Churches meeting mental health needs brace for COVID-19 fallout

April 24th, 2020 / By: Bonnie Pritchett | TEXAN Correspondent / comments

“Global pandemic.”

It’s a term that can strike fear in the hearts of anyone—even those who trust in God’s sovereignty. But for those living with mental health disorders the COVID-19 pandemic adds angst upon angst. And while the various stay-at-home orders may slow the spread of the virus, isolation and a break from normal routine accelerates the onset of anxiety and stress for some.

“Isolation is one of the breeding grounds for more anxiety and depression,” said Nicole Fitzpatrick, a licensed psychologist and director of counseling at Hyde Park Baptist Church Counseling Center. Depression and anxiety are two sides to the same coin she said.

Mike Schumacher said the months-long anxiety stoked by COVID-19—compounded by a ravaged economy—can exact a toll from once healthy lives and relationships. Schumacher, director of Sagemont Church Counseling Center, is a licensed professional counselor and licensed marriage and family therapist.

“I don’t think we’ve thought through the outcome,” Schumacher said of the pandemic and the government response.

Schumacher and Fitzpatrick spoke with the TEXAN in March as diagnoses of COVID-19 rose exponentially in some regions of the country and local and state governments ordered residents to stay at home and practice social distancing.

“It’s not only catastrophic just for a handful of people,” said Schumacher. “But all of us are going to have struggles. This is a chronic long-term traumatic situation. It’s going to have some long-term implications.”

Typically, Fitzpatrick meets virtually with 30-40 percent of her clients who live in Austin and around the world. But in March both counseling centers closed their doors to all in-person meetings and moved all client meetings to online or teleconferences.

‘It’s normal to struggle’

Since the days of the early church, Christians have sought to alleviate human suffering by caring for the sick, widowed and orphaned. Meeting physical needs opened the door for communicating the gospel and humanity’s fundamental need for redemption. But physical security and comforts could not assuage fears, anxieties and depression brought on by external circumstances or mental illness.

In the wake of the COVID-19 global pandemic, Fitzpatrick and Schumacher anticipate an increase in clients. Some will have pre-existing mental health problems. Some will be returning clients. Others with no diagnosed health issues may simply want help processing what has happened.

More than 30 years ago members of Hyde Park Baptist Church and Sagemont Church saw the need for mental health care in their respective communities. They opened counseling centers to offer healing along with the hope that is found only in Christ.

Christians “are not immune from struggle, from mental illness. It’s normal to struggle” Schumacher said. And after three decades of developing relationships in their communities and speaking to churches and ministry groups, he said, Christians increasingly view mental health care as part of overall health care. Fitzpatrick said most Christians recognize that caring for others —spiritually, mentally and physically—requires they care for themselves in the same way.

“You can’t pour from an empty vessel,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s not living truth. People see that.”

Mental health in the church, by the church

Biblical counseling and church-sponsored support groups play important roles in the church, Schumacher said, but some individuals also benefit from professional counseling. Effective lay counselors work in partnership with those counselors and can refer their clients for individual care.

The Austin and Houston centers treat the whole person with “Christ-centered” counseling. Their licensed counselors “… offer a broad range of expertise to treat conditions including addictive behavior, anxiety and depression, compulsive behavior and substance abuse. The centers also offer premarital and marriage counseling.”.

Their clients are children and adults. They are Christians and non-Christians. Most of Sagemont’s clients come from the congregation. Most of Hyde Park’s come from the community. Others are referred by their home churches and a network of individuals and ministries.

They struggle with a wide-range of mental health disorders, and are referred to staff members who specialize in specific areas of care.

Clients may meet with a counselor for a few sessions learning skills they can apply independently without further meetings. Others require long-term care—weekly sessions for a few years. Putting off counseling only exacerbates the problem and inevitably requires longer care, Schumacher said.

Their convictions about how clients might be perceived dictate where their ministries are located. The Sagemont Counseling Center is located off campus. Christians seeking mental health care should not have their struggles compounded by shame. Schumacher said his clients need the assurance that their visits will be unobserved by fellow church members or staff.

“It’s hard to share, ‘I’m struggling with depression or Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and I’m not doing well,” he said. Many of the pastors and missionaries he sees have no confidant within their respective ministries and they “feel trapped” and want privacy.

Originally established off campus, the Hyde Park Counseling Center is now in the church building. First-time clients must pass through the church to get to the offices, reminding clients—if they were uncertain—of the ministry’s Christ-centered ethos. Returning clients are given a pass code to enter the offices from the street.

If the centers’ locations do not testify to the foundation of their work, the initial interview should leave clients with no doubt. They are asked about their faith and informed of the centers’ biblically-based approach to treating the whole person. Agreeing to that approach is part of the contract between client and counselor.

That approach is what draws most Christians to their facilities, Fitzpatrick and Schumacher said. Even non-Christians will concede to the approach. All of them are looking for answers.

“There’s a lot of hope in that,” said Fitzpatrick.

The counseling centers incorporate the gospel into their sessions but differ on the approach.

“We pretty much bring [the gospel] in immediately. Life is too short not to share the gospel,” Fitzpatrick said.

Schumacher said sometimes the preliminary interview does not adequately assess a client’s relationship with Christ. That requires each counselor to discern how to effectively intertwine the gospel into each session. His hope is that healing and spiritual growth occur simultaneously.

But some clients bring anger toward God or the church into the sessions he said. For them, forgiveness becomes part of the healing and spiritual growth process.

Both Sagemont Church Counseling Center and Hyde Park Baptist Church Counseling Center are part of their respective churches but their operational models differ. Sagemont Church offsets operational costs so counselors can charge a lower-than-standard rate.

Hyde Park Counseling Center is funded by the professional-rate fees they charge.

Neither center turns away prospective clients because they cannot pay. Hyde Park offers scholarships and both centers will work with individuals to establish affordable rates.

Identity in Christ

The Christian life is not one of ease Schumacher said. Messages from pastors and teachers that preach otherwise—especially during global chaos—can be destructive.

In March both counselors said fears of COVID-19, isolation and economic ruin will take their toll on people’s mental health—even for the most faithful Christians. And, as with the coronavirus, no one is immune from the contagions of fear and anxiety.

In that climate people long for normalcy and the human connection daily routines provide. Even with the ability to “over-connect” electronically, screen time does not replace the sense of community people need, especially in a time of crisis said Fitzpatrick. While grateful that technology allows them to continue counseling, both said returning to a normal schedule that includes in-person engagement will help relieve anxious clients.

“There’s going to have to be some healing after this,” said Fitzpatrick.

Remembering who is in control of everything can bring peace to anxious hearts and minds. Fitzpatrick said Romans 5 “brought freedom to my soul” and she wants to share that with her clients. When the world and their lives seem out of control, understanding who they are in Christ begins the healing process.