Pastor’s Column: Mental Health in the Bleak Midwinter

Jim Coppoc, Ripley United Church of Christ.

Here’s an experiment. An object lesson. Think about the last 20 people you met. Picture their faces in your mind. Think about their lives, their dreams. Think about the people they matter to, and the people who matter to them.

If statistics hold, over the next few months one of these people will suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder. Another four will deal with milder symptoms of the same malady. Six of them will have an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. Four have a substance use disorder. One is thinking about suicide.

In addition to these conditions, 13 of the 20 people you are holding in your mind suffered a trauma in childhood so severe that it has a good chance of affecting them for the rest of their lives.

Now add the holidays. The pressure of gift giving, care taking, decorating. The memories of friends and family who aren’t here anymore to celebrate. Imagine those who have no family, or a family who does not accept them. Imagine those who will silently suffer in the same room as their abuser this holiday season for the sake of keeping the peace.

At this point, if you have been holding these 20 people with any sort of empathy, your heart should ache for them. You should be desperate to find something, anything, that can help your 20 people get through this difficult season in health and resilience. You should be ready to do something about it.

As Christians and as humans, we are called to practice empathy for “the least of these” – the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the needy, the sick and the oppressed. We are called to the kind of empathy that actually takes action – that does something about the conditions we see.

In grad school, I studied trauma. I studied the statistics and pathology in an academic framework, and I experienced it close up through a six-month chaplaincy internship in hospital and hospice care. I have also made a career of behavioral health and social work in my “day job” advocating for integrated mental health care. In all of this, I learned that one of the key factors that determines whether a person will thrive and survive in trauma or mental health crisis is “connection” versus “isolation.” How connected does this person feel to other humans? How present are natural supports in their lives? Are they wanted? Are they loved?

The Center for Disease Control tells us that increased risk factors for social isolation and loneliness are:

having a lower income (less than $50,000/year);

having a psychiatric or depressive disorder;

being marginalized or discriminated against;

challenges to accessing resources, such as living in rural areas, limited transportation, or language barriers;

stress due to a lack of resources;

having a chronic disease or condition;

having a long-term disability;

being unmarried, unpartnered, or living alone;

being a victim of violence or abuse; or

major life transitions like getting divorced, losing a job, or loss of a loved one.

Does that list remind you of anyone in your 20? Does that list remind you of you?

One of my favorite Christmas hymns is Christina Rossetti’s 1872 classic, “In the Bleak Midwinter.” This song calls out the conditions we all face at this time of year – the cold, the dark, the earth hard as iron, snow on snow. It develops the “stable place” that held Christ’s family in the traditional telling of the Christmas story. It talks about “enough” – a breastful of milk, a mangerful of hay. It mentions how Jesus’ mother was the only one to worship him with a kiss. In the final verse, this hymn asks, “what can I give him, poor as I am,” then answers,

If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb

If I were a wise man, I would do my part,

Yet what can I give him, give my heart

In this coming season, when so many struggle with trauma, mental health, and the pressures of the holidays, let us give each other our hearts. Let us invite each other into our homes, our churches and fellowship, our lives. Let us offer the empathy and presence and love the Holidays should be known for.

And as always, if ever any of this becomes too much to handle, let us remember that help is out there. Call or text the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988, or text “HOME” to 741741. Locally, the Your Life Iowa Crisis Line can be reached at yourlifeiowa.org.

Other resources, from food to housing to mental health care, can be found by dialing 211 or downloading the 211 Iowa app from the United Way.

Sometimes the midwinter really can be bleak. But you are not alone.

Jim Coppoc serves the Ripley United Church of Christ at 400 S. Main St. in Traer. He lives in Ames and Traer, and also holds a “day job” as Director of Integrated Health Services for Center Associates in Marshalltown and Toledo. Jim can be found online at www.facebook.com/jim.at.ripley.