mental health

Demystifying Mental Health for Missionaries

Demystifying Mental Health for Missionaries
Written by admin

It’s no secret that we are going through an alarming mental health crisis.

A 2020 study released by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that one in five American adults experience mental illness each year. In 2021, national leaders of the pediatric medical community declared a “national state of emergency for children’s mental health”. And lest we think this is a problem limited to America, World Health Organization figures are similar, with reports of around one in five children and adolescents suffering from the disease. mind in the world.

One in five adults. One in five children. In our families, our neighborhoods, our schools, our benches and in our sending organizations.

Mental illness does not discriminate and affects many missionaries around the world. Sadly, many of these same missionaries suffer in silence and their mental issues go untreated. Why is this, and what can we do about it? Although I can’t cover every situation, I want to list four common reasons why mental illness among missionaries goes untreated, and then offer some suggestions on how to serve missionaries who are suffering.

1. Obligation towards supporters

The reality is that stories of sacrifice and surrender sell. They soften hearts, arouse empathy and open wallets. I’ve spoken to countless missionaries who feel the pressure to “smile, shut up, and look busy.”

I challenge you to find a missionary update email that does not reference their activity. And I challenge you to find a church, organization or supporter that does not overtly or subtly encourage this. We all naturally want to get our money’s worth. We want the exotic stories. We want proof that the money from our missions is being used wisely. And the missionaries learned to dutifully play the game, with smiles on their faces and upbeat newsletters detailing ministry victories.

We want proof that the money from our missions is being used wisely. And the missionaries learned to play the game conscientiously.

As a Christian culture, we have placed missionaries on the highest pedestal. Unfortunately, the plinths are an awfully precarious place for those feeling a little wonky. But perhaps more tragic than a struggling missionary waving a white flag from atop a pedestal is one who stands silently in mental anguish, terrified to be the next fallen hero.

2. Fear of professional implications

Imagine this. A 36-year-old father of three has been in the field for 10 years. He and his wife moved overseas as newlyweds just months after graduating from seminary. His life project and his professional trajectory have always been missions. But now he suffers from crippling anxiety. His family is collapsing. Yet his biggest fear is that word will get to their organization. His boss will get wind of it and their family will be deemed unfit to stay abroad. He will be unemployed and effectively homeless. So he remains silent and suffers in silence, without diagnosis or treatment.

When organizations send missionaries around the world to resource-poor places, there are obvious risks. To mitigate these risks and protect missionaries, nationals and organizations, extensive screening and reporting processes are in place to ensure the mental and physical health of those they send. It is necessary and good. However, when missionaries are expected to go directly to their employers for health issues, and when the help received comes primarily from those in charge, a culture of mistrust, fear, and secrecy can ensue. .

Even when established with the best of intentions, protective structures for missionaries can cause inadvertent damage when mental illness knocks on the door, especially if missionaries fear the potential loss of their careers, homes, and families. dreams of ministry.

3. Limited access to resources

When mental health becomes a concern, the best care practice often involves therapy. Sometimes medication. Always, self-care and community. A move overseas, however, can remove access to all of them.

Even in these days of widespread access to virtual therapy, factors such as legal barriers, internet instability, and financial burdens can make it out of reach. Meanwhile, drug availability is a wild card in many countries. Opportunities and resources for self-care are limited in some settings, and advice to “enjoy nature, exercise and spend time with friends” may not be possible in a high-density urban setting. security. And let’s not forget our many missionaries in unreached places without a local church or other believers to accompany them in times of suffering.

Slowly, as doors close and resources remain out of reach, mental illness can seem exponentially more daunting to the already exhausted missionary.

4. Cumulative stress

There has been much written about the experience of culture shock. When the fresh, starry-eyed missionary hits the field, we know we’re expecting it. What is less often discussed is the cumulative effect of near-constant exposure to cultural stress and unpredictable conditions.

Slowly, as doors close and resources remain out of reach, mental illness can seem exponentially more daunting.

When our family first moved overseas, my husband and I called it the “dripping faucet”. Our life stressors have never come in a flood. Instead, we saw how the constant drip of another culture snafu, another annoying power outage, and another poorly timed fight with parasites could slowly wear us down.

Despite these challenges, we simultaneously felt the cognitive dissonance of living a privileged expat life in the middle of one of the poorest countries in the world. Surrounded by grief and death, we felt guilty for feeling the stress in the first place. Because we didn’t have it as badly as others who have had those “big T” traumas.

How can we help you

Whether missionaries face a steady decline in cultural stress or consuming waves of significant trauma, we shouldn’t be surprised if they struggle with mental health issues. Of course, missionaries must be prepared to suffer. But that doesn’t mean they have to suffer in silence. And that doesn’t excuse our lack of awareness, concern or empathy.

As supporters, we must remember the humanity of the missionary behind the prayer card. We should ask pointed questions, such as, “How is your walk with Christ going?” “What’s not in the newsletter?” “What has been difficult for you lately?” “Are you well supported?” And we should be pushing him for help soon. We can encourage rest, provide money for vacations, and normalize a well-rounded ministry life.

As sending churches, we must remember that our work does not end when missionaries are commissioned. We must continue to care for ourselves and to guide, even if it means flying around the world to sit with our people in their greatest pain. Even if it means providing accommodation when they unexpectedly return to the United States.

As sending organizations and churches, we should expand access to independent counseling services. We can provide support leads that do not come from supervisors. We can propose names of approved advisers and subsidize the often prohibitive costs. We shouldn’t just do this in response to problems; instead, we can promote preventative care before the crisis hits.

As caring brothers and sisters, we can demystify mental health by talking about it openly and frequently. Unwavering support will keep us going; muffled whispers never will be. The one in five is worth it. Our missionaries are worth it.

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