Daniel Whitehead interviewing Karen Giesbrecht on Zoom

Mental Health, Faith & COVID-19 With Karen Giesbrecht

Karen GiesbrechtPodcast, Podcast COVID

Mental Health, Faith, and COVID-19 with Karen Giesbrecht from Sanctuary Mental Health on Vimeo.

Episode Description:

Karen Giesbrecht, a registered dietitian based in Vancouver, Canada, shares her experiences working with food programs in the city during COVID-19. She highlights the pandemic’s impacts on food security in vulnerable communities, and discusses the relationship between food and mental health.

A Note of Caution: This episode of The Sanctuary Podcast includes content related to nutrition and dieting that may be sensitive for some listeners, so please use your discretion about whether listening feels safe for you at this time. Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries does not provide medical aid or nutrition advice. This episode is for informational purposes concerning food programs only.

Read Karen Giesbrecht’s blog post, Re-imagining Community Around The Table, on The Sanctuary Blog.

Running time: 29:15

Release date: June 26, 2020

Update on The Sanctuary Podcast:

During these extraordinary times, while we can’t be with each other physically, we can reach out through screens and over phones, and we can share our stories with each other. Join Sanctuary’s CEO, Daniel Whitehead, as he interviews pastors, front line workers, ministry leaders, and friends about their experience of the pandemic and where they are making meaning and finding hope in the ups and downs of this season.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Happy Colon, Happy Soul: An Exploration of Why and How We Share Food, Karen Giesbrecht

A Table For All: A Toolkit for Christian Community Meals in a Framework for Social Justice

Salvation Army addiction services

Kits Cares Cafe

Downtown Eastside of Vancouver

The affordability of healthy eating in British Columbia infographic

*Gabor Maté, physician

In The Realm Of Hungry Ghosts, Gabor Maté

Trauma-informed care

The Sanctuary Course

Faith, Grief, and COVID-19

*Correction: In this episode, Gabor Maté is referred to as a psychologist; he is not a psychologist, but a physician.

Crisis Resources:

For your quick reference, here are nationwide emergency numbers and crisis lines:

  • Canada: 911, Crisis Services Canada: 1-833-456-4566
  • British Columbia: 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433)
  • United States: 911, National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
  • United Kingdom: 999/112, Samaritans: 116 123
  • New Zealand: 111, 1737, Lifeline Aotearoa: 0800-543-354
  • Australia: 000, Lifeline: 13 11 14 

Daniel Whitehead: Welcome to the Sanctuary podcast, my name is Daniel Whitehead, and I am the CEO of Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries, and during this time of COVID-19, I’m also the host for The Sanctuary Podcast. The podcast looks a bit different in these days—basically what we’re doing is we’re having conversations with friends of ours from around the world, from different backgrounds, different vocations. And we’re just kind of asking the question: how are you doing, how are you coping, what are you seeing, and what’s happening in these strange times? And today I’m joined by our good friend Karen Giesbrecht. Karen vocationally does a lot of work around food, but she does that in a lot of different ways. Karen is a registered dietician, with a very strong interest in mental health, and also very passionate about communities. We were talking about this before we started recording, lots of work she’s doing in helping communities to connect around food, which is amazing. And she’s written a few books, but the one I’ll mention has a great title, it’s called Happy Colon, Happy Soul: An Exploration of Why and How We Share Food. Karen is from Vancouver and Karen it’s great to have you with us, thanks for joining us.

Karen Giesbrecht: Thank you for inviting me.

Daniel Whitehead: So Karen, let’s start with the question of how are you doing at the moment. What does Karen Giesbrecht’s world look like in this, in these strange times?

Karen Giesbrecht: Yeah, well I can definitely say it’s better now than it was a month ago. With the food programs I work with we were just scrambling for a few weeks there, trying to figure out new best practices, new safe ways to share food. I work with addictions treatment centres, some shelters, mental health care facilities—there was a lot of supply chain disruptions, some foods we could not get our hands on for a couple of days. Sometimes there was just an excess of food. When all the cafes were shutting down, there was just a lot of pastries and milk, and things that weren’t being purchased, so those all came through the community food programs, but we have just seen an amazing generosity, and that’s been really encouraging.

Daniel Whitehead: Wow, yeah it’s always interesting. I wonder in these times when you kind of see the best of people and the worst of people, so on one hand you’re getting given loads of things, and on another hand people are panic buying, which means you can’t get your hands on maybe the things you really need. So it’s a—yeah I can’t imagine how tricky it must be. You mentioned an addictions program you’re involved in. Do you want to maybe just talk a bit to some of the strands of your vocation, and some of the different roles you do?

