This blog was originally posted in May of 2020 and it is still relevant a year later.
We are in a time we have never experienced before because of the Coronavirus pandemic and the extended “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order. Many of us are preparing to get back to normal, but that new normal will be filled with uncertainty and very likely much different from what we knew. We hope to help you deal with some of the issues that may arise in your churches and offer some resources. To help us with that, Jeff Heisner interviewed Autumn Castiglia, MA LLP PLLC, a psychologist who works on the Michigan District’s Commission for Church Worker Care. (Listen to the podcast here). She helps with vetting counselors so that pastors and other church workers can see counselors in their area that they know have been interviewed by the District. They know these counselors are ready to handle issues that pastors and church workers face.
This blog is an edited transcription of the podcast that was published here.
Jeff: What are you seeing out there right now in regards to mental health?
Autumn: Well, for the first couple of weeks everybody stopped coming and it was really quiet. After two weeks, I began receiving many calls from my clients who are dealing with heightened mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. The biggest thing I am seeing is loneliness. When you want to drive somebody crazy, you put them in solitary confinement, right? This pandemic is not ideal for those with mental health issues. As mental health professionals, we have had to create online content, get out there, be on Zoom meetings, and try to help people combat loneliness.
I also lead the women’s ministry at Faith Lutheran in Troy, Mich. I am seeing the same time things in the church that I see at my counseling practice. The church is meeting those needs very well if they have the online resources to connect with people. Connection is the biggest thing that people need at this time. For the church to meet that need, they have to become another frontline ministry. We talk about our healthcare professionals being on the frontline, but our pastors, other church workers, and counselors are on the frontline meeting spiritual and mental health needs.
Jeff: What do pastors need to know to connect with those going through mental health issues?
Autumn: I think the first thing to know is that we are all facing this pandemic and it feels like we are in it together. We are tempted to say things like “we are in this together;” but that actually isn’t completely true because we all have different situations. First and foremost, pastors and other church workers should be curious and grateful for our blessings. Most of us are very blessed but some of the people we are connecting with may be going through bigger struggles. We should come to the conversation with a curiosity. However, when we ask, “How are you doing?” they are going to be tempted to think, “Don’t you get it? We are facing a global crisis. I am doing very poorly.” If they are in a crisis state and they are in fight-or-flight mode, hearing the question “How are you doing?” comes off as unfeeling.
So, one must do a lot of listening first and foremost to find out where each is coming from. “How can I help you?” is a good way to start a conversation instead of “How are you doing?” To the listener, “How can I help” shows you are willing to listen and join them as they go through their struggle. Asking how you can help gets past the listener’s fight-or-flight reaction.
Jeff: There are so many different issues. You talked about loneliness being one of the key ones. There is also loss of loved ones, an unusual grieving process, and loss of jobs. What could that mean as far as addiction and mental health?
Autumn: What is happening now in our lives is that our love, our trust, our sense of identity, and our sense of safety are getting hit. We feel unsafe, unloved, and on shaky ground. All of us feel that on some level—some less, some extreme. When we feel this way, some respond by coping negatively, finding blame. You are going to see some people respond with anger and sarcasm. Some people respond in shame and just go to depression and self-doubt. Some will try to control to feel safe—that is where you see people hoarding toilet paper, etc. Some will try to escape, and this is where addiction shows up. So, when you see negative coping skills, it is important to understand you are seeing that the person is struggling to cope. A lot of times, pastors will find people are responding with anger directed towards them personally, an attitude that a pastor should be doing more to help. Just understanding that the person is in a crisis state and struggling really helps to understand that there are those who were probably already struggling before this pandemic, and now they are struggling even more and do not have resources to pull from.
Jeff: And as we start to re-open churches and different businesses, what will the fear versus faith relationship look like? It is going to be different for everybody, isn’t it?
Autumn: Absolutely, because some people have healthy coping skills and some people do not have those resources. In our family situation, we already have chronic illness. I have Lyme disease, my son has it too. We have a situation where we have had medical trauma and are faced with the possibility of more medical trauma. We have specific situations and are at a higher risk to contract the Coronavirus. My response to coming back to a church gathering would be different from someone else’s response; yet, it does not really have to do with my faith. It has to do with my situation. So, a church worker must be careful to not make returning to gathering a spiritual issue. One must understand everyone’s personal situation, their age bracket, their health, etc.
