vacuum, just as our spiritual development is not in a vacuum.

There are times when the needs of our congregants are greater than what we as the church can provide. When people are a danger to themselves or others, when their substance use is negatively affecting their lives, when the issue at hand is chronic or severe, we need to refer. A referral does not mean we are throwing people away; it means we believe in the power of God to act through multiple systems and avenues to heal.

We are whole people, and every area of our lives affects every other. As Jesus fed the people who came to hear him preach, so we must attend to the real-life needs of our congregations as we seek to disciple. All of this is mental and spiritual health. All of our parts are connected. In this way, we actualize our call from Galatians 6:2 to “bear one another’s burdens.”

The only way we get through this is together.

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Faith & Leadership

This was first published in Faith & Leadership, the online learning resource for Christian leaders and their institutions from Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

The Thriving in Ministry Coordination Program is a service of Leadership Education, which designs educational offerings, develops intellectual resources and facilitates networks of institutions.