Catholics across the Diocese of Calgary are looking for ways to de-stress from the distress. Adjusting to the new normal foisted on the global community by COVID-19, a disease that didn’t even have a name just weeks ago, thousands are live-streaming daily and Sunday masses. Others turn to traditional Catholic prayers like the rosary and Divine Mercy chaplet, seeking grace for the dead, the sick, their families and caregivers.
Sr. Donna Marie Perry, FCJ, knows the news is bad. But the Calgary-based social worker and psychotherapist wants people to remember that the steps we take to stay “physically healthy should also include a focus on our mental and spiritual well-being.”
That earns a quick nod from Dr. Peter Doherty, an associate professor of psychology and family studies at St. Mary’s University in Calgary. Dr. Doherty, whose work focuses on the integration of psychology and spirituality, agrees people should take mental health issues seriously in times of crisis.
Mental health matters
Sr. Perry is the clinical director of Insight Counselling and Therapy Centre. This not-for-profit offers long-term counselling at sliding rates as low as $5 a visit. Insight delivers care through practicum students supervised by Sr. Perry. All of the students are finishing master of counselling programs with various universities. The organization is one of the community-based organizations that benefits from Together in Action, an annual fundraising campaign by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Calgary. Given the imperatives of “social distancing” during the pandemic, Insight’s students currently offer support via phone.
Sr. Perry herself lives in a seniors’ residence with strict pandemic protocols. With St. Mary’s University shuttered, Dr. Doherty is also staying close to home. They offered readers of Faithfully some ideas about how to make mental health a priority in trying times.
Stay informed. Make healthy choices. “Fear is a healthy response to the situation, and it makes sense to stay informed. But let’s be smart about how much news we watch and read,” says Sr. Perry. She recommends people listen to morning updates and check in again in the afternoon or evening. A 24-hour news cycle includes a lot of recycled information and “when you’re hearing the same news all the time that increases stress,” says Sr. Perry.
Hoarding items as basic as toilet paper shows “an emotional response to the crisis that doesn’t make rational sense,” adds Dr. Doherty. He also shakes his head when he sees examples of people not following recommendations for safe social interaction.
One of the healthiest ideas he’s seen to date suggests people “not act as if you’re afraid of getting the virus. Instead, act as if you are trying to protect other people from getting it. The best information we have says most people who get this virus will survive. But we need to protect those who are vulnerable.” People who follow that advice should take mental comfort in knowing they are doing the right thing, says Dr. Doherty.
Strengthen family ties. The social distancing protocols recommended by public health officials isolate family units. Sr. Perry’s urges families to use the time to your family’s advantage. Play games. Share meals. Go for walks where you can be 2 m from other people. If you have a backyard, use it.
Reach out. “It’s like we are disconnected, together,” says Dr. Doherty. Since our own mental health benefits when we interact with others, this is a good time to phone, text, email, FaceTime or Skype with people we haven’t heard from in a while, “especially if we know people who might be alone.”
This is also a good time to reach out to people whom we’ve hurt and vice versa. The words, “I forgive you,” are a way to free ourselves from the heavy, energy-sapping emotional burdens we carry when we haven’t let go of real or imagined hurts, says Dr. Doherty. This kind of pain bleeds into how we interact with others and how we handle strife. “It can keep us from handling unrelated situations well.”
Pray. Pray together. Dr. Doherty encourages people of faith to use prayer as a conduit to deeper conversion. When we pray for the isolated, for those who’ve lost jobs and for people on the front lines of health care, prayer becomes a way to reach past ourselves to Christ, says Dr. Doherty. This can be helpful for people who grieve the fact that they cannot attend mass to receive the Eucharist.
Family prayer is also helpful, says Sr. Perry. Praying for others teaches children that prayer is a way of helping others—and it reminds adults of the same thing. “It’s really important not to get caught up in ‘self’ and to keep looking outward,” says Sr. Perry.
“Prayer can be very relaxing, too,” notes Sr. Perry. Following the Jesuit tradition of her charism, she uses her evening prayers “to look back on the day, to think about what went well and what didn’t go as well and to give thanks to God for the day.”
She’s added more Hail Marys to her day by reciting that prayer while she lathers her soapy hands for the requisite 20 seconds (as recommended by public health), prior to rinsing off the soap with water. Sr. Perry says the Hail Mary is a good replacement for singing the ABCs or Happy Birthday songs.
Listen. Talk. Be kind.
People manage stress differently. If you see more anger than you’re used to, remember that unresolved fear may be expressed as anger, explains Sr. Perry. She encourages parents to listen when their kids talk about their fears. Be open to their questions and offer age-appropriate responses. “Let them know that you don’t know everything, but you will figure it out together.”
Also, remember that children internalize messages from the external world and believe that everything that happens relates to them. It’s a matter of maturity, not selfishness, says Sr. Perry. “Children internalize information to make sense of their environment with limited experience. They use that information to make decisions about themselves and the world. They build what we call a script, and we live out of those childhood beliefs.”
Laugh often. Love much. With so much doom and gloom, Sr. Perry suggests people who are feeling sad work some comedy into their screen time.
She and Dr. Doherty admit they are especially worried about individuals and families who did not go into the current pandemic in strong mental health. “Not all families are healthy,” says Sr. Perry. She urges people who see others struggling to reach out with kindness. Where appropriate, you can also recommend they access support from community-based organizations.
Calgary Distress Centre Helpline: 403-266-HELP (4357)
Written by Joy Gregory for Faithfully
Catholic Pastoral Centre Staff and Guest Writers