One of the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the negative impact it has on people’s mental health around the globe. When the pandemic hit home during the early days of the year 2020, many countries worldwide adopted stringent measures such as quarantine, lockdown, isolation, home-schooling, working from home, and physical/social distancing to mitigate the spread and impact of the virus. These interruptions in everyday normal life took a huge toll on people’s finances, businesses, careers, families, and various aspects of our human endeavours. These measures, in turn, led to a breakdown of people’s mental health as many people suffered from anxiety, stress, fear, depression, panic attacks, psychological trauma, feelings of loneliness and isolation, feelings of hopelessness, starvation, relationship breakdowns, mental instability, loss of confidence, and deteriorating health conditions.
Many representative studies have revealed further that the overall effect of the pandemic is even more devastating for ethnic minority groups in the Western world. In Britain for instance, it has been established that COVID-19 affected the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities in a disproportionate manner than any other people group. The story is not different in the United States of America. Certainly, the pandemic crisis has highlighted and heightened the existing inequalities in Western societies. Many of these BAME people belong to our diaspora African Christian congregations and they are not immune from these issues. Therefore, my concern in this essay is to suggest possible ways those of us who are diaspora African Christians can handle and master the state of our mental health in these difficult seasons. I want to offer the following five pragmatic solutions:
1. Acknowledge the possibility of having a mental health breakdown.
Christians often find it hard to admit they can experience a mental health crisis. This denial has done more harm than good. Because we are people of faith does not exclude us from the challenges and vicissitudes of life. In the early days of the pandemic, I had thought the impact on people’s mental health was exaggerated, or a hoax altogether. I even considered those who complain of having mental health breakdown as weaklings and faithless. Little did I realise I was inadvertently demonstrating a lack of compassion and empathy towards those going through real issues of life. However, during the second national lockdown, I had my fair share of a mental health crisis when I began to feel unstable and depressed. My instability was due to the pressure of having to cope with homeschooling my kids, going to work, looking after my church congregants, and meeting my thesis deadlines. Being stressed, depressed and anxious are possibilities of life, and Christians are not immune from them. Moses suffered burn out; Elijah was depressed and suicidal; David was distressed; even Jesus Christ in the garden of Gethsemane, on the eve of Golgotha, was sorrowful unto death. Of a truth, crisis and challenges are part of life. Jesus also did not promise us a problem-free life. What we are guaranteed is victory (John 16:33). In sum, the starting point of overcoming mental health challenges is to admit that ‘something is not well in the way I feel.’
2. Seek professional help.
Some pragmatic solutions might involve talking to an expert or a counsellor about your mental health state. If you are experiencing a mental health problem, it is okay to seek help. Seeking help is never a sign of weakness as some would think. Aside from speaking to your pastor or a Christian counsellor, you may need to speak to a professional — a doctor, psychologist, therapist, or take part in peer support activities that can help to recover your mental health. In cases where medication is required, joyfully take them. Medication is often an essential part in mental health recovery. Taking medication for mental health illness is like treating any other health conditions and Christians should wholly embrace it.
3. Compassionate care for one another.
The COVID-19 pandemic crisis offers diaspora African Christians the opportunity to care for and to look out for one another, especially as people are suffering from loneliness because of social distancing and lockdown restrictions. Christianity is a communal life, believers do life together, and this is also characteristic of life amongst Africans and African communities anywhere in the world. In Africa, the wellbeing of one is the wellbeing of all. African diaspora Christians can demonstrate our unique cultural concepts of Ubuntu and Ọmọlúàbí in reaching out to one another in these unprecedented times. While there are physical and social restrictions, digital technology has offered us a way out. We are all a phone call, a chat, a DM, a face time, or a Skype away from each other. You just might be saving a life by reaching out to that friend, church member, classmate, colleague, or neighbour. In this regard, African Church leaders must lead from the front by intensifying efforts in the ministry of care and presence for members. It is the responsibility of the Church to offer hope and encouragement to members who are troubled by the pandemic and are living in palpable fear and uncertainty of the future.
4. Guard your heart.
Mental health practitioners and professionals always suggest activities such as mindfulness, meditations, and yoga as possible ways of improving one’s mental health. For Christians, I propose that a more biblical way to keep a positive mental health and emotional wellbeing in this challenging period is to adhere to the admonition of King Solomon in Proverbs 4:23. Solomon said, “Keep your heart with all diligence, For out of it spring the issues of life” (NKJV). It is important to be wary of the news around you. The regular news of the fatality rate, the spike in numbers of infections, the possibility of another lockdown, and all the negative vibes associated with the pandemic can strip away one’s joy and happiness. Paul said in Romans 1:17 that “Faith comes by hearing…”, I must equally stress that ‘fear also comes by hearing.’ When you hear negative news regularly, they register in your heart and they impact on your mental state. Hence, the need to guard your heart diligently. Guard your heart by filtering what you listen to, what you see, and what you feed your spirit with. When it seems as if the world is coming apart, Apostle Paul instructed us on what not to do, what to do and what we should allow in order to guard our hearts and minds: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. AND THE PEACE OF GOD, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7, ESV). Yes, allow the PEACE of God to guard your heart and mind.
5. Keep your faith in God.
One of the conversations about the pandemic has been the impact it has had on people’s faith in God. Many people have again questioned the existence and the ability of God. The question of ‘where is God when it hurts’ has been asked repeatedly in the heat of the pandemic. Some have gone further to mock pastors, ministers, and prophets for their inability to predict or foresee the coming of the virus. Yet, in all these uncertainties, we must never lose faith in God. We must hold on to our faith. Africans are people of faith. We are incurable optimists in the ability of God to heal and to deliver. We are spiritual beings, and we must bring our faith to bear in confronting the present challenges of life. Faith in God is our competitive advantage as believers — “For whatever is born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world — our faith.” (1 John 5:4 NKJV). Let us continue to trust him and hold on to God’s word, victory is assured. Shalom.