Karen Giesbrecht: Sure, yeah. So I’ve been with one of the Salvation Army addiction treatments programs for coming on eight years. So I get to work with the clients who are in the program, many will come in quite undernourished, and maybe eat a little bit too much in their first weeks of recovery. And so we talk about just some of the basics of hydration, making good food choices, and then I get to work with the cooks and kitchen managers, as they sort out how to provide food for people who are, are quite vulnerable. We talk a lot about food safety issues, as that’s all the more important for people in recovery. And it’s been really interesting just seeing some of the clients, some who are doing well, some who are struggling in this. I think COVID is just a great amplifier of, of both our good sides and our hard sides.

Daniel Whitehead: And tell me how are those programs—because obviously I’m guessing a lot of these programs would normally require face-to-face interactions—how’s your work been affected during lockdown?

Karen Giesbrecht: Yeah, so I’ve done some group work and some one-on-one work over Zoom, which is exhausting and hard. And on the other hand, in some ways it’s almost easier to open up over a screen and connect that way. It has felt more distant, but we’re just sort of making do. The programs have had to make some tough decisions around what aspects they continue, what aspects they stop, who they let in, how do we ensure that the space remains safe for those who are in the facility. One of the scariest days, there was a group that came in and they had full face masks and backpacks, and they were spraying the facility down with some kind of sanitizer chemical. And we couldn’t be on the floor where our offices were for half an hour after they sprayed, but people are definitely doing a lot of work to ensure that these spaces stay safe.

Daniel Whitehead: Wow, and I can imagine—you alluded to it then, you talked about working with people with addictions, I wonder just talking around that whole thing, because addictions and mental health, they go in the same conversation, based on the assumption that addictions are the way that we try to soothe our pain. I wonder for your passion for food, and I know mental health is something that’s important to you, did one lead to the other, or you know, how does—yeah how does that work?

Karen Giesbrecht: Very good question, I grew up in a family where we ate well, we cooked everything from scratch, hospitality was big for us, grew up in a really strong community. And then I moved to Vancouver, started at UBC, I studied nutrition, probably I have to point back to loving my biology teacher in high school, which put me on the nutrition path. And then found myself sort of lonely and a bit out of my depth here in the big city, and then somehow connected with a community meal program at a Baptist church [in] downtown Vancouver, and volunteered there for a few years and just really loved who I met there, made some good friends. What I was learning both at church on Sunday and in my nutrition classes made so much more sense—at that Tuesday night dinner and shelter, and volunteering led to another volunteering gig, which led to a job and here I am.

Daniel Whitehead: Wow, and I wonder because it’s only as I’m sitting here listening to you talk about the different, sort of the path of your vocation, that I’m thinking like the relationship between food and mental health, is really interesting isn’t it? Because, I mean, we talk about mental health as being a part of wellness, or wellbeing, being a sort of major facet of that overall picture of a person that is well and flourishing in life. Obviously nutrition is a really important part of that, are we feeding our bodies—which I’m guessing your book is, you know, sort of dealing with this. Are we giving our bodies what we need in order to flourish? Are we hydrated? Are we able–you know. And yet also food is one way, one place we go to, to comfort ourselves, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I would hate to just paint a picture of, “and therefore we shouldn’t be doing that.” I think actually it’s one way we can survive when wellness is hard to find, or when trauma hits home, which we’re all in the midst of. I wonder if there are some themes there you could explore for us, just about, you know, your experience and what you’ve seen in your work, around people’s relationship with food.

