World Mental Health Day 2020
This World Mental Health Day is unusual; rather than having a specific theme, it is simply entitled ‘Mental Health for All’. It’s not hard to understand why, since Covid has had the most profound impact on global mental wellbeing of any single event since WWII. ‘Mental health for all’ because all of us, to a greater or lesser extent, have need to pay attention to our mental wellbeing as an implication of this global pandemic.
I have been thinking specifically about our response to the changes that Covid have wrought and their impact upon our mental health. To our minds, it's not just the magnitude of the changes that we experience, that are important but the manner in which those changes appear. Psychologists typically characterise change in a number of different ways to demonstrate how challenging it is to accommodate that change into our lives. Typically, the more surprising and incongruent the change, the more challenging the process of adaption. We can loosely define change within 4 categories:
‘I cannot wait for the change’
Imagine you have been working really hard for several months. You have booked a month off to explore parts of South America. Above your desk you have pinned some magazine cuttings of the beaches and jungles of Costa Rica and Ecuador. Your work colleagues are fed up of hearing about it, but you cannot stop talking about this anticipated change to the mundanity of life.
‘I know I have to change’
You have been for a healthcare appraisal that was free with your company’s health care policy. During the check-up, a kindly health care professional pointed out that your BMI was a little higher than was ideal. They helped you to identify how this might create health risks for you in later life. Whilst you would rather not address it, you know that they are right, and you know that a change in diet and lifestyle is a reluctant but necessary step.
‘Please don’t make me change’
Your workplace has identified your department for restructuring and will be making your position redundant. You love your work and really like your colleagues. You have been aware for some time that the business was struggling but you had hoped it would not come to this. Whist the redundancy package is good (and you will not have a problem finding other work), you really don’t want this change to take place.
One day you are told that there is a global pandemic and that you are going to have to stay in your house for 5 months and not see anyone else.
If you put ‘Change Shock’ into the context of other sorts of change you can see just how dramatic and arresting it is. Typically, the ambiguity we foster around the change we are experiencing dampens a real understanding of what we are going through. This is often compounded in the lives of Christians, who mitigate the significance of these changes by either ‘counting their blessings’ or denying the true challenge of the change for a simplistic spiritual claim.
In reality we all experience similar emotional journeys in the face of change shock, no-one is exempt because of their faith. The NHS suggests “After experiencing a frightening or traumatic event it is common for people to experience strong physical feelings and emotions and/or to find that they are behaving differently.” These experiences can begin immediately or a significant time after an event and can range from mild to quite pronounced from person to person. The key thing I believe that we need to accept this WMHD is that experience emotional distress is not a sign of weakness but is simply our emotional thermometers responding to a sudden change in the temperature of our lives.
A Time of Grief
As a priest and coach Covid has brought it to sharp relief the harshness of so many Christians towards their own emotional experience of change. Many people I have walked with have condemned their own reactions to Covid as ‘weak’ ‘fearful’ ‘faithless’ or downright sinful. All of this in contrast to the way in which God treats us and loves us.
Jesus in John 16:22 says, “So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.” I long for a church that can acknowledge Jesus own approach to distress and say, ‘Now is your time of grief,’ without rushing on to joy. There was no Resurrection without the Crucifixion and I don’t believe that we can leapfrog distress or sidestep sorrow. Now is the time of our grief, but I still believe in a joy that no one will take away from you.’