Mental Health Ministry

From 1975 to 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.

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A GROWING ISSUE

Mental health is a growing issue around the world, but it 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 (PTSD) among Cambodians.

Unfortunately, the problems that are the hardest to see are often the ones that are never resolved. “The internal issues are largely untouched,” says OMF worker Mary Haag.

If these problems are to be addressed, support from family doctors, mental health professionals and the church is essential.

Mary shares her passion for Christian counseling as part of the response to the major mental health needs in Cambodia.

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

BORN FROM SUFFERING

Shortly after arriving in Cambodia, Mary received the devastating news that her sister, the most important person in her life, had been murdered. Later, Mary also dealt with a debilitating back problem that left her immobile for much of the day. God used Mary’s personal pain to teach her important lessons and prepare her for future ministry among people with mental health struggles.

While recovering from her back pain, she learned more about incarnational ministry from a friend who would come and lie 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 problems that Mary 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 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,” Mary said, “so I took the plunge and God opened the door.”

CONNECTED ISSUES

Mary also developed a deeper awareness of the connection between physical and mental problems, which has been key in helping patients see how their physical ailments and emotional issues relate to each other.

Mary’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 emotional healing.

Mary’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.

Mary’s hope is that God will bring freedom and healing to those most wounded and thus vulnerable to stigma and further abuse.

“God is working and raising up a number of different people and groups, but we still have a long way to go. There is so much need.”

The vision for addressing those with mental illness in Cambodia is “too big” without God’s help, says Mary. Even helping just one person who is mentally unhealthy is a tall task for one person or family; professional input and a supportive community are needed.

Input from mental health professionals is essential but the role of the church in mental health is just as vital. “I see the church as God’s primary instrument of healing. As the church provides healing and transformation, as God works in them, their love and compassion touch the heart.”

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 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 sometimes unseen but significant needs.

For instance, this year in 2018 is the first time an Introduction to Christian Counseling and Pastoral Care course (a counseling program of CWR from the U.K.) is being offered in Cambodia in the Khmer language; the students are primarily members of the Cambodian church. God is also raising up trained Cambodian counselors. MMC currently has one full-time Cambodian counselor who is working on his M.A. in counseling psychology, and another one has just returned from being away for a year.

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 areas of mental health.
  • 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.