Counseling and COVID-19: Addressing Mental Health during Crisis
By Stefanie Leiter
“You will not always feel this bad.” “You are experiencing a normal response in an abnormal situation.” “It is absolutely okay to feel anxious right now.” Christian counselors Allyson Baker, Annie Wood Bell, and Sharon Binkerd know of what they speak. Their thirty-plus years of combined counseling is providing essential help for many during shutdown and isolation in response to COVID-19.
The coronavirus pandemic crept into society during the holidays a world away; but when it hit the United States, it came with lasting effects abruptly halting personal normalcy. Faith can be shaken along with one’s mental health in any situation. Fortunately, numerous mental health professionals, including Baker, Wood Bell, and Binkerd, are leading the way in helping people cope.
Allyson Baker, a Christian counselor in private practice for eighteen years, encourages rhythms as an important element for coping with stress in crisis. “Our bodies and minds are created for the rising and setting of the sun,” observes Baker. “Going to bed and waking up at the same time, eating well, and drinking water to stay hydrated keeps our bodies in balance.” According to Baker, those who have established effective coping skills and who are practicing healthy wellness tend to fare best in crisis.
Annie Wood Bell, born and raised in the Church of God, serves as a licensed clinical social worker and certified clinical trauma professional. She strongly encourages having one point of contact everyday preferably by video to engage eye contact. “Yes, we need to be careful about how much we are on screens but looking at a screen at someone else can do the same good work in our physiology and feelings of connection as being together in person,” says Wood Bell.
Baker concurs adding that secure relationships can help hold you up when you feel weak. In like manner, when you feel strong your friends can benefit from your strength and attitude. Overall, she urges people to be honest, “dipping down” into emotions with a trusted, secure friend or family member.
“Let’s be clear. All of us are facing a crisis right now,” notes Wood Bell. “Our hard-wired biological response in crisis is that our brains perceive the situation as safe enough to engage or threatening. If it’s a threat, our brains in milliseconds determine how threatening it is and then go to a certain type of engagement, depending on the threat.” In response, Wood Bell is witnessing churches providing online small groups, bursts of encouragement on social media, and contact by phone, mail or e-mail.
Rev. Dr. Sherri Fields, a licensed Church of God minister, is also exploring hope during this pandemic. She and her pastor husband, Rev. Jared Fields, have ministered in Missouri, Indiana, and Oklahoma. In January 2020, Jared was called as senior pastor of the Robertsdale Church of God in Pennsylvania. Sherri felt the need to bring her own life experiences as an individual diagnosed with OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) into their church’s response to mental health concerns during COVID-19.
“Due to the way that mental health has been handled through the years, it is often a great source of shame for the individual. This prevents people from seeking treatment,” comments Fields. “There is a great need for mental health advocacy and education so that we can reduce this stigma and help our parishioners experience recovery and healing.”
Fields felt called to create an online small group for the congregation based on scriptures related to worry and fear (Philippians 4:6–7, John 14:27, and Matthew 6:34). In her weekly study, the principles of mindfulness help participants accept and work through anxious thoughts and feelings. Fields states that “we thankfully serve a God that does not command us to do things he will not help us do.”
COVID-19 sparked counselor Sharon Binkerd and Allyson Baker, both of South Meridian Church of God, to offer a weekly “Mental Health Monday” video. They have also mobilized many in this congregation to reach out and assess the safety of their elderly population. “There is a sweetness in connecting during this stressful situation. We are hearing people’s faith legacies in these contacts,” comments Baker. Through this endeavor, Baker believes volunteers are becoming the hands and feet of the church to families, as well as to the surrounding neighborhood.
Wood Bell felt the pandemic was an opportunity for creating a YouTube channel called Mental Health Toolkit. Viewers have commented this toolkit has considerable information for helping people cope in crisis. In addition, Wood Bell offers steps for coping, which she terms “MEDDSS.” The ingredients are:
● Mastery: doing something you know you are good at or skilled in, such as cleaning, running, painting, connecting with others, etc.;
● Exercise: moving everyday (stretching, five-minute walk);
● Diet: noting food intake (how often, when, and what);
● Drugs: taking medication as prescribed; not drinking alcohol; not engaging in illegal drug use;
● Sleep: getting the recommended seven to nine hours; and
● Spirituality: engaging in something greater than yourself, such as time with God, nature, or music.
Baker, Wood Bell, and Binkerd know collectively through experience, in the end, trusting in God and practicing mindfulness can help slow the anxiety until this crisis passes.
For those seeking resources, there are several available at no cost:
● Crisis line for any mental health crisis: 1-800-999-9999.
● Text line: HOME to 741741.
● Crisis Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
● Celebrate Recovery.
● Alcoholics Anonymous.
Stefanie Leiter graduated from Anderson University with a B.A. in mass communications and a specialization in public relations. In 2016, she graduated with her master of science in communication from Purdue University and received a graduate certificate in strategic communications in 2015. She is currently an assistant professor of public relations at Anderson University and is earning her PhD in communication from Regent University. Stefanie has been married to David since 2005 and they have two children: Ava and Jackson. The family attends Madison Park Church of God.