The mental health tsunami that we are experiencing in this COVID-era world in Australia was not so much caused by the virus, as revealed by it.
Just as a tsunami runs for hundreds of kilometres in deep water without drawing too much attention to itself, before piling up in a huge wave as it reaches the shallow water of an approaching shoreline, so too this mental health crisis.
Whatever the death toll, the angst, and the ongoing illness of the actual viral earthquake, virus, the crashing wave of the mental health tsunami that has been flowing for some time now out to sea, is set to wreak far greater devastation over the coming years on the Australian shore than perhaps even the virus will.
It will be seismic.
It already is.
The Australian Federal Government has just announced in its first COVID-era budget, and contained within it is a huge increase to Medicare-funded psychology sessions. The current limit of ten subsidised sessions per year has now been doubled to twenty.
All well and good. Yet that is pretty much the mopping up operation after the wave has crashed. The government knew it was there, but perhaps had crossed its fingers in the hope nothing would trigger its uncontrollable devastation.
So while the budget announcement is to be welcomed, it is simply redressing a situation in which the subsidised sessions were depleted over the past decade. Since 2014 there has been a constant call for the figure to be returned to higher levels, as mental health advocates documented the strain on the system.
My wife’s clinical practice is now booked out every week since COVID hit, including the weeks in which Tele-health online sessions were the preferred option. Some industries are doing very well from the virus, and sadly, the mental health profession is one of them. My wife has had no need for the Job-keeper payments the government was offering to those whose employment would be cut by COVID.
So the government has now sought to address the tsunami, but we can be sure that the devastation will be around for a long time yet. This was a deeply anxious age before 2020 even arrived.
Society is emotionally fragile. Was emotionally fragile before COVID.
And now we feel wrung out. There is hostility on the left and on the right, and on the Left and on the Right. There was plenty of talk about how we lacked collective cultural resilience, even prior to this event.
It has felt for some time that as a society, unless all of the emotional ducks were lined up in a row, things would crack.
And that’s without factoring in the personalised anxiety disorders among so many sectors of our community, particularly among young teens. One school psychologist reported that she has never seen such a presence of anxiety, accompanied by a corresponding lack of resilience in all her years in schools.
Which all means the mopping up operation will take some time. Will cost some money. Will have ongoing effects we have not even thought of. And that’s not factoring in the grief that has affected so many who have lost jobs and loved ones during COVID. It’s not factoring in those who could not attend a loved one’s funeral, and for whom the grieving process has now been compounded.
As communities of faith, the question will come to us: What are we putting our faith in? More to the point, WHO are we putting our faith in. If it’s not the resurrected One, we are going to be no better off than the rest of the world.
And that’s not to diminish the fact that as Christians we too struggle and suffer with all of the afflictions common to others.
Churches will have to be extra sensitive to their people, and will need to grasp the opportunity to de-stigmatise mental health issues among the congregation. Just as there is no room for hopeless despair, there is no room for less-than-helpful triumphalism. We get the opportunity to walk alongside those suffering.
And since it is Mental Health Awareness Week next week (seems a moot point given that the tsunami has made us all too aware of its dark, looming presence), here is a ten point list of advice for churches:
- Assume that mental health issues are in your church already.
- Shape your ministries to help soften the blow. Perhaps that means backing off from pushing people to do too much if there is a general enervation.
- Don’t try to be the total package when it comes to resolution for people. Know when to help, and know when to refer.
- Ensure that you continually read those parts of Scripture, publicly, in which the soul who is cast down can hope in Jesus their Saviour, without offering a trite “Trust and you’ll get over it” solution.
- Mourn with those who mourn, weep with those who weep.
- Proclaim the hope of the resurrection to yourself and to others.
- Share communion more often. It is health food for the soul (I say that as a former Zwinglian!)
- Find out if there are needs in the non-church community that you can help with, especially if your church can offer qualified pro-bono mental health advice.
- Keep a beady eye on those who would dismiss mental health as simply a spiritual issue that requires more faith.
- Rejoice in the Lord always (and I’ll say it again, rejoice).
Not an exhaustive list of course, but more a way of saying be aware.
There’s a sobering lesson for us too. We pitch a vision of the future in which things get better and better. Maybe they won’t. Maybe this is the start of a series of global health crises that will define our generation. A large chunk of situational depression, though not all by any means, is due to the gap between our expectations and the reality in which we find ourselves.
Let’s keep trusting Jesus, especially in the lead up to this Christmas. Keep these prophetic words at the forefront of your mind and heart:
Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honour Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan –
2 The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned.
3 You have enlarged the nation
and increased their joy;
they rejoice before you
as people rejoice at the harvest,
as warriors rejoice
when dividing the plunder.
4 For as in the day of Midian’s defeat,
you have shattered
the yoke that burdens them,
the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor.
5 Every warrior’s boot used in battle
and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning,
will be fuel for the fire.
6 For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and for ever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
will accomplish this.
In Christ the Lord Almighty has accomplished this. Our hope is that one day the full knowledge of the glory of God will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea. And on that day all dark tsunamis will themselves be swept away.