Healing Through Relationship
One in five people lives with a mental illness, and the people in our congregations are not exempt from these challenges. Throughout May, Mental Health Awareness Month, we’ll be posting articles to help you and your congregation better understand mental illness and come alongside those who are struggling.
by Rebecca Bakke, St. Andrew’s Church, Little Rock, AR
Relationship. I think it is safe to say that from the beginning, humankind was made for relationship. God himself is a relational being, three persons in one. He designed two humans in his relational image, not one, to cultivate the earth. And then these humans were given the great purpose of being in right relationship with him. Genesis 2:18 sums it up, saying, “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.’”
Fast forward to May 2021 and the COVID-19 pandemic. For 15 months, medical necessity has put humanity in a position of isolation. People have had to make the difficult decision to forgo in-person relationship in order to best prevent their loved ones from acquiring a sickness with devastating effects. Members of the workforce have pulled back into the safety of their own homes. Churches have changed their modes of operation to include virtual options. Children have been sent to their caregivers to engage in learning behind a screen.
So, what are the mental health ramifications of such pullbacks? According to the CDC, 42% of adults reported symptoms of anxiety and depression in December 2020. This is up from the pre-COVID January-June 2019 statistics, in which 11% of adults reported symptoms of anxiety and depression—quite a change in the status of our collective mental health in recent days.
As a counselor, I am routinely fascinated by how intelligently designed the human body is, that God designs things in complexity to work toward his divine purposes for humanity. One point of notation would be the hormone oxytocin, otherwise known as the bonding hormone. The release of this hormone has drastic impacts on pro-social behaviors and positive contributions to relaxation, trust and psychological stability. It is also a gatekeeper to activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, or the body’s relaxation response. More production of oxytocin equals less stress, anxiety and depression.
Oxycontin increases with social connection. This is more than likely why, when we experience stress and trauma, our natural instincts are to go to those people in our lives who have been safe places in the past. We want the reassurance, the empathy and the physical touch, because in them, we find places of calm.
Praise be to God that at this point in the COVID-19 pandemic, vaccines appear to be working in the United States, hospitalizations have gone down and we are beginning to be given green lights for reengaging in our social lives. So, what does this mean for the church, including myself, taking into consideration the increase of mental health symptoms? For some, this year has been easier to navigate, with healthy relationships at home or in their “COVID bubble.” But what about those who were sent into isolation: the widow, the single, the abused, the neglected? Those individuals who relied heavily on the in-person church? How are we as the Church to live out fully what James calls us to: “to visit orphans and widows in their affliction” (James 1:27)?
To this I say that we as a Church have work to do. It is a time to create some oxytocin, to increase our face-to-face connections where safe and to inherently fight the mental health battle that has been put before us. We will have to push through our own weariness, our own fears to engage life again. I consider the beauty of doing this to be twofold: In helping others to emotionally heal from this pandemic by being in proper relationship with one another, we will also be healing ourselves. With that message, I hope that the Church finds it easy to begin the work that needs to be done, fulfilling the Great Commission and remembering that through it all Jesus reminds us, “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
Rebecca, her husband, Seth, and their three children, Leif (9), Lily (6) and Soren (1), live in Little Rock, Arkansas, and have attended St. Andrew’s Church since 2015. Rebecca received a Master of Arts degree in counseling from Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri in 2008. She worked in outpatient community mental health for seven years and in adolescent residential care for one year prior to joining Napa Valley Counseling, a Christian counseling center in Little Rock, in 2016.