Mental health days

Father David Epps's picture

Some professions are filled with stress. Every job has stress, of course, and some amounts of stress are considered good for performance. But there are those careers where stress can lead to burn-out and can become debilitating: air traffic controllers, firefighters, police officers, soldiers, emergency room workers, paramedics, for example ... and the list goes on and on.

When I was a social worker in Tennessee, my primary responsibility was as a child protective services investigator and counselor. While my official title was “social counselor,” it didn’t begin to describe the stress that came with the job.

Over the few years I served, I encountered beaten, sexually abused and exploited, malnourished, even starved, children. And deaths — I saw deaths. When I typed the first draft of this article, I went into detail about what I had encountered. My secretary said the information was too graphic and disturbing, so I have edited it out. Suffice it to say, that I had nightmares for years about what I had seen and experienced.

On that job, I was screamed at, cursed at, spit at, punched at, grabbed at, stabbed at, and shot at. I used to tell people that all that just prepared me for the annual church business meetings. My family’s life was threatened twice (mine more often) and I suppose that I had to remove dozens and dozens of children from their families, which was always a dangerous and emotional time.

I had a supervisor who kept an eye on her staff. When she felt that we were on the raw edge, she would say, “I want you to take a ‘mental health day’ tomorrow.” In reality, it was a sick day but everyone understood that you weren’t really sick — physically, at least. But it did mean that you were close to being non-functional because of what you had seen, encountered, and been forced to do.

The average case load in my office was 50 families, every one of them ripe with the potential for disaster. So, when the boss said to take a mental health day, you did. It meant that, on that day, you slept late, read, took a walk, went to a movie, worked on a project around the house — but you didn’t call the office, didn’t watch TV shows that reminded you of work, and, if possible, you spent time with your own children.

Once in a great while, I still take mental health days. The ministry seems as though it would be much less stressful than child protective services, but it has its own unique and unrelenting pressures that are not obvious to most people.

In my years of ministry, I have seen every aspect of the human condition, both positive and negative. Most of the time, I enjoy what I do but, once in a great while, I “hit the wall” and need to step back and stand down. I suspect that most people get stressed out at times, whatever their profession.

When situations begin to pile up over a compressed period of time, the only real short-term solution is a mental health day — for me, that means a day of rest, of prayer, of time in the scriptures, of being still before God. It is a time of turning off the telephone for a day, of staying off the internet, of being alone. It is a time to remember the two rules of ministry: (1) There is a God. (2) You are not Him.

The problems will still be there tomorrow but, as I have discovered, a mental health day will give one the ability to serve and perform just a little better, and, in the long run, do a better job. Even Jesus took short breaks where he pulled away from the multitudes, from his responsibilities, and even from his own disciples. Those who find themselves stressed should remember this:

“But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint” (Isaiah 40:31 KJV).

Sounds like a mental health day to me.

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