As the “Stay Home, Stay Safe” restrictions lift and we begin to gather together again as congregations, some issues may surface that are ultimately related to mental health. How can pastors and church workers spot and minister to people who are dealing with these issues? To help us with that, Jeff Heisner interviewed Christie Hansard, RN, BSN and Michigan District Mental Health Case Manager. This blog is an edited transcription of the podcast that was published earlier today.
Jeff: Mental health is a huge issue that a lot of our pastors and church leaders are going to be dealing with, isn’t it?
Christie: Absolutely. Especially when you’re looking at the roles that we have in the church that specifically are caring for the parishioners.
Jeff: We’re going to see a lot of anxiety, a lot of fear as we start to open, and a lot of questions. How do we try to deal with those as pastors, church leaders, and even members?
Christie: Well, I think the first thing we need to do is maybe assess the situation and look at the person. And we can obviously do that through Christ’s eyes, right? We may see somebody who is very fearful or very angry. It can be all-consuming, it can be intense, persistent, it can come out as worry or fear. The fear might be real, or not real in the way that we look at it, but to them it is very real. So I think one of the things is that we need to is to meet these people where they are, not where they think they should be or where we think the rest of the congregation is.
Jeff: When you talk about that anxiety and fear, it’s been heightened to a place that we probably haven’t seen in a long time for this many people.
Jeff: What is it that triggers it? Is it the loneliness? Is it other forms of stress? What could it be?
Christie: It could be different for each person. Let’s say you have a mom that is a parishioner and her husband may be a first-line worker so she’s fearful that he will get sick. For another person it could be financial; it could be that you are caring for small children that are at high risk with maybe some immune compromises that you haven’t shared with your friends at church yet. It could be caring for elderly people and how you do that from a distance, whether it’s in another state or in town.
When we look at our church workers, we look at the fact that they are not only trying to care for the congregation, but they’re also trying to care for themselves and everything that they need to do personally. One of the things everybody is feeling is that, if you are working from home, everything is in one bucket now. I can use myself as an example: my dining room is my bucket. I do work out of here; I plan dinner out of here; I answer emails for my children’s school here. It’s very difficult sometimes to separate work from personal.
Jeff: Now, one of the things that we you had mentioned before this podcast is a concept called compassion fatigue. People kind of losing that compassion a little bit quicker than normal. It seemed like we were good at the beginning when this pandemic started, but that’s changing a little bit. Talk a little bit about what compassion fatigue is.
Christie: Well, I think it’s for anybody who is caring for somebody else. It is not just for healthcare workers; it can be for church workers, it can be for parents. It can be, again, across the board. “Compassion fatigue” is kind of like a catch phrase, a layman’s term. If you’re talking about traumatic stress, sometimes professionals will call it a secondary or second-hand shock or secondary stress reaction. So if you are seeing a medical professional, they may use different language for the same thing. But for compassion fatigue, it’s the symptoms that we see. So maybe we should run through some of those symptoms so maybe people could identify them.
Jeff: You were saying earlier that it’s much different than just being tired.
Christie: Yes. It’s not just having a bad day. It’s not just having a long stretch or even a couple of bad days at work. It is something that permeates your entire being and it can affect your identity. For us as Christians, our identity is in Christ. And even though that’s the fact, we can still have symptoms in a sinful world. Tell-tale signs are, for example, if you start to see the rate of mistakes increase on your job, or if you find yourself unable to stop thinking about work or thinking about the position of caregiver that you’ve been in—you wake up and that’s the first thing you think about, and when you go to sleep it’s the last thing you think about. I’ve had people call me saying they’re having strange dreams, really strange dreams about the workplace. That’s because it’s constant on your mind.
Another symptom is depersonalization: you kind of lose your role a little bit. You kind of depersonalize—you’re not caring for the individual. You may be making some remarks that just don’t seem to express that empathy that you’d normally would.
Hypersensitivity or complete insensitivity to emotional matters: it’s having what we call a flat asset. You just don’t have the right response to the right situation. For example, if somebody is struggling and you give a brush-off kind of remark like, “Oh wow, that must be hard,” you’re not conveying that empathy.
Impaired decision-making: people are getting a decision-making overload right now and you can get burnt out with that. I know I experienced that one day. I told my husband, “I cannot make the decision of what we’re having for dinner. Somebody else make that decision.” I had just made too many that day.
Jeff: I’ve heard that from my wife as well: “I don’t want to make any more decisions today. You figure it out.”
Christie: It’s wonderful that you guys can communicate. I mean that’s a healthy example of your wife being able to verbally express what’s going on and for you to be able to hear what she says and in turn care for her and recognize that. That’s a beautiful example. Thank you.
Jeff: Are there other things that we should look for that might be that compassion fatigue?
