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Missionaries & Mental Health

Written by Jill Henry on

“I just think you’re depressed. I will see if our psychiatrist can see you today. But I can do some neurological tests first if that would make you feel better.”

There I sat in a cold examination room in Thailand, tears flowing down my face, as a Thai neurologist diagnosed me with depression after a short conversation about some symptoms I had been experiencing. Tears had been my constant companions for months. I wasn’t surprised by this diagnosis. Yet, I sat there feeling humiliated. Everything inside me wanted this doctor to be wrong—but, deep down, I knew she was right.

I signed a waiver rejecting both an MRI and a psych evaluation. I paid my bill and grabbed a taxi back to our field office in Chiang Mai. Thank goodness I had my sunglasses with me so the taxi driver couldn’t see that I was crying. I had nothing left in me to try explaining to the driver, in my broken Thai, why I was so upset.

When I arrived at the Mekong Center, our field doctor was waiting for me. After a thorough conversation and an empathetic heart, he officially diagnosed me with Situational Depression. The tears continued to flow as I tried to accept this diagnosis, knowing full well that he was right, too. The doctor ended our time with prayer, then handed me a prescription for an anti-depressant and a referral to the Christian counseling center in Chiang Mai.

Missionaries & Mental Health

Would you be surprised if I told you that over 90 percent of missionaries are, at some point in time of their service, diagnosed with depression, anxiety, burnout, or some other mental health disorder—and many take medications to help them cope?

How can this be? Aren’t missionaries “special”? Aren’t missionaries super-spiritual? Don’t they, like pastors, have it all together? Why would any of them struggle with mental health challenges!?

Well, in case you didn’t know, missionaries, pastors, and anyone in full-time ministry is human, just like you. And every person, no matter what their vocation or calling will face spiritual battles, loss, disappointments, failure, personal sin, and physiological challenges. Some experts would even say that overseas missionaries are even more prone to these difficulties because of the adversities of living in a foreign country, adapting to a new culture, having to learn a different language, the grief of missing loved ones left behind, and the added pressure of bearing the title and expectations of being a missionary. It’s no wonder that, according to a 2018 study, 9.5 percent of missionaries leave their field of service due to mental health challenges. But just because a missionary is diagnosed with a mental health disorder does not mean they are automatically disqualified from serving overseas. While some missionaries return to their passport countries due to mental health challenges, there is still a significant number who remain on the field while living with the stigma of depression or anxiety.

Galina Hitching with OMF International says, “When a missionary on the field faces 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 the 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.”

Missionary Health & the Church

For years, the evangelical church has danced around the topic of mental health. Many Christians would even say that depression is a sin; or, a person can only be depressed because they’re not trusting God enough. Not only is this a false narrative, but it’s not biblical. It’s dangerous. Because of this false narrative, people with mental health challenges often live in isolation and fear, and sometimes they deny that they’re even suffering.

We know that David, a “man after God’s own heart,” wrestled with emotional and mental challenges as we read his cries for help to God throughout the psalms. And in the Gospels, we see accounts of a loving Savior who reached out to the mentally unstable, the demon-possessed, and the socially rejected. Jesus ministered to the physical, emotional, and mental needs of those around him.

Then why is it so difficult for Christians to follow Christ’s example in the area of mental health? Why are we so quick to judge a person’s heart when they’re sad, discouraged, or depressed? If we have been called to follow Christ to the ends of the earth, aren’t we to follow him in the sufferings of others—emotional and mental suffering—too?

4 Steps to Caring for Missionary’s Mental Health

So what do we do?

First, we need to be the Body of Christ. God has called us to care for one another, to come alongside those hurting and suffering, and to provide a safe space to be real, honest, and transparent about our struggles.

Second, we need to be praying regularly for our missionaries—for the work they’re doing to share the good news with the unreached and for their emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being.

And third, we need to encourage our missionaries—all year long. Our missionaries love and they need to hear from you! Write them a note or send them an email to let them know you are praying for them. Sign up to receive their newsletters and actually read them when they pop up in your inbox. Send them a care package around their birthday. Let missionaries know they are cared for and not forgotten!

Lastly, remember that missionaries are human. They’re sinners in need of a Savior just like the people they’re trying to reach with the gospel. Missionaries go through valleys just like you. Suffering and mental health challenges aren’t unique to any one kind of person, and missionaries are certainly not immune.

Jill Henry

Jill serves College Park as the Lead Pastor Assistant. She is passionate about helping the Church know its mission to know God and make him known to all peoples. In her free time, Jill enjoys spending time with her seven nieces and nephews, seeing her best friends up in Michigan, and connecting with her many friends across the ocean in Southeast Asia.

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