13 August 2016

Integrating Mental Health into Global Outreach

Theological Statement:   We believe that faithful Christians are called to be in ministry to individuals and their families challenged by disorders causing disturbances of thinking, feeling and acting categorized as "mental illness." We acknowledge that throughout history and today, our ministries in this area have been hampered by lack of knowledge, fear and misunderstanding. Even so, we believe that those so challenged, their families and their communities are to be embraced by the church in its ministry of compassion and love.
Our model is Jesus, who calls us to an ethic of love toward all. As Jesus proclaimed the reign of God, his words and proclamations were accompanied by "healing every disease and every sickness" (Matthew 9:35). Jesus had compassion and healed those besieged by mental illness, many of whom had been despised, rejected, persecuted and feared by their community.
Excerpt:  Book of United Methodist Resolutions, adopted 1992

Searching through United Methodist websites renders numerous statements, similar to the one above, that appear to be written for local congregations.  Unfortunately, little can be found that addresses how volunteer missionaries respond to desperate mental health needs in global communities where they serve, in either short-term, intermittently or long-term (over 6 months) assignments.

Volunteers do quite well in responding to obvious, physical needs but are less adept at discerning and interacting with the emotionally and behaviorally distressed, even though most of us acknowledge that poor, global communities have an unusually high number of triggers for mental illness.

What can we do?
  1. Routinely teach UMVIM groups going abroad to notice and report behavioral signs of distress within the target communities. These may include signs of depression, low self-esteem, substance abuse, isolation, behavioral extremes or  aggression toward others or self.
  2. Establish a confidential communication plan with the local host or reliable health provider to communicate any serious findings in the target community
  3. Because the natural inclination may be to avoid persons who are irrational or distressed, encourage team members to follow Christ's model of love and compassion toward those who are behaviorally challenged.
  4. Consider teaching a course to local health promoters on ways that they can identify mental health issues and find appropriate referrals within their communities.
One caveat to the above:  Remember that many behaviors are culturally defined.  Do not assume that something is abnormal unless it is confirmed by and discussed with your local host or reliable local person.

An excellent reference for volunteers to use is: Where There is No Psychiatrist;  Vikram Patel, 2003.  This manual is available from Amazon.  There is a Kindle and paperback version. 

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