The COVID-19 crisis may result in unexpected challenges … and favorable opportunities.
Many experts predict that a mental health pandemic will follow COVID–19.
Devora Kestel, director for Mental Health and Substance Abuse at the World Health Organization (WHO), believes that the cumulative impact of the effects from the pandemic will be similar to those experienced in other catastrophes or even wars. One out every five individuals will be affected with anxiety, depression, and other emotional problems.
The possible exacerbation of emotional health problems from being locked down and isolated for prolonged periods; fear of infection and emotional deprivation from social distancing; the cascading effect of the economic downturn resulting in jobs losses; the closing of businesses and retirement funds are all bound to generate a global mental health pandemic.
While no one can be sure that a global mental health pandemic will happen, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, as a church that believes in whole-person ministry, could now prepare to respond and minister to the needs of the communities we serve.
Ellen G. White, one of the Seventh-day Adventist pioneers, guided the church to understand the importance of mental health in ministry. More than 100 years ago, she wrote, “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.”
It is interesting that Ellen G. White highlighted depression as having such a pervasive impact on health and wellbeing. WHO has identified depression as the mental health condition with the most significant impact on individuals, families, and even the economy of entire communities. Until recently, the extent to which depression plays a causal role in many diseases was not known. Recent research published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry found that, indeed, depression has a causal role in many medical conditions, a previously unrecognized fact. Have we, as a community of faith, taken White’s vision seriously enough? Are we prepared to address this challenge?
The mental health needs in communities around the world are high and very likely will increase in the near future. Adequate preparation requires that the church knows the how, what, and where of the response, as well as be aware of the potential pitfalls in its implementation.
The what and where are intimately related, and thus they will be discussed together below, followed by the how, and the possible pitfalls involved in this type of ministry. The specific items in the list below have been implemented successfully in various parts of the Inter-American Division church region as well as other parts of the world.
“What” and “Where”
The church is blessed with an amazing system of local churches, schools, and medical facilities that, when working in synergy, can have a powerful impact on their communities. Imagine if churches were to do the following:
- health fairs with a focus on mental health
- spiritual leaders presenting seminars that teach sound biblical principles to strengthen character and build resilience
- schools looked after their vulnerable students
- health facilities thoughtfully integrated behavioral health into all services they do
Imagine if we did that without losing our Christian identity and focus. We would then be realizing the vision outlined by Ellen G. White more than 100 years ago. And it would be powerful! Here is the what and where:
Local church.Many churches hold health fairs. We should include a robust mental health presence. Use a standard screener for depression as a way to identify those who could benefit from a consultation on the spot with a trained professional. We have administered the screener at the end of the worship hour to every adult in attendance and provided consultation to about 15-20 percent of those present. Some people were subsequently referred to trained providers, while the church continued to provide spiritual and emotional support.
Spiritual leaders. Pastors, health professionals, educators, and others can provide seminars on emotional health as a way to reach out to the community. The Inter-American Division, in collaboration with Loma Linda University, has a training program known as “Soaring on Eagle’s Wings” that teaches skills to enhance forgiveness, gratitude, and compassion, anchored in biblical principles and drawing from evidence-based practices. The goals of the seminars are to help participants develop character strengths and resilience and provide early identification of emotional distress for those in need of services. The seminar routinely screens for levels of depression to identify those that need professional help, as the church continues to provide emotional and spiritual support. The training includes learning basic emotional support skills to better serve the community. We also have prepared similar seminars to address trauma and substance abuse. Training spiritual leaders is essential, as the emotional needs of the world exceed what professionals can do.
Schools. Educational institutions are incorporating mental health professionals in their support staff. In most cases, schools are doing a very good job of reaching out to their students and providing support for those who need it. The schools that have not been able to do so could connect with larger systems and receive the assistance they need.
Medical facilities. Whole-person care is no longer a unique Adventist philosophy. Integrating behavioral care into primary care, specialty clinics, and inpatient facilities has shown to enhance both physical and mental health. At this point, few Adventist medical institutions have caught on to this concept. Mission hospitals and clinics may not be equipped to provide this type of service. The pandemic has pushed forward the use of telemedicine to provide care. The church could facilitate a network of providers that could guide local health professionals in the mission field, who may deliver treatment and monitor progress in consultation with specialists.
How we do emotional health ministry is important. As Seventh-day Adventist Christians, we have an identity that is rooted in the compassionate model of ministry, exemplified by Jesus and informed by a mission to affirm the gospel.
Ellen G. White proposed a series of avenues through which emotional healing can take place: “Courage, hope, faith, sympathy, love, promote health, and prolong life. A contented mind, a cheerful spirit, is health to the body and strength to the soul. ‘A merry [rejoicing] heart doeth good like a medicine’ (Proverbs 17:22).” While we should resist the temptation of oversimplifying how this statement can be implemented, it is unmistakable that faith plays a crucial role.
For us as Seventh-day Adventists, it is not enough to do mental health well. Of course, we should be thoughtful, informed, ethical, and professional, but mental health is not surgery. There is robust research indicating the importance of attending to and incorporating faith into mental health interventions. Just replicating what secular mental health does is insufficient. Having a Christian identity is not the same as being “pushy” with our beliefs. Having a Christian identity means weaving the best evidence-based practices together with an understanding of Scripture to experience a “merry heart” amid challenges.
Pitfalls to Avoid
Seventh-day Adventists are not immune to challenges when it comes to how mental health is understood and implemented. Here are some of the potential pitfalls or areas to be aware of when implementing a mental health ministry.
- Be sure that whatever you do, you have credible professional support to refer people for treatment. Choose professionals that meet or surpass your current level of knowledge or skill. Running a seminar in your church, which you learned in a few days, can hurt the people you intend to serve. You can easily get in over your head.
- Check the credentials of the mental health professionals (church members or not) that may help you. You may be shocked to learn how many claim academic degrees they do not possess or that were obtained through non-accredited and questionable programs. Claiming to be a Christian is not always equivalent to having integrity.
- Avoid those mental health professionals with fuzzy definitions of spirituality. Some claim that it is the same to talk about “meaning in life” as to be informed by biblical ideas. Some rely on mindfulness meditation and other Buddhist-based practices and claim it to be “spiritual.” Doing ministry in a Christian context ought to reflect a Christian identity. You may vary the degree of explicitness based on your audience, but professionals with fuzzy definitions tend to have a fuzzy identity.
- Never work alone. This ministry can be tough for your mental health. All and any of the ideas presented above should be carried out in cooperation with spiritual leaders, health professionals, and mental health providers. If you do not fall into any of these categories, there is a place for you. I have worked with lay leaders whose passion resulted in extraordinary ministry. Any initiative needs a “champion.” Waiting for pastors or other professionals to take the lead may lead to nowhere.
Nobody said that ministry is easy. Take comfort in the fact that everyone who ministered in the Bible (Jesus, Paul, Peter, and others) faced disappointment, misunderstanding, and opposition. Pray that the Lord will guide you to like-minded individuals and open doors for you.
Remember, our ministry is here so that everyone may have “life abundant” (John 10:10), including you.
The original version of this commentary was posted on the Inter-American Division news site.
1. Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing, 241.
2. Anwar Mulugeta, Ang Zhou, Catherine King, and Elina Hyppönen, “Association between major depressive disorder and multiple disease outcomes: A phenome-wide Mendelian randomisation study in the UK Biobank,” Molecular Psychiatry (2019), https://doi.org/10.1038/s41380-019-0486-1. 3. White, The Ministry of Healing, 242.