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Panel explores emotional toll of pandemic

Presbyterian Mental Health Network hosts first major event

by Darla Carter | Presbyterian News Service

Image by Natasha Spencer via Pixabay

LOUISVILLE — The psychological weight of living through today’s challenges, from COVID-19 to racial oppression, was acknowledged during a panel discussion this week hosted by the Presbyterian Mental Health Network.

“It’s been sustained trauma for all of us now for months but also acute trauma for each of us at various times,” said Dr. Valerie Lipscomb, a literature professor at the University of South Florida and clerk of session at Kirkwood Presbyterian Church in Bradenton, Florida.

The Rev. Dr. Bridget Piggue of Emory University Hospital Midtown said people may enter into grief and depression during the pandemic. (Screen shot)

However, not everyone responds to crises in the same way, noted the Rev. Dr. Bridget Piggue, director of spiritual health at Emory University Hospital Midtown in Atlanta. For example, some people might view being quarantined as an annoyance while others might find it deeply disturbing.

Piggue also noted that there are people who feel out of sorts because they’re used to having conversations with adults but are now spending time with children.

“There’s a disorientation occurring in your body and so based on past experiences you may enter into grief, you may enter into depression,” she said.

The panel discussion, which featured three speakers with varied backgrounds and perspectives, was the first major event for the Presbyterian Mental Health Network, a resource that was called for as part of a Presbyterian mental health initiative adopted by the 223rd General Assembly (2018).

“We want to help be able to connect churches in different parts of the country that are trying to do similar types of ministry … so that we can learn from each other and grow from each other and innovate better and faster by learning from one another,” said Rev. Dan Milford, who’s the network’s moderator and pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in San Antonio, Texas.

Wednesday’s discussion, which is posted online, was led by Tara Rolstad, a network member, public speaker and founder of Shattering Stigma with Stories.

Lipscomb noted that some people are dealing with anger and fear related to feelings of loss of control.

“It’s important to just keep going back to the basics of our faith,” said Dr. Valerie Lipscomb during a panel hosted by the Presbyterian Mental Health Network. (Screen shot)

“I really think it’s important to just keep going back to the basics of our faith,” she said. “We’re not in control. We’re not supposed to be, right?, and to remind ourselves that it is God who is in control.” But at the same time, “it is OK to acknowledge and accept our fear and our anger and our normal human response to that but to just keep re-centering ourselves in our faith.”

Rev. Dr. Jerry Cannon, head of staff at C.N. Jenkins Memorial Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, talked about the pandemic robbing people of the “ministry of presence” by limiting home and hospital visits and keeping ministers and others from gathering around families in normal ways, such as when someone dies. He also lamented that some people have had to say their final words to dying loved ones by phone.

Another burden for some is systemic racism. “African Americans have had to deal with that stress pre-pandemic and now you have a pandemic on top of that,” he said. “Those layers are piling one on top of another,” without the church being open to affirm the affected individuals.

The Rev. Dr. Jerry Cannon tells clergy, “Don’t feel as though you have to be a one-stop shop and try to solve it all.” (Screen shot)

Cannon, a proponent of therapy, said pastors should not be reluctant to look beyond the church when a member is struggling.

“If it is outside of my boundaries, I will say not as a disclaimer but really as an offer to them and to myself, you know, ‘Can we look for outside resources?’” he said.

If you’re a clergyperson, “don’t feel as though you have to be a one-stop and try to solve it all,” he said.

Piggue said that sometimes helping people to find the right language to describe what they’re feeling can be comforting and grounding. She also said there’s value in just letting people talk, and if necessary, helping them search online for a therapist.

“Sometimes walking with people to that point is really helpful,” she said.

Finding some form of release through journaling, meditation or yoga also can be beneficial, Cannon said.

A change of perspective also might be in order. “I think it’s important to confront and realize that we aren’t going to go back to normal,” Lipscomb said. “For me, the grieving process and dealing with it as a grieving process is a positive way of looking at it. We are assured that the Holy Spirit will be with us as we grieve and will walk alongside us and comfort us.”

For more information about mental health, go here.

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