Karen Giesbrecht: Yeah, so in the recovery community, there’s a lot of wisdom and emotional intelligence there, but one of the phrases they use is “just for today, just got to get through today.” So when I talk with groups especially individuals who are in the early stages of recovery, or have just come through an acute crisis, as we all are, we’re exhausted, we’re maybe in pain, our bodies are out of whack. We talk about just some of the acute connections between how you feel, how you’re coping right now, how your body feels, how your head feels, how your gut feels, and what you’ve eaten in the last twenty-four hours. Because that makes a difference. If you had nothing but coffee and pastries, you’re going to feel one way, if you didn’t sleep well last night because you didn’t eat enough yesterday, or you ate too much yesterday, that’s going to impact how you’re coping. And your mood, your emotions right now are significantly impacted by what you ate yesterday, and even the day before, so we explore some of those things. And then as I get to walk alongside clients through that recovery journey, I also get to talk to them sort of in later stages of the recovery, people who are ready to move on, to cook for themselves, to live on their own again, and that’s where we start talking about some of the larger ethical issues around food. One of the understandings of recovery is that there has got to be a spiritual growth, and addictions are often a spiritual sickness. And so the solution—at least part of it—is going to be spiritual. And one of the ways we understand spirituality is that we’re all connected to each other, and food is such a prime example of that. You know, how many things have we eaten today that were grown and processed and transported by dozens of people. And so we really rely on a large network of people, and the more we learn about that, we need to first be grateful, and second make sure that the choices we are able to make support that food system and those all along the way.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah, and I guess now with certain shortages—I remember you know a few weeks back when, I mean, it’s not food but toilet paper. No one could get toilet paper, and eggs—like eggs, eggs just disappeared off the shelves for a few weeks. It was—you know, I can understand like tinned foods—but I’m going eggs? Eggs don’t even last that long. But I mean, great, eggs are good, but nevertheless it’s suddenly, yeah, supply chains, you know, frontline workers being delivery truck drivers, suddenly there’s a whole other wave that come to the fore, of viewing this where you go “oh yeah there is a whole infrastructure,” you know? Here I was living in my little bubble just assuming that this stuff magically appears, and I, you know, just feeds me and what I want to do, because I’m so important. And suddenly we realize how finely poised, and how delicately poised this whole system is, and a virus occurs and suddenly all these things have been brought into question. It’s quite staggering, yeah.

Karen Giesbrecht: At one of the facilities, the mental health facility, one week we couldn’t get any bread. There just wasn’t any available and our delivery driver didn’t deliver any, and so I called the driver and then I called his manager, and I said I understand if you’re short of bread, we’ll figure out something, but you can’t just not come and not tell us. We have to know so we can prepare for this. And a lot of our clients really rely on their routines, including their bedtime sandwiches, and if we can’t make those, there’s sort of some real ripple effects. It’s important for some of the mental health medications to be eating regularly, and so the manager I was speaking to, said she understood sort of what predicament we were in, and she apologized that they hadn’t communicated, and then she called me back half an hour later, and said she found thirty loaves of white Wonder bread, and if I wanted she would drive that over, drive it across town to our facility. And I said yeah that would really, would really help us, take down the stress of our cooks quite a bit. And so she did that, and then I thought—man, if you had told me a month ago I would feel proud for scoring thirty loaves of white bread, I would not have believed you. It’s not quality food, and yet at that moment that’s what we needed.

Daniel Whitehead: Wow, and yet for you I’m guessing you’re a proponent of the slow food movement. I’m guessing you’d be like, I am guessing right, homemade—yeah okay.

Karen Giesbrecht: Yeah, good food, good quality, yeah.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah, I mean the other flip side to that is try buying flour at the moment. Like everyone’s clearly making bread, and I see people posting on social media that they’re, you know—so it’s weird isn’t it? It’s like the best of times and worst of times. You get these weird juxtapositions of things are hard, but in other ways there is this kind of weird blessing, if we can call it that, in the midst of a horrendously dark time, that people are, you know, learning how to cook again, or learning how to bake bread.

Karen Giesbrecht: And what’s been really interesting to me, is where I’ve had conversations with people visiting the food programs, in whatever form we can run them. People in the recovery program, friends, and neighbours, I’ve had a number of people say, “My life hasn’t really changed,” and that’s a really sad reflection on how disconnected I was and, and how lonely I am. And a number of other people have said, “My life hasn’t really changed,” and I’m taking that as affirmation that, that I’m in a good place, and I have good connections, and I have practices in place—whether it’s people working through the twelve steps, or people having other health practices, spiritual practices, cooking skills. If we had good practices in place, we’re just doing more of that, if we were lacking in some of those, that’s being amplified.

Daniel Whitehead: Wow. And so Karen, tell me, what are some of the needs you’re seeing, like particularly among, let’s say, the more vulnerable or marginalized people in society, people living with addictions or people maybe who are, are homeless. What sort of things are you seeing on the frontlines?

