COVID-19 continues to impact every aspect of our society, and we are beginning to wander through the desert of a pandemic-stricken world. As a clinical social worker, I must admit that I have been increasingly aware of the signs of depression and anxiety within my own mind and body – a general restlessness, some panic and hypervigilance around others at the grocery store, low energy and motivation and an increasingly prosaic lack of hope. For those of you who also may be new to anxiety or depression in this moment, welcome. You are not alone. You are also not the first to be on this wilderness journey. Others have gone before us.
I have had the privilege to be witness to those who have long been experiencing anxiety and depression at clinical levels. They have been pilgrims on this journey of uncertainty, loss and fear for some time. Although so much is new in this era, this is not entirely uncharted terrain, and those who have lived in this wilderness already know what it takes to survive in it, and maybe they can lead the rest of us through it.
After a series of plagues befell ancient Egypt, the Israelites journeyed out of the familiar and into the wilderness. Moses was reluctantly called from among them to be their guide. At the time of his calling, Moses had already been in exile for 40 years in the desert land of Midian. I wonder if this previous experience of exile is in part what gave Moses the capabilities to lead others through their communal exile and through the wilderness.
Much like Moses, those who have long experienced mental illness have learned how to survive in this climate and can act as guides and teachers for the rest of us now.
In my work, I have already witnessed this. I have been shepherded by those who have been experiencing social isolation for years as they shared with me how I can best spend my time and get through the days. I have encountered a growing confidence in some who are teaching coping skills they have learned along the way to others now in need.
I recently polled some of my clients to ask them what advice or insight they would give to those of us who may be new to mental illness during COVID-19 and two answers consistently emerged. The first is a calling to stay active, even if it does not seem productive. Like the Israelites, we keep walking even if we do not know when or how the journey will end. The second piece of advice is to remind yourself that there will come days when you will feel better. We will not be in the depths of the wilderness forever.
Maybe it is time that we reach out to those who have had encounters with depression and anxiety not just to check on their wellbeing; but rather to glean from their insight on how to manage our own symptoms.
We are in the wilderness together now. We have no idea how long we will be here or what lies on the other side. As we wander, may we listen to the wisdom of those among us who have been in familiar mental landscapes and allow them to usher us into a promised land.
Jon-Erik (J.E.) Misz lives in Goshen, Indiana where he works as a licensed clinical social worker. While previously serving as a youth pastor, he learned of the strong need to provide churches and church leaders with access to mental health resources. Some of his favorite people in the world have experienced mental illness, and he views their presence in our church communities as a true gift. Integrating his interest in spoken word poetry, he discusses subjects such as trauma-informed care, anxiety and depression, and adolescent mental health. He is a member of Waterford Mennonite Church, where his wife, Katie, serves on the pastoral team.