Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.
Three weeks ago,
I raised the question of what features of the world and its various
contexts in the 21st century might constitute new areas of mission, in
the same way that features of the world 50, 100, or 150 years ago led to
areas of mission work that we now consider central: education, poverty
relief, healthcare, etc.
This week, I suggest a third new area of mission work: mental health.
The church has long been involved in health and healing work as a form of mission. In various times and places, this sort of mission work has ranged from faith healing to patient nursing of the sick to the spread of Western medicine. But it has usually focused on physical aliments: sickness, disability, injury.
Mental health has only relatively recently (within the past century or so) been understood as a category of human ailment. And there has often been a good deal of disbelief or shame involved in using the framework of mental health to describe human ailing.
Yet mental health problems are quite common, more so than many diseases. Estimates of the overall incidence of mental health disorders is about 15% globally, and 4% each for depression and anxiety. Overall incidence of cancer, by comparison, is about .2%. Women and people living in Western countries are more likely to experience mental health disorders. In the US, overall prevalence is just over 18%.
Despite the prevalence of mental health disorders, churches have often struggled to know how to respond to mental health, perhaps because of discomfort or difficulty in discerning the line between the cognitive/emotional and the spiritual.
Yet the church has a great potential to treat mental health in holistic ways that include cognitive, emotional, and spiritual components without reducing any of these elements to the others. Indeed, we don't see prayer and medication as mutually exclusive approaches to treating physical disease. Why should we see prayer and counseling (and perhaps medication) as mutually exclusive approaches to mental health?
Since the church proclaims freedom from our burdens, it would seem that mental health care could be a promising new form of mission work. Indeed, since Christianity proclaims joy and peace as among the fruits of the Spirit, it would seem a failure if the church did not address mental health issues that can rob people of these elements of a healthy, holy life.
Moreover, mental health is an area that the church is already engaged in, at least in places. Drawing on his experience of church work with mental health, Peter Bellini wrote a fine three-part series for UM & Global a few years ago on "Global Mental Health and the Church." For those looking to explore this topic further, I commend it to you:
Global Mental Health and the Church, Part I
Global Mental Health and the Church, Part II
Global Mental Health and the Church, Part III