Christie: I think one of the things that people don’t recognize is when an activity that you normally enjoy or that you use to decompress no longer brings you joy. For example, reading a book or, for me, knitting or going for a bike ride. If there’s something that normally helps you with stress and you find that it’s just not cutting it anymore, it may be that you need to increase your Christ-centered self-care.
Jeff: And this is not one-size-fits-all ministering by any means, is it?
Christie: Correct. Church workers can use those assessment skills, but they can also use it on themselves, right? If you have an opportunity, assess yourself and see where the chink in the armor is. And if you are dealing with a parishioner, maybe ask some open-ended questions to try and figure out where they’re coming from. It seems to me that a lot of people have emotionally charged opinions about the pandemic across the board. And I think if we go below those emotions, that’s where we can really minister to people. There’s probably a precursor to that emotional, hyper-sensitive response, and if we go underneath the surface, we might find out what the real fear is or what the real anger is—and it may have nothing to do with the pandemic. Take the time and realize that we’re all in the same storm, but we’re not on the same boat. At the beginning of this pandemic we saw a lot of comparing, like, “Well, you think you’ve got it bad. You know, my mother has got it worse” or “My husband has it worse.” Or “Our family is suffering financially, at least you have a job.” All these things that we’re seeing on social media come from a hurt place; I don’t think they come from a mean place. Understanding that can be also helpful.
Jeff: Yeah, I love that phrase that we’re in the same storm but definitely not the same boat. Great way to think about it. You had another acronym, HALT. Talk a little bit about that. What does it mean and how can we apply it to what we do?
Christie: HALT stands for hungry, angry, lonely, tired. And usually if a person finds themselves in an emotionally distressed situation—and we’re talking mild, we’re not talking need-to-go-to-the-ER kind of distress— then it’s kind of like HALT. It’s time to just stop and ask:
- Am I hungry? That’s happened here in our house. I found that I was having a tendency to, yell at the kids a little bit more than I normally would over schoolwork and came to find out I had missed breakfast and lunch. So maybe the problem was me and not them.
- Am I angry? If you don’t take care of the anger, that that can bloom into a really big resentment, and at that point you’re working on a whole different level. Then maybe some restitution needs to happen.
- Am I lonely? That can mean that you’ve got some emotional needs that just aren’t being met right now. Acknowledge that and maybe try to take some steps towards it. And it can be the other way too. In our house we have three teenage boys, and sometimes I need to get away.
- Am I tired? If you’re not sleeping well, that can really affect your whole day. My husband and I have this rule that, if we’re going to make a big decision, we do three things first: We pray, we get a good night’s sleep, and we get a good meal in our bellies. And I think that that kind of takes away some of the things that can impair decision making.
Jeff: It sounds like a lot of what we need to do is kind of get back to those basics, right?
Christie: Absolutely. We need a nutritious meal. We need some exercise and some healthy scheduled sleeping, but we also need to be aware and honor those emotional needs. If there is some stuff going on is, is that something I can kind of gauge from 1 to 10? Is this something that I can put off and maybe deal with later, or is this something that I maybe need to stop my day and reach out and talk to somebody about?
Jeff: Another thing is setting boundaries. I’m not talking about just social distancing, but emotional boundaries and how we communicate them to family and fellow church members and friends.
Christie: Emotional boundaries are really important. If certain things or certain topics are triggers for you, it’s okay to stay away from those. It’s okay to step away from social media. It’s okay to physically step away and have some alone time or just family time or just spouse time. And even more importantly, just to have some time with our Lord.
Jeff: We talked about having prayer and meditation time as that Christ-centered self-care, a healthy way to relieve the stress.
Christie: Absolutely. We can ask the Holy spirit to intercede in our thoughts, our words or actions. There are so many resources on the internet and you can also use social media for good. For example, Bible journaling is something that works for me. When I found out that Martin Luther and Florence Nightingale journaled in their Bibles, that gave me permission to also journal in my Bible and I’m grateful for that. If there’s a word or a verse that means a lot and it’s just really emotionally hitting me now, I can meditate on that. And there are a lot of visual faith resources out there.
Jeff: What are some other things that we should be discussing right now in regard to mental health?
Christie: What I want people to take away the most from this is the awareness that, when we come out of this pandemic, somebody is going to be wrong. If I’m the person that’s wrong, I just pray that you give me some grace and mercy and forgiveness. If we discover that your opinions are wrong, I certainly am going to be asking God to give me the grace and mercy and forgiveness that he has given us so freely so that I can extend that to you.
Jeff: Now if someone has questions for you, how can they get a hold of you?
Christie: They can find me at michigandistrict.org/mental-health-case-manager.
This blog is part 2 of a series of blogs on mental health. You can read part 1 here.
Photo courtesy of Elisa Schulz Photography