By Kent E. Fillinger
The full impact of COVID-19 goes well beyond the number of confirmed cases, the death toll, and the unemployment rate that many are tracking. The pandemic has exacerbated several preexisting problems like anxiety, depression, suicide, child abuse, drug abuse, and others. These often overlooked “killers” are affecting scores of Americans today, and some experts say these conditions have reached epidemic proportions.
Dr. Elinore McCance-Katz, assistant U.S. secretary for mental health and substance use, said in late May, “The increase in the number of suicides, fatal drug overdoses and instances of domestic abuse will be broad, deep and long-lasting.”
Knowing the facts about each of these can lead to better decisions and provide new direction for churches that have a heart to help the hurting and a vision to meet the needs of their communities.
MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES
Millions of Americans struggled with depression before COVID-19. But studies have found a link between social isolation and depression. A quarantine combined with the escalating uncertainty caused by the pandemic fueled feelings of hopelessness and helplessness that are hallmarks of depression.
A March 25 American Psychiatric Association (APA) report noted that more than one-third of Americans said the pandemic had a “serious impact” on their mental health. The National Alliance on Mental Illness said calls and emails to its help line jumped 40 percent in only two weeks when coronavirus-related shutdowns started in mid-March. A May 21 APA report said that among parents with children under 18, almost half (46 percent) rated their average pandemic-related stress level as an 8, 9, or 10 on a 10-point scale. Officials warned that stress levels could worsen if there is a second lockdown.
New prescriptions for anti-anxiety medications in the United States rose 10.2 percent to 9.7 million in March 2020 from 8.8 million in March 2019. New prescriptions for antidepressants rose 9.2 percent to 29.7 million in the same period. The available information did not include data on whether dosages for existing prescriptions increased during that time frame. This means more than 1 in 10 Americans (12 percent) are now likely taking either anti-anxiety medications or antidepressants.
It’s wise to note that these medications are powerful drugs that can quickly become addictive or create a psychological dependence. Overdose deaths involving anti-anxiety medications (benzodiazepines) more than quadrupled between 1999 and 2013, according to a 2016 study published in the American Journal of Public Health.
Ideas for How Your Church Can Respond
• Talk openly about mental health issues to reduce the stigma often associated with them.
• Partner with a Christian counselor in your area to teach biblical principles for dealing with stress, anxiety, and depression.
• Provide financial resources to pay the way for some to meet one-on-one with a counselor to get additional help.
• Participate in or even host a K-LOVE Crisis Response Training class (see www.crisisresponse.org for more information).
A June 4 Wall Street Journal headline caught my eye: “Child-abuse reports are falling, and that’s bad news for children.” That headline might sound like a mistake to some. But a decrease in the number of child-abuse reports is not the same as a decrease in child abuse. The reduction in reporting is the result of the pandemic forcing nationwide school closures in March. No school means that teachers, day care workers, and others who are required by law to flag abuse they suspect is occurring are no longer around children to keep a watchful eye. Without monitoring of this type, child abuse often goes unchecked and unreported.
Across the country, pediatricians and emergency-room doctors say they are seeing an increase or at least a steady flow of severe child abuse and neglect, including reports of infants beaten and killed, children admitted for drug ingestion, older siblings hurting younger kids, and children falling out of windows.
During the 2008 recession, hospitals reported a surge in infant head-trauma abuse cases as unemployment numbers increased, thus revealing a strong correlation between financial stress and violence/abuse of children. Dr. Robert Sege, a child-abuse pediatrician in Boston, said, “Most child abuse and neglect happens when families reach the end of their rope.”
Ideas for How Your Church Can Respond
• Provide a “Newborn Night for New Parents” where parents in your community can receive free childcare to have a night off to rest, relax, and retool.
• Have your children’s ministry offer a free workshop for young families on how to balance their budget during a pandemic.
• Offer free financial coaching to parents who have lost a job or experienced a pay cut.
• Lighten the financial burden for young families in your community by offering to pay one bill for them (up to a set dollar amount).
• Partner with a local child-abuse prevention organization to educate people on how to identify abuse and to report it properly.
MARRIAGE AND FAMILY PLANNING
When the COVID-19 quarantine began in March, I saw many social media posts predicting a baby boom nine months later. I doubt this will actually occur because during the 2008 recession we saw young millennials defer marriage, homeownership, and childbearing because of economic insecurity.
That appears to be the case again this time. A May survey by the Guttmacher Institute found that more than 40 percent of women reported that because of the COVID-19 pandemic, they changed their plans about when to have children or how many children to have. The changes in fertility preferences were more common among women who have no children than among those who already do (45 percent vs. 38 percent). Overall, one-third of women (34 percent) wanted to get pregnant later or wanted fewer children because of the pandemic.
In addition to this shift in thinking, many fertility clinics closed during the initial wave of COVID-19, which delayed procedures that were planned and pushed back the timeline for many potential pregnancies.
The U.S. birthrate was already at a record low prior to COVID-19, and the pandemic is expected to push it even lower.
COVID-19 also interfered with many weddings this spring as the lockdowns prompted couples to postpone their nuptials due to health concerns and gathering restrictions.
Finances are the number-one reason why people say they don’t get married. Only one-quarter of Americans making less than $25,000 a year are married, compared with 60 percent of people earning more than $125,000.
Ideas for How Your Church Can Respond
• Spotlight some couples who have weathered the storms of marriage in a sermon to help singles and married folks benefit from the lessons these couples have learned (avoid the pitfall of idolizing or overidealizing marriage).
• Offer a free workshop on how to reduce debt or create a budget.
• Start adjusting now to a new form of ministry (from a strategic focus of primarily reaching married couples with children, a shrinking demographic, to ministering to couples with no children).
If you feel overwhelmed or depressed from reading through these statistics or ideas, I encourage you to take the following steps:
- Prepare by talking to local health or government officials to see which of these issues (or other ones) have most affected your neighbors because of the pandemic.
- Pray for discernment and ask God to give your church leaders and staff direction on how your church can best respond to meet one new need in your community.
- Pick one need or issue your church will focus on and select a strategy or program to use in response to this need.
- Plan and budget for your new ministry outreach to ensure the time and resources needed are available to make an impact in your church and community.
Kent E. Fillinger serves as president of 3:STRANDS Consulting, Indianapolis, Indiana, and regional vice president (Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan) with Christian Financial Resources.