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Christian counselling: addressing hidden pain in Cambodia

Mental health ministry is a growing need around the world, especially in Cambodia, a country with a tragic history.

From 1975-1979, Cambodia’s population was reduced by 2-3 million during the Khmer Rouge regime. Neighbors betrayed neighbors. Family members betrayed family members. In the wake of the purge, very few Christians, medical personnel, or intellectuals of any kind remained. The decade following the Khmer Rouge rule saw further turmoil as neighboring Vietnam ruled over the country.

A Growing issue

Mental health is a growing issue around the world, but comes with some added layers in Cambodia. The country’s tragic history in the latter part of the 20th century has increased the incidence of fear, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder amongst some Cambodians. Unfortunately, the problems that are hardest to see are often the ones that are never resolved. “The internal issues are largely untouched,” says OMF worker Mary Haag.

If there are to be addressed, support from family doctors, social workers, and for severe mental health issues, psychiatrists is essential, though there is also a valuable role for the church and Christian counseling. Here Haag shares her passion for Christian counseling as part of the response to the major mental health needs in Cambodia.

Haag has worked in Cambodia since the mid-1990s, first as an English teacher, but for the past decade-plus as a counselor working with a variety of mental health services and ministries offered through OMF and other Christian groups. For Haag, who grew up on a Montana farm in the US, it was a ministry born out of both recognized need, as well as personal suffering.

Born from suffering

Shortly after arriving in Cambodia, Haag received the devastating news that her sister, the most important person in her life, had been murdered. Later, Haag also dealt with a debilitating back problem that left her immobile for much of the day. God used Haag’s personal pain to teach her important lessons and prepare her for future ministry among people with mental health issues. For example, while recovering from her back issues, she learned more about incarnational ministry from a friend who would come and lay on the floor next to her when she couldn’t get up.

“Ministry is incarnational, coming into the world of another person and there bringing Christ,” she said. “Counseling is not coming top down, that ‘I’m helping you. I’m fixing you.’ It’s an incarnational thing.”

It was while dealing with her back issues that Haag began to seriously consider getting a counseling degree. While lying on her back, she listened to cassette tapes from the American Association of Christian Counseling. After learning that she would need to return to the US for two years in order to fully recover from the back problems, she decided to use those two years to pursue a degree in counseling. “Everything in my past had been leading in this direction,” Haag said, “so I took the plunge and God opened the door.”

Connected issues

Haag also developed a deeper awareness of the connection between physical and mental problems, which has been key in helping patients who may only think of their physical symptoms and not of the possible connection to emotional issues. Haag’s first client at Mercy Medical Center (MMC) in Cambodia was a rape victim, referred by a missionary doctor who recognized that some of the physical issues she had were a result of her need for psychological healing.

Haag’s work at MMC has been one piece of a growing vision for mental health ministry in Cambodia. Many times, people with mental illness are neglected, she says. Sometimes, they have been locked up or chained because family members didn’t know what else to do. Haag’s hope is that God will bring freedom and healing to those most wounded and vulnerable to stigma and further abuse.

“God is working and raising up a number of different people and groups, but there is so far we have to go yet,” she said. “There is so much need.”

The vision for addressing those with mental illness in Cambodia is “too big” without God’s help, says Haag. Even helping just one person with mental ill health is a tall task for a person or family; professional input and a supportive community are needed. Input from mental health professionals is essential, though there is also a role for the church and Christian counseling. One idea is that each Cambodian church would take on one person with mental illness (and their family) to support in various ways, with the end goal being that the person gains stability and is able to integrate back into society.

God at work

There are encouraging signs that God is working in the church, moving and equipping Cambodian Christians for this ministry of counseling and caring for the inner needs. For instance, this year is the first time that an Introduction to Christian Counseling and Pastoral Care course (a counseling program of CWR from the UK) is being offered in Cambodia in the Khmer language; the audience is primarily members of the Cambodian church. God is also raising up trained Cambodian counselors. MMC currently has one full-time Cambodia counselor who is working on his M.A. in counseling psychology, and another one has just returned from being away one year.

“I see the church as God’s primary instrument of healing,” Haag said. “As the church receives healing and transformation, as God works in them, there is this love and compassion that is able to reach out.”

Christian Counseling Ministries in Cambodia

*This is only a partial list. Also, it should be noted that many of these ministries involve multiple organizations, not just OMF, working together.

Will you pray for Cambodia?

  • Give thanks for how Christians can be involved in bringing help in this significant issue.
  • Pray for more churches to get involved in providing and supporting mental health ministries.
  • Pray for Mary as she continues in her ministry. Pray for fruitfulness and perseverance.


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