Relationality, Mental Ill-health, and the Coronavirus

Richard EdlinThe CACE Roundtable1 Comment

Woman struggling with depression watches out window
“Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ.” – Colossians 4:2-3

During a recent workshop at vibrant St Andrew’s Cathedral School in Sydney, Australia, senior chaplain Craig Tubman offered a reflection on the words in the box above, from Paul’s letter to the Christians in Colossae. In addition to urging the Colossians to be prayerful, Paul tells them to “be watchful.” Craig suggested that the word “watch” is normally taken to mean that we should be proactive in thwarting the flaming darts of the evil one. True. However, especially in the light of the subsequent clause where Paul asks for prayer that God may open doors to the gospel, Craig also helpfully suggested that the word “watch” could refer to being alert, understanding, and discerning, so that we can watch out for opportunities God presents to share Jesus and the hope of the gospel in daily life around us.

Let’s take this concept of being watchful “in daily life around us” a bit further. For Paul at the time of writing his Colossian letter, this meant looking out for gospel opportunities during his two years of imprisonment under house arrest in Rome (Acts 28:16-31). For us in July/August 2020, not only does this mean watching out for God at work in education, but it also means seeing opportunity for ministry and service in Jesus’ name, in the midst of the coronavirus epidemic.

For example, take the issue of mental health. In July, The Atlantic reported as follows:

[In the light of the virus], a third of Americans are feeling severe anxiety, according to Census Bureau data, and nearly a quarter show signs of depression. A recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that the pandemic had negatively affected the mental health of 56 percent of adults. In April, texts to a federal emergency mental-health line were up 1,000 percent from the year before.

https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2020/07/coronavirus-special-mental-health-disaster/613510/

Dr James Hamlin, from the Yale School of Public Health, in an article in May 2020, suggested that, “Feelings of numbness, powerlessness, and hopelessness are now so common [due to the virus] as to verge on being considered normal.”

Here is a situation where a biblical worldview gives us both insights into one primary cause of this mental ill-health crisis, and also a way out of it.

Looking through a biblical lens, we should not be surprised that even among many pandemic recoverees, the stress of social isolation, of being separated from the diversity of rich social interaction, is becoming overwhelming. Why is this? The answer, found in Genesis 1, is that God made us for relationship and not for isolation. God decided to make humanity in his own image. Because God is perfectly relational in the Trinity, so humans were made relational as well. God further empowered this interactive characteristic by creating Eve, so that Adam need not be alone in the garden. We are created as relational beings, and when things like pandemic-induced and government-enforced social isolation interfere with that creational reality, our well-being and mental health suffer. Hence the current crisis.

This is an example of watching out for how events in daily life reflect the reality of how God has made his world. We suffer because we were made for relationship, not isolation – which also probably is also one reason why the Scriptures encourage Christians not to neglect meeting together on a regular basis (Hebrews 10:25).

This biblical insight that humans are divinely created as relational creatures gives us wonderful on-ramps into the public discourse. During the current epidemic, educators are recognizing once again that boys and girls learn best in relationship with other people. This process can be assisted, but never replaced by, technology such as Zoom and other computer-based aids. Imagine the great discussion that we could have with teachers such as educational entrepreneur Dave Eggers who has published a new book entitled Unnecessarily Beautiful Spaces for Young Minds on Fire. In an interview in July 2020, Eggers commented:

The human connection is everything. This distance learning moment during the pandemic has really proved that technology only gets you so far. Every teacher I know says they’re working three times harder than ever, in part because of all the overlapping and flawed technology. Teaching in a room with humans is far easier and far more effective, they say, and that’s what we’ve seen for 20 years, too: That one human can adjust, can try eight different strategies with a student in a given session, altering their approach, responding to what the student’s needs are—adjusting, cajoling, strategizing. And encouraging. Machines will never do any of that as well as humans can, and the more we move learning online and into algorithmic realms, the more these human connections will be crucial to deeper learning and the emotional well-being of young people.

https://www.edutopia.org/article/human-connection-everything-dave-eggers-what-hes-learned-tutoring-students

Of course, the primary relationship that God made us for, is with himself. Thus God walked and talked with Adam and Eve in the Garden, a relationship that was abruptly and terribly broken by Adam and Eve’s sin.

But wait! There’s good news! God has offered up a way for this relationship to be restored through Jesus his son.

So we as Christians have a transcendent insight into aspects of the cause of pandemic-related mental ill-health. We can help people understand why they feel the way they do in the light of COVID-19 and God’s relational creativity at the beginning of time. Then, we also have a glorious opportunity to share the Good News that this primary relationship can be restored through Jesus, a relationality that can form the foundation and pattern for effective and flourishing human relationships in education, business, family etc., as well. And, of course, we live and share hope because whatever social isolation may occur today, Psalm 139 wonderfully reminds us that Christians are never really alone.

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One Comment on “Relationality, Mental Ill-health, and the Coronavirus”

  1. Thanks Richard. Another good example of how the Biblical worldview has something to say into every human circumstance.

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