Editor’s note: May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Read the ELCA’s social message “The Body of Christ and Mental Illness.”

Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind (1 Peter 3:8).

Ever since my diagnosis of bipolar disorder in 2006, I’ve been trying hard to explain what it feels like to people who don’t live with it.

Mania? It’s more than just doing lots of things very quickly. Bipolar disorder means a racing mind, rapid-fire speech and impulsive, even reckless behavior.

Depression? It’s much more than feeling a little blue on a rainy day. On bad days, I couldn’t stop crying (even when there was no reason to cry) and had no spark of enthusiasm for life. Wild mood swings sent me reeling from one extreme to the other and back again, sometimes within hours.

Friends and family members would nod and try to comprehend, but I could tell they didn’t get it. They’d respond with sympathy, feeling sorry that I was having such a hard time. They couldn’t offer me empathy, which involves understanding and maybe even sharing my feelings.

As Christians we are called to walk in each other’s shoes, to find common ground, to love and support one another. That isn’t always easy, especially when we struggle to connect emotionally with our neighbor.

Today I’m noticing an increasing number of people in my network who are experiencing mental health challenges such as anxiety, depression and/or panic attacks—many for the first time in their lives. Statistics bear out this impression. In a U.S. tracking poll conducted last July by the Kaiser Family Foundation, more than half of respondents reported that their mental health had worsened due to worry and stress over the coronavirus. In early 2019, only 11% of adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depression. By July 2020, the number was up to 41%.

Maybe it takes a moment such as this one, when we’re facing a massive mental health crisis, to garner widespread empathy for the millions who suffer from mental illness. For those of us who know dread and worry as constant companions, this pandemic has amplified our existing conditions. Others who hadn’t experienced mental health challenges have faced fear and uncertainty. The world has collective trauma, and we’re all searching for ways to cope.

Maybe it takes a moment such as this one, when we’re facing a massive mental health crisis, to garner widespread empathy for the millions who suffer from mental illness.

Where is God in all this? My hope is that after this pandemic ends, mental illness will be better understood and be destigmatized. It turns out that we are much more similar to each other than we thought. Instead of just sympathizing with those who have mental health struggles, we can empathize with them, finally.

I’m noticing more conversations in my church and synod on the topic of mental health. Our church has not held indoor worship since March 2020, but we are making an extra effort to stay connected to one another with phone calls, Zoom get-togethers, emails and notes, in hope that we will all feel less isolated.

I’m a person who has benefited greatly from therapy, and I’m glad that, because of this pandemic, psychiatrists and psychologists have made virtual therapy sessions available to their patients. I’m thankful for the people who continue staffing suicide and other help lines, providing hugs with their listening ears and wise words when real hugs are impossible. If you are overwhelmed by fear or hopelessness, know that you are far from alone. There is hope, and there is help. I encourage you to contact one of the organizations listed below.

At long last, effective vaccines are signaling the end of this pandemic. At some point in the not-too-distant future, this crisis will be over. But what then? Will our society slide back to the way things were before, with the mentally ill stigmatized and personal emotional struggles forgotten?

When a more normal life resumes, I hope those whose anxiety and depression dissipate can continue to be mindful of the many people who continue to fight the battle inside. Perhaps this new awareness can inspire more conversations and outreach among families, neighbors and even strangers.

Jesus spent much of his time with society’s marginalized, talking with them, eating with them, listening to their stories, healing them. Could we do this for one another?

With God’s help, we can live more like Jesus in the time to come, which includes being truly present for our siblings in Christ who are in pain. Our faith communities can become a haven for members and others facing mental health challenges. They can offer a safe, nonjudgmental place to find information, connection to resources and support groups for the mentally ill and those who love them.

I pray that, long after this painful year has been consigned to history books, we remember how we felt—how everyone felt—during the COVID-19 crisis. May this new empathy, the pandemic’s silver lining, endure.

Mental health resources

Mental Health America: MHA offers a free online screening for mental health symptoms.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: The lifeline provides free, 24/7, confidential support for people in distress, and advice for mental health professionals, at 800-273-8255.

National Alliance on Mental Illness: The nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization provides information on warning signs and risk factors for suicide and resources for helping people with mental illnesses.

Crisis Text Line: Available 24 hours a day, seven days a week throughout the United States, the Crisis Text Line serves anyone in any type of crisis, connecting them with a counselor who can provide support and information. Visit crisistextline.org or text “HELLO” to 741741.

Elise Seyfried
Elise Seyfried is the author of five books of essays. Her essays have also appeared in Gather, Insider, The Independent, Chicken Soup for the Soul, HuffPost, The Philadelphia Inquirer and many other publications. Elise recently retired after 20 years as director of spiritual formation at a suburban Philadelphia ELCA church.

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