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? The reality is, missionaries are human and 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?
MENTAL HEALTH IN MISSIONS
Which brings us to a very important question. If an individual struggles with mental health issues, does this person 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 cause harm to other people.
The sad truth is that 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, these issues impact one’s ability to live and function in a healthy way. Furthermore, these problems will become compounded and amplified by the stress and spiritual warfare involved in going to another country for mission work.
Sending someone to another country, when 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. Seeking care and input from mental health professionals is an important part of the process.
When missionaries on the field face 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.
We are the body of Christ, 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
Galina Hitching is a writer, artist, and wellness geek. She learned more from growing up around missions and traveling as a non-profit worker than she did getting her degree in Communication. Midway, Galina took a detour from her career by working as a Serve Asia volunteer. Today, she is using her four years’ experience in marketing and communication for the Great Commission. Read more from Galina at the OMF (U.S.) blog.