Since the advent of COVID-19, every day seems to bring with it an abundance of new challenges, announcements, and information that have created a high level of general uncertainty with seemingly no end date. In the midst of this, or perhaps because of it, expected yet unintended effects on mental health have emerged.
At the start of the pandemic, a Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 45% of adults in the United States reported that worry and stress over the virus had negatively impacted their mental health. A similar Kaiser Family Foundation brief outlines the negative impact of social isolation, loneliness, job loss, and poor physical health from COVID-19 on mental health, especially in regard to depression and anxiety. In fact, “it has been shown that uncertainty is a more stressful state to be in than really knowing something bad will happen.” While we cannot possibly know the full extent of COVID-19’s impact on mental health, the pandemic has undoubtedly heightened issues that already existed.
Even before the pandemic, Americans were plagued by mental illness. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately one in five people live with a mental health condition. The increase in loneliness reported in recent years is one of the factors that has perhaps triggered this high number. Former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has drawn awareness to the public health concern of loneliness. He reports, “The impact of social isolation and loneliness on longevity equals that of smoking 15 cigarettes a day and exceeds the risks associated with obesity, excessive alcohol consumption and lack of exercise.” Psychologist Dr. Jean M. Twenge also acknowledges the effects of loneliness, particularly on the younger generation, which she terms “iGen.” Her book, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids are Growing up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood, describes the cultural changes evident in today’s generation. Through research from surveys and interviews, Dr. Twenge shows that despite an ever-growing sense of connectivity, youth are spending less time developing in-person relationships. Dr. Twenge claims that this lack of in-person interaction is perhaps linked to the increased levels of anxiety, depression, and loneliness.
Especially in light of COVID-19, we must realize that mental illness is a real issue that affects real people and demands tangible treatment. The one in five persons suffering from it is not just another number, but a co-worker, a neighbor, or a family member. The reality of the mental health crisis should not cause us to lose hope or simply seek to minimize the pain, but rather to enter into this human brokenness as we walk through and do life with others.
We must educate ourselves on mental health so that we can best live out our mission to love our neighbors. President of Christian Thinkers Society, Jeremiah Johnston, gives a helpful guide on the facts and fallacies of mental illness, showing that mental illness is “not a character flaw,” but rather a “disease.” As such, believers should “practice the ministry of presence with those who are hurting.” We must acknowledge the power of prayer and actively pray for others in addition to helping and encouraging them to find suitable treatment for their condition.
Instead of seeing prayer as something to fall back on when all else fails, we should look to it as our first resort and first line of defense. In the midst of this global pandemic, we must remind ourselves and others of the one and only thing that does remain steady and constant in our ever-changing world—our faithful, loving God.