What a year 2020 has been! Apart from possibly a few well-informed experts in some offices around the world, the rest of us had no expectation of what was ahead of us when we entered 2020. Even the experts have been baffled by this coronavirus. In July, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for three decades and one of the leading experts on pandemics in the United States for the last four decades, said:
“I’ve never seen an infection in which you have such a broad range, from literally nothing, namely no symptoms at all, in a substantial proportion of the population; to some who get ill with minor symptoms; to some who get ill enough to be in bed for weeks and have post-viral syndromes; others get hospitalized, require oxygen, intensive care, and ventilation; and for some, it ends in death.”1
If anyone wondered what it means when something goes “viral,” this virus is an example of that. Of 195 worldwide countries, 188 have reported people having been infected. As of the date of writing this article, almost 22 million cases and 800,000 deaths have been reported around the world. And even these numbers likely don’t reflect how far and wide the virus actually has spread. According to the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, in many countries, only a fraction of the symptomatic cases have been reported.2 And, of course, symptomless cases often go unreported, because the one who was infected neither felt sick nor got tested.
This virus has definitely “gone viral” and caused a lot of disruption. The pandemic has impacted people’s lives in multiple ways: physically, socially, professionally, financially; and maybe less obvious but nonetheless serious, mentally and spiritually. For some, the effects have been minor; for others, major losses have occurred in one, several, or all of these dimensions of life. In recent history, nothing has been as disruptive globally as this pandemic. We’ve been forced to face unprecedented challenges. And it’s not over yet. We don’t know when it will be over. We don’t know if it will be over. We don’t know what the world and our lives will look like whenever the pandemic eventually subsides.
How have we dealt with this? How are we coping? And how do we continue to live with all the troubles and worries? People getting sick, some dying. People fear getting sick or that a loved one will get sick. Many are losing jobs, fearing for their jobs, worrying about bills. People are going hungry. People are losing homes. Many are isolated and lonely.
The Reality of Mental Anguish and Pain
Around the world, reports are coming in of people struggling with thoughts, feelings, and behaviors as a consequence of and response to the pandemic. On August 14, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the U.S. released an alarming report on “Mental Health, Substance Use, and Suicidal Ideation During the COVID-19 Pandemic.”3 Its findings are from the U.S., but similar trends are reported around the world. The report states that in June 2020, people reporting symptoms of anxiety disorders were three times higher than those reported in the second quarter of 2019 (25.5 percent versus 8.1 percent). People reporting symptoms of depressive disorders were four times the number reported in the second quarter of 2019 (24.3 percent versus 6.5 percent). Approximately one in ten reported that they started or increased substance use because of COVID-19. Suicidal ideation was also elevated; approximately twice as many respondents reported serious consideration of suicide in the previous 30 days than did adults in the United States in 2018, referring to the previous 12 months (10.7 percent versus 4.3 percent). Overall, 40.9 percent of respondents reported at least one adverse mental or behavioral health condition, and young people and various underprivileged people groups were disproportionately higher.
Among these troubling numbers, the age group 18-24 stood out with three in four young adults reporting at least one adverse mental or behavioral health condition, and one in four reporting seriously having considered suicide in the past 30 days. In contrast, in the age group 65 and above, only 15.1 percent reported at least one adverse mental or behavioral health condition, and 2 percent reported seriously having considered suicide in the past 30 days.
What are the takeaways from this report and other studies from various world regions? In short, people are suffering mentally. Many are suffering immensely, even to the point of giving up on hope and life. The younger are suffering to an extraordinarily high degree. COVID-19 is not simply a respiratory illness; it’s experienced as an existential threat to our lives and our future. And beyond that, many places in the world are facing other disruptions that compound the sense of instability and worry for the future.
Former U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama is an example of this, as she recently said she’s suffering from “low-grade depression” as a result of the pandemic, race relations in the U.S., and the political strife surrounding all of it. These are difficult times in many ways.
How Can We Live?
Here are some crucial questions: What can and should we do about all of this? How do we live through this without succumbing to despair and fear? The answer is in principle quite simple: Live life through this pandemic as you ought to live life every day, as you ought to have lived your life before the pandemic, and as you ought to live your life after the pandemic. And how should we live? The key is: connect, connect, connect. With yourself, with others, with God. This is a time to take care of ourselves, of one another, and of our relationship with God.
How do we connect with ourselves? By spending quality time with ourselves. We need to do good things for ourselves. That means filling our awake time with good things and optimizing for quality sleep. Good things while we are awake include eating well, exercising regularly, keeping our environment clean and tidy, keeping ourselves clean and comfortable, curtailing our media consumption, and not getting absorbed in what isn’t beneficial. Focus on today and less on the worries of tomorrow or regrets of yesterday (see Matt. 6:34). Give time and space to your thoughts and your feelings. Let them inform you of what’s going on inside you, but don’t let them rule you. Simply do more of what makes you feel truly good about yourself and with yourself, and less of the other things.
How do we connect with others? By spending quality time with them. Care for others and let others care for you. In a world that’s suffering, we need one another’s care and comfort. Every day. Reach out, for their sake and for your own sake. We need the human touch, physically and emotionally. It calms fears. It heals wounds. It gives hope. Don’t act out your despair and fear on others; rather, talk about it, sharing openly and truthfully. Let others hold you. We are not made for facing this world alone. We need one another more than ever in times of crisis.
Connecting with others includes seeking professional help and support. Whenever you feel that your ability to function normally and your quality of life is being compromised because of your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, then it’s time to talk with a health professional.
How do we connect with God? By spending quality time with him. “Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6, 7, NLT).4 Pray every day with gratitude, thanking God for everything that still is good in your life and in the world. And bring all your despair and fear to him. Talk with him about it, openly and truthfully. There’s no point in pretending before him that things are different or better than they are; he who holds the universe in his hands can hold your worries and troubles in his hands. Give them all to him, and then take his hand. Hold on to it as you walk through whatever is ahead, one step and one day at a time.
This pandemic is an unprecedented crisis to us, but it’s also an unprecedented opportunity. It’s an opportunity to live life as we should live it: connected with ourselves, with others, and with God. Instead of letting ourselves be blinded by fear and despair, let us focus on connecting better with God and with others, day by day, as is God’s loving and gracious will for us.
Torben Bergland is a medical doctor and psychiatrist. He currently serves as an associate director of Adventist Health Ministries at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.
3M. É. Czeisler, R. I. Lane, and E. Petrosky, “Mental Health, Substance Use, and Suicidal Ideation During the COVID-19 Pandemic—United States, June 24–30, 2020,” MMWR. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 69 (2020): pp. 1049–1057; online at https://doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6932a1.
4Scripture quotations marked NLT are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright ã 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.