woman placing her finger between her lips

Exporting emotional instability

There is a growing mental health crisis in America, and most churches seem ill-equipped to address the struggles of their congregants. Some churches try to address the impending emotional instability, but others just bury their heads in the sand. Instances of depression and anxiety have increased exponentially since the turn of the century, with no signs of letting up.

I have not lived in America for 20 years, so I haven’t witnessed these issues firsthand. But I have read about the fallout in multiple articles. I have also seen the second-hand effect as many of our missionaries arriving on the field for the last 10–15 years have come with additional emotional baggage.

I am not blaming young missionaries struggling with their emotional health. My desire in this article is to point out a growing issue, minimize damage, and seek solutions. Because exporting emotional instability to ministries around the globe could have a catastrophic effect on both the young missionaries and the kingdom work they came to be a part of.

The subject of mental health, depression, and anxiety have been growing concerns over the past few years. I’ve noticed that the new crop of missionaries is struggling with these issues more than ever before. This is not to say previous generations didn’t deal with similar problems, but they seem to be increasing in prevalence among young adults today.

How does it affect the health of mission teams?

When a missionary struggles with depression or anxiety, it indirectly weakens the entire team. It affects the other missionaries in the following ways:

1) The team leader is usually not equipped to deal with mental health issues. Often a missionary with depression is in a season of deep spiritual crisis and needs close friends who can pray for them, share life stories with them, etc. Though a team leader is usually willing to be that confidant, they are not always equipped with the best tools to help them maneuver the crisis. Most missionaries are church planters, evangelists or translators, etc. They are not psychologists, and it is not fair to either party to expect them to fulfill that function.

2) The struggling missionary feels isolated and alone. They also tend to sequester themselves from certain teammates and stop doing ministry among national partners. That is understandable because they are not in a good place emotionally. They may be ashamed of their depression/anxiety and do not want to talk about it with other missionaries. But when their workload is passed on to others on the team without explanation, it can cause resentment and disrupted workflow. These are usually the early signs of team division.

3) Interpersonal relationships are affected, and hypersensitivity leads to misunderstandings. A missionary’s motivation in ministry is usually their number one asset. But when they are depressed, it affects their energy, focus, and relationships with others. When these relationships break down and trust erodes, the situation is usually beyond rescue.

4) Missionaries leave the field early or begin a habit of team hopping, trying to find the perfect solution. Often the missionary’s departure is the best option. If they are in crisis or need professional help, they can return home to receive it. But some missionaries leave prematurely because they don’t feel understood on their team. They think their case is unique, and no one has dealt with similar issues. I know of several missionaries that have walked away from the ministry because of sensitive issues that could have been resolved had they just stayed their course and confided in those who loved them to support them through their hardship.

5) The missionaries who remains on the field is also profoundly affected by their crisis. They feel guilty about not being able to help their friend. They are usually unaware of what is happening behind the scenes and can misinterpret it as a lack of interest or love for them.

The world is full of broken people looking to be loved and used by God for His glory. The body of Christ should be the most equipped to walk with those who are hurting not only at home but around the world. Unfortunately, I believe we have done a poor job in preparing young adults for the reality of full-time cross cultural missions.

My heart grieves for those who struggle in silence because they don’t know how to navigate through the aftermath of their crisis. No one should have to leave because their team isn’t equipped to help them through complex emotional issues. And no team should have to endure an invisible crisis without the tools to address the issues.

What are some possible solutions:

For those already on the mission field:

If the young missionary is already on the field, we must help the team leaders better recognize and manage mental health issues. Teach them how to effectively communicate with young people struggling with depression and anxiety and help them foster healthy relationships and boundaries.

Additionally, Organizations should provide qualified counselors and psychiatrists to address the science and not just respond to feelings. Well intentioned pastors and experienced missionaries can help at times, but professional help is often a necessity.

Transparency and clear communication is another must in these circumstances. Sometimes misunderstanding can easily be cleared up through mediation and a biblical approach to conflict. But when things are kept in secret, truth is sacrificed for the feelings of others. In the end, everyone is hurt and the truth is never fully represented.

For missionary cantidates:

The big picture answer may be more controversial, but I believe someone needs to stand up and say it. If a missionary candidate is actively dealing with depression and anxiety, the church/organization should not send them to the mission field. The possibility of damaging a healthy mission team or disrupting ongoing work is too great.

Stress only increases on the mission field. Cross-cultural relationships are infinitely more challenging to maneuver than same culture relationships. As these stresses increase, anxiety and depression grow, and the seeds of doubt and division are planted.

As difficult as it may be to recognize, we must open our eyes to the growing impact of these issues on the mission field. I love our brothers and sisters who are struggling with mental health issues, and I believe they can be healthy and have a positive impact on the kingdom of God. But realistically, I do not think that Cross-cultural missions are the best place for these issues to be worked through.

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