Christian leaders, especially pastors, minister to large congregations of faithful and people from different walks of life. It is highly possible that there is no other system than church and its leaders who get to meet people of different ages and educational and economical backgrounds almost on a weekly basis. In any given church there will be specific programmes for children, youth, men, women, and elderly. If a church is more vibrant there will be specific programmes related to healing ministry, music, education and empowerment of communities besides its regular Sunday services. So, the church leaders will have unique opportunities to promote health and wellbeing in its congregation and thus in the society and the nation.
What is Health?
For most of us health means physical health. So, one may say, ‘I am fine because I do not have any physical ailment’. But, we also know that despite being physically fine, at least overtly, one may not feel good about many things. For instance, one may not be able to experience positive emotions and feelings; or overcome chronic stress and anxiety; or not able to maintain a satisfactory relationship with self or others. So, there is this possibility that one can be psychologically (also commonly referred to as ‘mentally’) ill despite being physically alright.
It is also true that sometimes we only focus on physical problems and ignore the psychological problems associated with them. For example, common physical disorders like diabetes and hypertension can affect our brain and mind, but we seldom recognise that. We may also not recognise that psychological problems such as chronic stress, worries, and anxiety can cause physical diseases such as heart problems and brain stroke. They also interfere with immune functions, and increase our risk for various other physical illnesses.
It is also possible that we may not recognise certain problems as illnesses. For example, we often wrongly think smoking, alcohol dependence, excess use of electronic gadgets and screen-time are mere habits whereas they are behavioural disorders. Contrary to the popular belief, they are not amenable to ‘will power’ alone and need professional guidance to manage them.
The above examples should tell us that health means both physical and mental health. The World Health Organization (WHO) has been talking about it for the last 73 years. According to the WHO, health is feeling good physically, mentally, and socially and even spiritually. So we need to recognise that there is no health without mental health.
What do we need to do to promote mental health?
Recognise that mental illnesses or psychological disorders are common: According to a national-level survey in 2016, for every 100 people in our communities, there will be approximately 10 people with emotional and behavioural problems. These figures will go up if we add alcohol or tobacco related problems to these numbers. So we need to understand that mental illnesses are common. They can affect us irrespective of gender, economic status or occupation.
Create a safe environment to talk about psychological distress: Most of us do not openly talk about mental health needs for fear of stigma and isolation. People become all the more guarded if the problem appear to be somewhat related to habits and character (e.g. smoking, drinking, anger control, sexuality issues). According to Dr Siang-Yang Tan, a senior pastor of First Evangelical Church in Glendale, CA, and professor of psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary, many members could get good help from the church for their psychological issues, but they refrain from seeking services for the fear of lack of confidentiality and judgment. The church leaders can ponder what kind of support they can provide to the needy—a lending ear to feel heard, an empathetic soul to feel understood, a helping hand to feel supported and a group to experience belongingness. Any committed congregation can provide these simple yet powerful means to support its members. If there is a possibility, we can look out for professional counsellors, trained mental health professionals or wise people within the church and community to spare their time resources for these services in varying capacities.
Promote healthy habits: Some of the common factors that cause chronic diseases including mental illnesses are lack of adequate sleep (i.e. 6-8 hours of night sleep), skipping breakfast and irregular food habits, smoking, excess use of alcohol, chronic stress, lack of physical activities (i.e. less than an hour of rigorous physical activity). In addition, obesity and hypertension have become very pervasive threats for both physical and mental health. In this context, church leaders can model and adopt various measures to encourage its members to embrace healthy lifestyles.
At a very basic level, if there are difficulties related to sleeping, eating, and mood irregularities for two days to two weeks, we need to pause and reflect what best we can do to overcome the same. If it does not help, one needs to meet mental health professional for help. If one is hearing voices when there is nobody around or refusing to eat at all or aggressive and violent, the person needs immediate help. Mental health professionals such as psychiatrists or clinical psychologists can be of reasonable help in such circumstances.
Provide positive avenues to deal with distress: Stress is common in everybody’s life. To a certain extent stress can fuel us to become proactive in dealing with our problems. Let us imagine, if there is no stress for a student before the exams, he or she may not prepare well for the exams. But too much of stress can create anxiety and spoil the performance in the exams. Prayers, meditating on the Word, praise and worship and participation in organised community work can be very powerful tools to change the meaning we attach to our experiences and facilitate a new perspective and encourage effective, positive behaviours.
Understand and propagate the indices of mental health: Under general conditions, productive activities (e.g. work, school, caregiving, home management), fulfilling relationships and the ability to adapt to change and cope with adversity indicate positive mental health. So we need to regulate our behaviours to achieve these. But, we can also strive for higher indices such as, love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control to reflect a real transformation (see, Galatians 5:22–23). In conclusion, mental health problems are common. But not many openly admit them for various reasons including stigma and lack of support. Across the globe, it has been found that many people prefer to go to their faith leaders for emotional support and guidance in matters related to mental health. In this context, churches and its leaders will have unique opportunities to address the mental health needs of its congregation by way of providing safe environment to people for venting their feelings and seeking appropriate support, promoting healthy lifestyle and providing positive avenues to deal with stress. They can also lead the congregation by being exemplary in these matters. This can potentially contribute to healthy families, healthy communities and strong nation.