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Credo
6 June 2022

In a media release in December 2018, the Institute of Mental Health reported that one in seven people in Singapore has experienced a mental disorder in their lifetime. This situation is exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, especially with the recent resurgence of community cases following a lull for a few months.

The pandemic has, in many different ways, given rise to stress and anxiety. Many are worried about their health, the health of their loved ones and their livelihood. Necessary measures that are meant to keep the population safe such as imposed limits on social gatherings can result in isolation and loneliness, and generate even more anxiety.

On March 16 this year, the Straits Times reported that mental health professionals in Singapore have attended to more cases in the past year amid the raging COVID-19 pandemic. This has prompted the National Council of Social Service to launch its national anti-stigma campaign, “Beyond the Label”, last year to raise public awareness and help those affected.

Although there is generally an increasing awareness of mental health issues in Singapore, the Church can arguably do much more not only to educate its members, but also to think of how best to minister to and support the mentally ill and their families. The Church’s ministry to its members struggling with mental health should be multi-pronged because of the complexity of the phenomenon.

For many Christians, dealing with depression, chronic anxiety and other forms of mental illness plunges them into a deep spiritual crisis. All sorts of questions will invade their minds, some of which present formidable challenges to their faith.

Questions such as whether they are being punished by God for some past sins they might have committed. The answers they (and others) give to such questions could either assure them of God’s unconditional love or drag them into the abyss of guilt and despair.

In helping its members to properly understand issues related to mental illness, the Church must provide a robust theology of suffering based on Scripture and tradition. In addition, the Church must help its members to appreciate the stigmatisation that people with mental illness often suffer. Stigmatisation of the mentally ill is not just found in society—it is also found in the Church. In many cases, the stigmatisation is not only confined to the person with mental illness; it often extends to the members of their families as well.

Stigmatisation is a corrosive social evil that not only dehumanises its victim, but also the community that tolerates it. For a bit of our own humanity is eroded when we fail to recognise and honour the dignity of a human being created in God’s image.

As I have written elsewhere, the Church must learn to welcome and value believers who are suffering from mental illness or disability as indispensable members of Christ’s Body (1 Cor 12:21–27). We must love them and minister to them because they are our brothers and sisters in the Lord.

This ministry, however, is never a one-way street. Brothers and sisters with mental illness can and often do contribute to the life and ministry of the Church. God does bless the Church through the presence of its sick and disabled members.

Now, beyond changing mindsets and attitudes and exorcising prejudices and fears, the Church must also encourage its members to help in concrete and tangible ways. These include practical acts such as accompanying the person with mental illness for his doctor appointments or raising funds to help defray the cost of medical bills.

The Church can also start special groups to support people affected by mental illness. These groups can create for them a safe space where they can freely share their stories in an environment of love and trust.

According to Amy Simpson, this ministry has a subtle but profound impact because it “will alert people that they are not alone within the body of Christ and that the church is a safe place to be sick. This message can have more healing than we might ever know”.

But most importantly, the Church must pray with and for people with mental health issues. Prayer can bring comfort and peace because it ushers us into the presence of the God of love and grace.

“Prayer,” writes theologian Kathryn Greene-McCreight, who is struggling with mental illness herself, “will bring health—even for the bent and broken mind of the mentally ill.”

References:
[1] Institute of Mental Health, “Latest nationwide study shows 1 in 7 people in Singapore has experienced a mental disorder in their lifetime”, 11 Dec 2018.
[2] Eliz Wang and Natalie Tan, “More needed help during Covid-19 pandemic, say mental health experts”, Straits Times, 16 March 2021.
[3] Rei Kurohi, “Mental health anti-stigma campaign back for 3rd year”, Straits Times, 25 Sep 2020.
[4] Amy Simpson, Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2013), 195.
[5] Kathryn Greene-McCreight, Darkness is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2015), 137.


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.