Pastors and other church workers can respond by giving many options. A church may opt to keep online worship services running or keep Zoom meetings open. There is still a connection point for people that are shut-in and must shelter in place for a little bit longer until they can be confident to return. It is possible that those with mental health issues will tend to lean towards anxiety and will need a little more time to feel secure about returning. We will need to give them a lot of assurances of what is being done to make the worship or other meeting gatherings as safe of an environment as possible. Examples are giving six feet in between seats, wiping everything down, and adding time between worship services. It does require more from pastors and church workers, but to show that we love them, that’s worth it. To show that we care, and we are for them, is primary.
Jeff: How important will it be to get in a small group with somebody who might be going through something similar? Especially in this time when loneliness is so huge.
Autumn: Zoom meetings or any type of online meeting are key. Faith Lutheran has a grief group and an anxiety group. Huddling around a topic is very important to cope with mental health issues. So is Bible study. Providing online Bible studies assists people to continue growing in their faith. When one feels loved and safe, then one is more likely to respond with healthy coping skills, with connection, transparency, vulnerability, forgiveness, all these things. To be in a faith relationship with Jesus when one feels unsafe is so important; to know that ultimately our eternal security is safe. That is where true peace comes in and gives that stability. It does not mean we are immune to still feeling unsafe.
At the beginning of the pandemic we had the ability to talk with friends and go out in public. But now, say if I am a single woman stuck in my house with no daily interaction, that is a huge loss for me. For those with families at home, it is not as big of a loss. But what if I am an elderly person and see my grandkids two or three times a week, and now all of a sudden I can’t and I’m a widow? That’s a huge loss. As the church, for us to be able to respond to different people with different needs, small groups can be the key. I have run a bunch of large groups on Zoom and they were not so great. Now, I can tell you that if you break out into small groups of six or less, it is so much better.
Jeff: The District has a mental health case manager, Christie Hansard, who can point pastors and other church workers to counselors in their area. You can find contact information for Christie at michigandistrict.org/mental-health. What are some of the other resources that are available to pastors and church workers?
Autumn: Well, right now there is so much offered for free online, which to me is so encouraging. When I go to websites like at my kids’ schools, they are offering free resources for mental health. You can watch seminars online and, for a pastor or other church worker, that’s wonderful continuing education. You can find information at the National Institute of Mental Health, and the American Association of Christian Counselors; all the major colleges are also offering free resources. I would look for those free resources, even other church websites. There are free resources like free screening tools online if you feel like you need that for somebody who might be depressed. But referring somebody to a counselor is your best bet.
Jeff: I was talking with one pastor and he said as things start to re-open one will feel so many emotions and it may seem to be overwhelming. He said he is going to WANT to run up and hug everyone. He is going to WANT to greet everybody he can. Obviously, that is not going to best at first. How can you help them bottle up some of the emotions right now? Because it will be an emotional time, one we may have never seen before.
Autumn: Before sheltering in place, some of the people I know preferred touching elbows, kicking each other’s foot, doing the air high five. I think we must be sensitive to different responses and readiness. I have some people that I know that are telling me, “I’m just so tired of this and I’m going to run up and hug everybody.” I think that response might be a little bit insensitive for some people. We as the leaders need to set the stage and say what you are OK with, an air hug, etc., until we are in a better zone. Right now, I suggest that personal hugs need to wait a little bit.
Jeff: Is there anything more you want to leave pastors and other church workers with right now as we move forward?
Autumn: I think the most important thing is to accept that people are in crisis. All of us are, on some level, working from a place of fight or flight instead of our frontal cortex. So, lead with a calming voice—that’s brain research—a slow tone. That sounds more like, “How can I help?” versus “How are you?”
Jeff: Autumn, thank you so much for joining us today. We appreciate your time and your insights.
Pastors and church workers, if you need help, go to michigandistrict.org/mental health. Call Christie Hansard, the District’s mental health case manager, and she will put you in touch with a counselor in your area. You can also email her at email@example.com.
This is part 1 of a series of blogs on mental health. You can read part 2 here.
Photo courtesy of Elisa Schulz Photography