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Melissa Nichols is seen in this undated photo. She is a licensed marriage and family therapist at Family Attachment and Counseling Center in Chaska, Minn., who belongs to St. Hubert Parish in Chanhassen.


Pandemic seen affecting people’s mental well-being, not just physical health

By SUSAN KLEMOND, Catholic News Service | Published September 17, 2020

ST. PAUL, Minn. (CNS)—As COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc physically, even bringing death into some people’s homes, the shutdown this past spring and the virus’ continuing effects also have impacted mental health.

As a result, more people in the Twin Cities area, including those who hadn’t previously experienced mental illness, have sought counseling assistance during the crisis by phone, online and—as restrictions lifted—in person, said several therapists and priests in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

“This pandemic brought obviously physical ramifications for some folks who got sick but (also) a lot of fear and anxiety,” said Father Matthew Malek, a Conventual Franciscan priest and counselor at St. Bonaventure in Bloomington, Minnesota. “A lot of folks have lost or been reduced in their degree of employment, worried about their children, worried about perhaps relatives or friends that live in care facilities — big disruptions.”

The disruptions have caused isolation, stress, anxiety, substance abuse and other problems, especially for those already diagnosed with mental illness, therapists say. And while faith has been a support, not receiving the Eucharist and other sacraments as people try to avoid contracting or spreading the virus has contributed to depression, especially for the elderly.

Isolation has been a major stressor that has resulted in more gaming and more sexual and chemical addictions, therapists say.

“The lack of human connection is causing such distress,” said Melissa Nichols, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Family Attachment and Counseling Center in Chaska, Minnesota, who belongs to St. Hubert Parish in Chanhassen.

“What I see is increased anxiety with adults, particularly because all their stuff has moved online,” she told The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. “They are becoming more scattered toward the end of the day, more depressed and so they’re really looking at how to have contact.”

When people feel isolated, they tend to ruminate about what’s wrong or scary in life, and fear can almost be crippling if they’re already diagnosed with chronic mental illnesses, said Father Malek, who has helped people understand that it’s OK to admit they’re having difficulties and to get support.

Without distractions to keep them from thinking about problems, Nichols said some of her clients who have experienced trauma are more prone to suicide.

Suicide is on the rise overall, noted Dan Stokman, a therapist and director of Novare Counseling Center in St. Paul, because “too much isolation, too many losses, too much stress on the system and for too long lead to a breakdown and the resulting feeling of despair.”

Almost 11% of American adults surveyed by the Centers for Disease Control in June said they’d seriously considered suicide during the previous 30 days. By comparison, another government survey showed that just 4.3% had thoughts about suicide in 2017.

In treating clients who may or may not have suicidal thoughts, Nichols said, she often pairs trauma therapy with a type of counseling that involves the client inviting Jesus into the image of their memory for healing. She also sometimes uses prayer therapy.

Another problem affecting more people is anxiety, which feeds on uncertainty, especially when people have a low tolerance for the unknown, said Stokman, a parishioner of St. Joseph Parish in West St. Paul.

Being home together was good for some families, but for others, anxiety, stress and substance use increased the risk of problems, such as domestic violence, Father Malek said.

A man in New York City rides the subway March 5, during the coronavirus pandemic. As COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc on people physically, the virus also is affecting people’s mental health because of the restrictions put in place by state and local officials, says therapists and Catholic priests offering counseling amid the pandemic. CNS photo/Andrew Kelly, Reuters

Anxiety caused by losing jobs and struggling to provide for families has affected rural parishioners at Most Holy Redeemer Parish in Montgomery, Minnesota, which includes St. Canice Parish in Kilkenny and is clustered with St. Patrick Parish in Shieldsville, said Father Tom Niehaus, the pastor.

“The stress that creates and talking with them (parishioners have said), ‘We don’t have the money to pay our bills. We don’t know what this is going to look like, we’re not even talking week to week, (but) day to day,'” he said.

As he’s counseled these and other parishioners mostly over the phone and suggested faith-related resources, Father Niehaus, who has a background in psychology, said he’s tried to “boost them up a little bit and point toward the Lord (so) they can find their strength in him.”

Along with fear of contracting the virus, seniors who may have had undiagnosed depression and a limited social life before the pandemic are impacted by not being able to attend Mass or receive visitors, Father Malek said.

When parishes stopped offering in-person Masses in March because of the shutdown, some Catholics felt isolated and anxious, Father Niehaus said. Those who haven’t yet returned to church continue to feel stress about not being with their faith community, he said.

Despite the problems, COVID-19 has enabled some people to recognize what’s most essential and given others a needed break from busy routines, sources said.

Recognizing the pandemic’s effects on mental health helps people check on others, Father Malek said.

“It isn’t oftentimes about offering solutions or help,” he said. “Sometimes the most important part (is) being present and listening, and also perhaps if someone seems to be experiencing some really heavy symptoms … to encourage folks or support people in pursuing treatment.”

Tips for coping

Those interviewed by The Catholic Spirit offered tips for coping with stress related to COVID-19:

— Accept that the situation is tough and might continue to be for a while. Reach out to friends, family, counseling and medical professionals if necessary. Mental health is as important as physical health. (Father Malek)

— Seek connection with God. COVID-19 challenges can be numbing, so spend time with him. Meditate on God’s provision and protection through the psalms and Bible passages such as Matthew 11:28: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Stokman)

— Increase the capacity to accept uncertainty through meaningful connections with others and prayer. (Stokman)

— Control thoughts by practicing gratitude. The mind is a battlefield. Wake up and think of three things to be thankful for. In the evening, reflect on the day, identify three things that went well and thank God for them. (Nichols)

— Do acts of kindness. It can benefit the giver as much or more than the one receiving a kindness. Helping others can be the biggest action taken against anxiety and depression because the feeling of doing something gives more control over those problems. (Nichols)

Klemond writes for The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.