“There Is No Health Without Mental Health”
Can the local church play a role?
Seventh-day Adventists have a theological commitment to mental health. Fundamental Belief 7 explicitly indicates that human beings are made in the image of God as “an indivisible unity of body, mind, and spirit.”1 Consequently, “we believe in a ‘ministry of healing’ by which we can be restored to wholeness. Our concept of ‘whole’ involves ‘the whole person’: spiritual, physical, mental, and social—as we do not exist in isolation.”2
Ellen White wrote that “the relation that exists between the mind and the body is very intimate. When one is affected, the other sympathizes. The condition of the mind affects the health to a far greater degree than many realize. Many of the diseases from which men suffer are the result of mental depression. Grief, anxiety, discontent, remorse, guilt, distrust, all tend to break down the life forces and to invite decay and death. . . . In the treatment of the sick the effect of mental influence should not be overlooked. Rightly used, this influence affords one of the most effective agencies for combating disease.”3
The phrase “there is no health without mental health,” adopted by the World Health Organization (WHO), should find no more enthusiastic resonance than in Adventist circles. The response of the church, however, has been uneven. In many parts of the world, Adventist universities are training hundreds of mental health professionals.4 Numerous Adventist hospitals and clinics provide specialized services for substance abuse and mental health problems and have well-integrated crisis-response teams that include trained counselors. There are, however, vast areas of the world in which significant misunderstanding and stigma associated with mental health conditions are prevalent.
Mental health problems have a profound impact on individuals and families, in turn impacting communities. In fact, there is a global challenge connected to mental health and a role that the local church can play.
The Global Challenge of Mental Health
Shekhar Saxena, M.D., WHO’s director for the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, provides a summary of the challenges. Among the most important are the following:
- Individuals with emotional health disorders experience disproportionately higher rates of disability and mortality. For instance, those with major depression and schizophrenia have a 40 to 60 percent greater chance of dying prematurely than the general population.
- Suicide is the second most common cause of death among young people worldwide.
- Mental and substance-use disorders result in levels of disability. For instance, depression alone accounts for 4.3 percent of the global burden of disease and is among the largest single causes of disability worldwide, particularly for women.
- The economic toll derived from these combined losses is enormous. It’s estimated to result in about US$16.3 trillion between 2011 and 2030 in lost economic output.
- There is a substantial gap between the need for treatment and availability and adequacy. Approximately 35 to 50 percent of people in wealthy countries and 76 to 85 percent in low- and middle-income countries receive no treatment. Furthermore, in many cases the quality of the treatment provided is poor. In some countries the main form of “treatment” for those with serious psychiatric conditions is being chained to a “hospital” wall.
Compounding the gap to access to treatment is the “gross insufficiency” of trained professionals in low- and middle-income countries.5
The Role of the Local Church
Often the local church is the de facto mental health system in many communities. Pastors are often the first ones to come in contact with individuals and families suffering with emotional health conditions.6 Whether a local church sees itself as having a role in the mental health of the community or not, it does. This is not only because pastors are mental health’s “first responders,” but because a healthy church provides a natural shelter in the midst of conflict and uncertainty through the informal support of brothers and sisters. Its members share hopeful, encouraging, and uplifting spiritual messages.
The question is not whether the local church plays a role in the mental health of the communities it serves; rather, it’s how the church responds. A local church can respond by intentionally becoming a “center of hope and health.”
A few years ago the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO, WHO’s branch for the American continent), the Inter-American Division, and the Department of Psychiatry at Loma Linda University School of Medicine developed recommendations and resources that can be helpful to the local church. These are evidence-based, congruent with a biblical worldview, and intended to bring the healing ministry of Jesus to all. They include:
Developing Networks of Care: The challenges associated with emotional health can feel overwhelming and confusing. No single sector in the community can do it alone, and certainly not the local church. We have fostered the development of networks of care that include local church and community leaders, along with key stakeholders in the academic and public health sectors, in the development of community initiatives. This approach can be particularly viable in communities in which there is an Adventist health facility and professionals willing to collaborate.
Providing Education, Early Identification, and Referrals When Needed: Our team brings together pastors, educators, non-mental health professionals, and mental health counselors to form a network of care to support the implementation of seminars on depression and trauma, to provide training and resources to help those with substance abuse, and to provide a tool kit for the prevention of suicide.
All activities are considered ways to reach out to the community, and the seminars teach coping strategies for those facing mild problems. Seminar materials also include screening tools to identify those who have moderate-to-severe conditions, and to help them find and obtain the professional services needed. Throughout the entire process the local church continues to provide spiritual support.
Some may feel that the church should not extend itself in this type of ministry, but there is a biblical mandate to participate in emotional healing ministry. Here is what the prophet Isaiah says:
“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grievein Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair” (Isa. 61:1-3).
May the church live up to its theological and spiritual commitment to continue the healing ministry of Jesus to those struggling with their emotional health.
- https://www.adventist.org/en/beliefs/humanity/nature-of-humanity/. (Italics supplied.)
- Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1905), p. 241.
- I estimate that in Latin America alone, Adventist universities are training approximately 1,500 psychologists. This estimate does not include other professionals, such as physicians and nurses, who also provide mental health services.
- Letter from Shekar Saxena, M.D., Dec. 8, 2014.
- P. Wang, P. Berglund, and R. Kessler, “Patterns and Correlates of Contacting Clergy for Mental Disorders in the United States,” Health Service Research 38, no. 2 (2003): 647-673.
Carlos Fayard, Ph.D., is an associate professor, director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center for Training and Community Mental Health, and chair of the Psychiatry and Religion Program in the Department of Psychiatry, Loma Linda University School of Medicine. He is also an associate director for Mental Health Affairs for Adventist Health Ministries at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. To learn more, contact Dr. Fayard at firstname.lastname@example.org.