Karen Giesbrecht: Yeah, a lot of the supportive programs, especially a lot of the hang-out spaces, have been shut down and that’s leaving a big gap. Even some of the bathrooms, places to wash your hands, laundry facilities, those are gone. For those who don’t have a home, there have been a few more emergency shelters opened up, and a lot of emergency food programs put in place, so for now, we’ve figured out a lot of good things. We do want to be starting—now that we’re past the acute crisis and starting to sort of get on our feet again—take a breath, and begin to think about post-COVID life. We want to think about what are we going to do with our programs? We know that emergency food, especially using rescued food, and food that’s sort of recovered from grocery stores, and what not—that is not the answer to hunger and food insecurity. It’s got to be income and strong communities, and social supports. And so, it’s any time now already that we start thinking about what are we going to do, to wind down these emergency food programs and put back some of the practices that we had in place, and develop them again. COVID has certainly exposed some new vulnerabilities, but also exposed the amazing connections and networks in place. Hopefully the connecting that’s happening is going to continue.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah I think one of the things that people who are listening, or watching this should know if they’re not from Vancouver—which many won’t be—is there is a whole, I want to say subculture in Vancouver. The Downtown Eastside of Vancouver has a very high proportion of people who are homeless or many of them would have struggles with addictions.

Karen Giesbrecht: And trauma.

Daniel Whitehead: And trauma, I remember hearing Gabor Maté, who is now a more world-renowned psychologist, but I remember he’s from Vancouver. And worked on the Downtown Eastside, I think for at least ten years—it was a long, it was a long time wasn’t it? I remember him saying that, I think he said in ten years of working directly with people on the streets on the Downtown Eastside, without exception every single one of them had a significant childhood trauma. Every single person who is addicted to some form of drugs, every single one of them had a significant childhood trauma. I think sexual abuse is actually the words he used so there is this.

Karen Giesbrecht: Abused or neglect of some kind, yeah.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah there is this clear, just clear correlation, and he obviously wrote that book, In The Realm Of Hungry Ghosts, which is about his experiences of working on the Downtown Eastside. So there is a—it is a very real thing, if you’ve lived in Vancouver, or visited Vancouver, you’ll know about it. And obviously there’s a lot of vulnerable people. Do you know how many people live on the Downtown Eastside, Karen?

Karen Giesbrecht: I could not give you a number. I know as sort of things got better then have sort of been getting worse in recent years. But it, and it is in the last couple of years we’ve started to use the term trauma-informed care a little regularly. Which for someone like me, I’m not a trauma specialist, and I am not equipped or in a space to address some of the traumas. But there’s a lot of things that we can do, in our food programs, to make a space more caring. So one way—you know we sometimes use the phrase “beggars can’t be choosers,” or I’ve been oriented to several programs by someone who said, “You know these people who come to the shelter, they’re going to tell you they have all sorts of allergies, don’t believe them, they’re just trying to get something special. You know, we make one thing, and they take it or leave it.” But as I’ve got to know clients and heard stories, there was a lot of, a lot of people have certain foods or smells, or sounds—but foods especially will trigger a traumatic memory. And so it’s not an allergy, it’s not somebody being difficult, it’s not just a dislike, but these foods are strongly associated with a hard memory. And if we understand that and have compassion for that, we can always find something else, we can make space for that. But that’s, I guess, not often understood in food programs.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah and it goes back to that thing that I’ve said a number of times before and I’ll say a number of times again, but it’s like everything we’ve learned about the human brain, like in the last twenty years, we’ve learnt more in the last twenty years than in the rest of human history put together. With the greatest respect to Sigmund Freud, you know, we are—it feels like we’re only just beginning to understand how our brain and our bodies and our spirits interconnect, in this—you know as I always say as a person of faith—in this fearfully and wonderfully made sense. Like, I mean, we use that term in such a sort of throwaway, “fearfully and wonderfully made.” But, no trust me, we are fearfully and wonderfully made. The way God has made these responses and our mental wellbeing and our emotional wellbeing and our physical wellbeing, and all of these things are interconnected. And I kind of see how your vocation, really you appreciate that. I guess you see that every day, the people you work with, which is, you know, yeah which is just so interesting.

Karen Giesbrecht: Yeah and I often, you know, as I’m thinking there sort of is this assumption, especially in our facilities—care facilities for mental health and addictions, and shelters—is that this assumption people just know how to eat, and we will just put food out, they’ll eat it. But I think we need to, we need to put parameters around what people eat. We need to relearn after we’ve been through an acute crisis, or for many people chronic crisis, and some people never had [a] stable home, back to childhood, never sort of really had an experience of regular meals, eating enough, not too much, a variety of foods, hydrating, and all of those. Even if how we eat helps us cope 5% better, that’s sometimes enough to get through an acute crisis, or the difference between a relapse and a good day, or a meltdown and a good day.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah, it’s so interesting, so interesting. Well I’m sure you’ve got many more books in you, and we look forward to reading them.

Karen Giesbrecht: Thank you.

