Isolation can aggravate mental health issues, counselor says

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When people must isolate themselves, issues that could be managed previously rise to the surface, Christian licensed professional counselor Olga Harris said.

Addictions, traumas, anxiety and depression affect lives—particularly among people who lacked the safety net necessary to prevent these situations from escalating into something worse, Harris said.

Those situations turn even more difficult when therapists, counselors and clinics shut down to minimize the transmission of COVID-19, she added.

“We have to be creative and figure out how to do online counseling or phone consultations,” Harris said. “But still, the dynamic is completely different.”

Need to connect with one another

In addition to previously existing issues, Harris said, people deal with a variety of fears—not only fear of dying from the virus or contracting and spreading COVID-19, but also fears about how the crisis will affect them financially, she said.

Olga Harris

While social distancing may help minimize transmission of the virus, isolation also may present traps for those dealing with mental illness, Harris explained.

“People who found outlets in going outside and running errands, exercising and playing with the kids do not have that anymore,” Harris said. “But people in my profession understand the need we have to connect with one another.”

Studies focused on prison inmates or senior adults suggest isolation can trigger negative mental health consequences and often also impact a person’s physical health.

Work at communication and connection

Methods of communication and connection already exist to help minimize social isolation while observing physical social distancing, Harris said.

Video calling, instant messaging or even going back to writing and sending letters may help people communicate and stay connected with one another, she said.

“Those are things that can help us stay safe,” Harris said. “But not everything about this is negative, for some of my clients this time has opened opportunities to connect even better than before.”

Couples who worked long hours and had little time for each other now use this time away from work to care for one another, she said. Families can pray together now, help each other with different tasks or even just play games together, Harris emphasized.

Positive results possible

Stay at home orders also can prompt families to address underlying negative issues and consider ways to resolve them, she added.

“Now we have that time where we are forced to quiet our mind and heart, and have that intimacy with our Creator,” Harris said.

Harris noted she has seen positive results quickly. Couples on the brink of divorce have used this time to make new memories, work on their house together and talk through issues, strengthening their relationships and bringing them closer.

Certainly, COVID-19 affects some more than others right now, and Harris said the church must watch for those whose world has fallen completely apart.

While currently it is too early to analyze, Harris said, suicide is expected to rise because of the changes brought on by COVID-19.

“People are reaching their breaking points,” she said. “Churches must reach out to their communities while also figuring out new ways to do so effectively.”

Churches can connect with communities

Just as families have opportunities to grow together, churches also have new chances to connect with their communities, she said.

“We need to grow and heal in our relationships with others, ourselves and with God,” Harris insisted. “We shouldn’t want to go back to the way things were. We need to adapt to a new better normal after learning from this crisis or any crisis for that matter.”

As a counselor for the Baptist General Convention of Texas’ counseling services, Harris understands pastors and ministers now face many unusual challenges.

Because these times can be disconcerting for church leaders, Harris recommends ministers seek the help of counselors who will help them. By doing so, they invest in their own mental health and gain a handle on their personal lives and ministry. They also set an example for those among whom they minister.

“This is like training for a marathon,” Harris said. “We invest and prepare by practicing activities that help us so when the next crisis hits, we can be better prepared.”

Prepare and be proactive

Pastors can use this time to prepare and be proactive so they will be ready when something else disruptive happens, she said.

Just like a negative circumstance not only affects one part of a person, good constant practices also affect more than part of a person, Harris noted.

“The Lord is the one who does the job,” she said. “God is the one who helps us understand we need healing and also provides the healing we need.”

Many times, the issues people suffer through become tools for them to minister in the lives of others, Harris said.

“Isn’t this then an opportunity for churches to know and identify with many people who are experiencing, throughout various degrees, the same circumstances?” Harris asked. “Doors are opening up for pastors and churches to reach out to others in ways they could not do so before.”

Advocating and caring for the community brings growth to the church, she said.

Researching and putting together a list of resources available in the community positions the church to serve and signals to hurting people that the church cares for them, she explained. She recommended resources like—a social care network website—or calling 211 to learn more about what is available.

Connecting with nonprofits, crisis centers, food pantries and agencies helping with utility bills or rent also opens the door for churches to connect more with the community around them, she added.

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