mental health in missions

How Do We Face the Stigma of Mental Health in Missions?

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By Galina Hitching

What would you say if you found out the missionary you support deals with depression? Would you feel disappointed or let down? Would you question their spirituality? Let’s be honest here. The reality is, missionaries are human. Humans face spiritual battles, loss, disappointment, betrayal, physiological challenges, failure and personal sin.

A missionary’s life is always on display. That can become a heavy weight to bear. Add to that some kind of mental stress and the stigma can seem insurmountable. Regardless of what we believe about mental health or how it should be treated, shouldn’t our response be one of love and support?

In the Gospels we read accounts of a God who loved the mentally unstable, the demon possessed, the socially rejected. We see a Messiah who ministered to the emotional and physical needs of those around him. Christ called us to follow him. Why are we so reluctant to follow when it comes to mental health?

Why Are We Afraid of the Topic of Mental Health?

Sometimes I wonder if our reluctance has to do with our fear.
Fear that being around someone with mental illness will somehow rub off on us.
Fear, because mental illness is something we can’t control.
Fear, because displays of pain, sadness or anger confront our personal disconnect from pain and emotions.
Fear, because we want other believers to meet our standards of perfection. Especially those in Christian ministry.

Mental Health in Missions

 Which brings us to a very important question. If an individual struggles with mental health issues, do they belong in missions?
This is a complex question and one I don’t believe can be answered with a simple yes or no.

One of the highest considerations to this question is whether an individual could pose a risk to other people.

The sad truth is over the years missionaries have done bad things. They have hurt and abused others. Misused their authority. Perpetrated evil. Did all of those people have some kind of mental Illness? It’s unlikely. People hurt people, whether they have a mental illness or not. And the stigma that mental illness and violence goes hand in hand is unfounded.

At the same time, living with mental health issues of any kind is difficult. Whether it’s depression, clinical depression, bipolar disorder or burnout, it impacts one’s ability to live and function in a healthy way. All of these things will become compounded and amplified by the stress and spiritual warfare involved in going to another country for mission work.

At OMF, assessing mental health is a part of the application process for long-term workers. Sending someone to another country if they aren’t able to take care of themselves is not going to be helpful to anyone. Yet it is possible to live well and thrive, even in the midst of dealing with mental illness. The question of mental illness and missions is one that needs to be answered with great care and responsibility on a person by person basis.

When a missionary on the field faces depression or other mental health struggles, it doesn’t mean they are unfit for ministry. It does mean we need to cover them in prayer, support them and at times give them space from their duties as a missionary. Rather than being surprised when a missionary faces mental health challenges, we should expect they will experience some level of struggle in this area and be prepared to support them when they do.

Pretending Doesn’t Help

Many people with mental health challenges feel compelled to pretend as if nothing is happening. They stuff the overwhelming fear and sadness; they reject and repress what their bodies and spirit are telling them. That’s dangerous. Pretending doesn’t help.
Whether we pretend we’re fine, pretend we’re holy, pretend we don’t need help … The life of pretense sets us up for failure and separates us from ourselves, from God and from others. Whether we face mental health issues or not, we must learn to stop pretending. Our only hope to deal with the challenges of life is to learn to come to the Father and rely on him in our lack.
We are a body, not individual units. Let us each care for the members of the body, giving grace and providing a safe place for transparent and honest living.

If you are facing mental health struggles, don’t be afraid. God is with you in the darkness.

If you know someone who is currently facing mental health struggles, don’t be afraid. God will help you share his love with that person.

At OMF, we care about mental health. #WhyCare

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