Dr. Jack Graham: Coronavirus – My battle with depression has an important lesson for this crisis

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This week, like millions of Americans across the nation, I have been heeding the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recommendation to practice social distancing.

For the most part, I have hunkered down at home, avoided public places and large gatherings, traded handshakes and hugs for elbow bumps and maintained the recommended six-foot distance between me and other people.

As the coronavirus pandemic charges forward across our cities and neighborhoods, it has never been more important to heed the warnings and advice doctors and public officials have given us. Doing so may very well save your life and the lives of others around you.

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Yet, I worry that in our efforts to protect ourselves and others from contracting the COVID-19 illness, people may not only be distancing themselves from others physically but also relationally. In some ways, this type of emotional isolation can be just as dangerous as COVID-19.

We must make sure that no man, woman or child falls through the cracks at this critical time in America’s history.

Before the coronavirus reached America, our nation was already grappling with a burgeoning mental health crisis.

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More than 17 million American adults experienced a major depressive episode in 2017, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. The CDC estimates that 1.9 million children have been diagnosed with some form of depression. Anxiety, which is often associated with depression, affects 40 million adults and 4.4 million children.

Most concerning, suicide rates in America have skyrocketed, becoming the second leading cause of death for young adults and teenagers, and the fourth for adults 35-54 years old.

What’s more, there is a loneliness epidemic in America. Last year, Cigna, a health insurance provider, released its 2018 U.S. Loneliness Index. The report’s introduction contains a startling fact: “Loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it even more dangerous than obesity.”

After surveying 20,000 adults, Cigna found that two in five of them felt isolated, that they lacked companionship and that their relationships were not meaningful. The study also found that members of Generation Z and millennials were the two loneliest generations in America.

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I have battled depression and I know the dangers of isolation. Depression cuts you off from the people and activities that bring you life. You end up caging yourself physically and emotionally from others and that can cripple your relationships and spiritual well-being.

During this unsettling time of self-quarantining and social distancing, it is imperative that we are proactive in reaching out to others — whether we are struggling with depression ourselves or know someone who is. Now is not the time to give up on one another. On the contrary: now is the time to be even more intentional about community.

Furthermore, we must make a point of not only caring for those who are vulnerable to COVID-19 — the elderly and those with weakened or compromised immune systems — but also the people in our community who are at risk of depression and even suicide.

This is why our church has encouraged young adults to contact every senior adult (70 and over) on our membership list. What’s wonderful about this exercise is that they can meet each other’s needs: young adults can help seniors grocery shop and make sure they are taken care of during this time, and seniors can share their wealth of knowledge and experiences with young adults, making them feel connected and seen.

Although we may be prevented from physically fellowshipping together, we can still care for and love those around us.

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I encourage you to reach out to friends, family members and neighbors by phone or over social media. If you know someone who may not have easy access to either, send them a letter or a care package to let them know they are not alone.

We must make sure that no man, woman or child falls through the cracks at this critical time in America’s history.

As we wash our hands to protect ourselves and others from COVID-19, let’s always remember that Jesus called us to wash our neighbor’s feet — whether in person or not.

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