Daniel Whitehead: Karen, is there anything else you’d like to share with us?

Karen Giesbrecht: Maybe just one story. So in the first weeks of COVID starting to settle in, probably the last food program I was at, the last community meal before they had to completely be shut down—we had already put some changes into practice, so anything that our guests used to be able to help themselves to, the pastries, the bread, the coffee, or used to be able to pour a cup of coffee for a friend of theirs, all of that was shut down, and we were having volunteers with gloves and with tongs, serve these things. Because we needed to do what we can to be safe, and at that point that’s what we understood as safe. And so I sat down to dinner with one of the maybe crustier gentlemen in the city, who I’ve been meeting at food programs for at least a decade, and we got to chatting and he was saying “My God, yeah I don’t like all these changes people are making, and I don’t think is necessary, I just want to go back to the glory days.” So I said, “You mean like the glory days of last week?” He was like, “Oh yeah, I guess so.” So I laughed at him, I was like, man, I thought so many times, I just want to go back to the glory days of how things used to be. But this is certainly highlighting what we have learned, and I think what kind of practices we’re going to put back in place when we can.

Daniel Whitehead: Wow. And it does strike me Karen, as you were saying about just how empowered many of us are, and you know the, I mean the gratitude I feel right now for living in Canada for instance—just when I speak to my friends in other countries, in majority world countries, and hear about the poverty that people are going through, that they, you know, because people can’t work, and they can’t buy food, and yeah the gratitude I feel and just realizing how empowered I am to make choices. And being struck by the fact that you’re actually making, effectively making those choices for a lot of people, and the responsibility of that—just hearing you speak the wisdom and the experience you have, and the effort and energy you’ve poured into learning your craft. Just really, really admire what you’re doing, and really grateful that you’re doing what you’re doing, and I know that the city of Vancouver is really lucky to have you, so thanks for all your work.

Karen Giesbrecht: Thank you, yeah it’s, it’s amazing actually who I get to work with, and what I’m seeing in all this. And really seeing. I think the antidote to this powerless[ness] we’re feeling is to do something tangible for others. And food is such a great tool to do that, whether it’s our neighbours or people who are vulnerable in our community.

Daniel Whitehead: So, Karen, maybe there are some ways if anyone’s listening, maybe is there any advice you’d give to someone who wants to help, who wants to help food-wise? What would you say to someone, they could live anywhere—I want to help people who don’t have enough food. What is a good way to help?

Karen Giesbrecht: So the best thing I’d say at the moment is to donate to the programs that are doing this. Our costs have gone up in that we’ve had to switch to all disposable dishes, be purchasing more emergency supplies. We can’t actually have a lot of volunteers come on site. We can’t be bringing people together, so financial donations are probably the most helpful at the moment. But as we have neighbours and family members and people in our communities who are struggling—to drop off groceries, to check in, make a phone call, all that stuff matters. For those who have lost their supportive programs, they’ve lost the social support that comes along with that, and so to reach out, especially to those in your neighbourhood, is going to make a big difference.

Daniel Whitehead: Very good, well if you’re listening to this and you’ve found it helpful, please share it with others. If you’re looking for resources on faith and mental health go to sanctuarymentalhealth.org, we have our new Grief, Faith, and COVID-19 resource. We also have our Sanctuary Course, an eight part course on faith and mental health. We have our blog, our podcast which you’re listening to. Go to sanctuarymentalhealth.org to find out more, and also check out Karen’s book—Karen remind us of the title again.

Karen Giesbrecht: It’s called Happy Colon, Happy Soul: An Exploration of Why and How We Share Food.

Daniel Whitehead: Great. Happy Colon, Happy Soul—that’s what we want, we all want happy colons, and we all want happy souls. Thank you Karen, bless you, and I’ll see you soon.

Karen Giesbrecht: Thank you.

Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries exists to equip the church to be a sanctuary for all people, at all stages of their mental wellness journey, may this podcast encourage you to create safe space for your own story, and the stories of others as well as create change in communities that stigmatize those suffering with mental health challenges. 

The Sanctuary Course is a small group resource designed to help initiate and guide conversations about mental health and faith, it is a starting point, creating a base of shared knowledge from which churches can explore the next steps, perhaps most importantly through the simple act of talking openly about mental health, the course helps churches begin to create safe spaces for people to share their mental health stories, and receive support in community. 

Each theme in the course is explored from a psychological, social and theological perspective, and each session is accompanied by a compelling film focussed on an individual story, a person of faith whose journeyed through mental health challenges. 

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