As a seminary graduate and a Masters of Social Work student, I have a passion for social justice and working to improve the wellbeing and health of vulnerable populations. After seminary, during my time as a youth leader, we often turned to Matthew 25:31-46, the familiar passage about “the least of these,” and discussed God’s emphasis on justice and serving the marginalized in our societies.
My time as a social work student, particularly through my current class on international social work, has expanded my concept of the “least of these.” We have learned about some of the most vulnerable populations around the world – child soldiers in Uganda and Colombia, young girls trafficked into the sex trade in Cambodia, HIV/AIDS patients from Haiti, migrants left to die in the desert while trying to cross the Mexican-U.S. border, and the list continues. These concepts were not completely unknown to me and would likely not be new to you either. This past week, however, we studied a different topic, one that has not drawn as much media attention – global mental health.
When you hear the term mental illness, what is your honest, initial, gut reaction? For many, the initial response to mental illnesses is fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of the homeless man on the street yelling loudly to no one in particular, fear of the elderly woman who hears voices through the vents, fear of not knowing the Christian response to people in need. Fear of mental illness exists, despite the fact that 1 in 4 people have a mental illness. As a consequence of a widespread fear of the mentally ill, those with mental illnesses often live in shame due to the social stigma.
For those of us familiar with mental illness within the U.S., we know that our mental health services often fall short. Rather than receiving adequate treatment, many people with mental illnesses suffer in silent shame and at times end up on the streets. Now imagine having mental illness in a developing country, where you may also already live in chronic poverty, have an infectious disease such as cholera or HIV/AIDS, or have been forced to marry the man who raped you. In these environments, having a mental illness drives people even further into poverty, and the majority of those with mental illnesses do not receive treatment. Mental health disorders double after emergencies, such as natural disasters, which many developing countries experience. Despite its connection to global health, mental health is largely ignored as an essential element to address.
We as followers of Christ ought to strive for health for all people for their whole beings, beyond the more tangible, physical needs that we so often discuss. How can you be involved in the world of global mental health? Find your interest or your passion. Do you have a relative or friend or neighbor with a mental illness? Learn more about it and research that particular mental illness on a global level. Are you interested in a particular country or culture?
Find out more about your area of interest and how mental illness is treated within that environment. And in this time of Lent, take some time to reflect on your own mental health as you consider mental health around the world.
Emily Smith Miller is a Master's of Social Work student at the University of South Carolina and a graduate from Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga.
Image: Mental health illustration, Lightspring / Shutterstock.com