by Grant F. Sontag
I don’t think there’s any question that, for most of us, the structures put into place to prevent the spread of Covid-19 are as annoying as they are necessary. We want to protect ourselves and those in our communities from contracting—or spreading—the Coronavirus. We have been well informed that those most at risk are persons in senior residences or nursing homes, and those with pre-existing conditions that can jeopardize health.
Missing from public discussion until now has been the added stress that sheltering in place and the need to maintain “physical distance” ( the term preferred by the World Health Organization) can place on those affected by mental and emotional illness. Human beings, like all mammals, require social interaction and nurturing in order to survive. There is an unpleasant irony that, by taking the necessary steps to prevent the spread of Covid-19, we might at the same time be exposing ourselves to serious mental illness. For those, like myself, with pre-existing mental health conditions, adding social isolation and emotional detachment to the situation can become toxic.
Thankfully, Tamron Hall devoted a recent edition of her talk show (via streaming video) to the problems these deficits can have on alcoholics and persons with other addictions. Understandably, some with even long-term sobriety have experienced relapses. One mother spoke about the recent suicide of her teenage son, brought about in part by his feeling isolated from his support system, which often extends beyond immediate family members. I myself came through a frightening ordeal of suicidal ideation, something I have experienced only once before, and that was 24 years ago. Two weeks after the shelter in place was ordered this March, I was sitting at my kitchen table to take my normal bedtime medication when all of a sudden I was enveloped by a feeling of despondency and alarm. Unthinkingly, I began to count the number of pills in one of the jars, trying to calculate how many I would need to take in order to do myself in. Based on my past experience I made a phone call instead—to a psychiatrist at Stanford, where I go monthly for mental health maintenance.
Reaching out for help in a time of need does not come naturally to everyone. For me it is a learned behavior. Even with all the progress our society has made in understanding and treating mental illness, there can still be a certain stigma in contacting a psychiatrist. Even though it was 4:00 in the morning—I was so anxious I hadn’t slept —Dr. L. was kind, patient and understanding. She asked if I had written a suicide note (I had not) or if I had a plan (I did). She said I could be admitted to the hospital if I wanted but that she had to weigh my mental health needs against the (slim) possibility that I might actually contract Covid-19 while there. In my tortured frame of mind I was actually thinking maybe catching the virus might be an effective way to escape the tremendous pressure from anxiety and despair I was feeling.
In 1996 when I first became suicidal following a massive stroke that rendered me disabled, a friend said to me, “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” In fact, it feels like just the opposite: I can get out of my permanent distraught feelings through the seemingly “temporary” solution of death. Suicidal ideation (obsessing about suicide without necessarily acting on those impulses) is irrational in nature, so a little mental jolt to bring one’s thinking back into reality can help. This is why a few years ago I was glad to see the suicide prevention signs go up alongside the Caltrain tracks on the Peninsula. They say “Stop! If you are thinking about harming yourself, you can call this number for help,” and it gives instructions in both English and Spanish. Something as seemingly simple as this might actually save a life. What feels permanent—the loss of a job, the end of a relationship, devastating health news—may not last forever.
One of the things we can do for others caught in a web of self-destructive feelings is to assure them that it’s OK to ask for help. It’s sign of strength, not weakness! After all, if we have chronic chest pain or vision problems we would go see a doctor, not just try to “tough it out.” It’s no different for mental illness. There are also important roles for the rest of us to play. Everyone needs caring friends who aren’t afraid to listen to us without becoming judgmental. Most of us are already so hard on ourselves—I am–that we don’t need someone else to come down on us too. And remember that individuals may feel most free when talking to someone outside their immediate family—and that includes the church family too! However, the church family can pray—that is something we are good at! I have been buoyed over the years—and again in recent weeks—by the support and prayers from my church community. I feel much better now than I did in March.
As we pause on May 17, UCC Mental Health Awareness Sunday, let us contemplate who in our community circles may most benefit from something we can do. Don’t be afraid to offer an in-person visit, maintaining safety protocols of course. Thankfully, the damages from the Coronavirus will eventually pass. Mental illness, however, is here to stay.
The Rev. Grant F. Sontag is the former Minister for Biblical and Theological Foundations in Education with the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries in Cleveland, Ohio. He is a member of First Congregational Church of Palo Alto.