by Will Rogers
When it comes to counseling for missionaries, there can often be a lot of barriers and confusion. My hope is to address some of the bigger questions and offer some helpful resources as you think through counseling and missionaries.
Counseling addresses the emotional, social, work, school, and physical health concerns people may have at different stages in their lives, focusing on typical life stressors and more severe issues with which people may struggle as individuals and as a part of families, groups, and organizations.
There are various types of counselors:
Rehabilitation counselor: These counselors work with patients to manage the physical and emotional effects of disabilities and illnesses..
Substance Abuse counselor: These professionals help clients recover from various types of addictions, drug dependencies, and other destructive behaviors.
Mental Health Counselor: These counselors provide treatment to diverse patient populations experiencing mental and emotional conditions, anxiety, addiction, and other disorders.
Spiritual guidance counselor: These counselors, who typically hold a master's degree, base their practice on spiritual or religious beliefs and principles integrated into secular clinical approaches.
Child pediatric counselor: Working in clinics, schools, and social services organizations, these counselors diagnose and treat mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders and traumas in children
Suicide Counselor: Suicide counselors identify at-risk individuals, assess how much danger they pose to themselves and others, diffuse crisis situations, and develop an appropriate treatment.
Marriage and Family Counselor: These professionals use their counseling training to help individuals, couples, and families cope with relationship issues, such as separation, divorce, and abuse.
Grief Counselor: Often referred to as bereavement counselors, these specialists help people move through stages of grief after losing a close family member or friend.
Behavior Analyst: These highly-trained therapists treat children and adults on the autism spectrum and those with ADHD, brain injuries, and other behavioral or developmental challenges.
There are several reasons why missionaries might consider counseling. For example, the life events missionaries go through are often exacerbated by the fact that they are living in a foreign country and everyday life tasks can be more challenging and frustrating simply because there are consistent unknowns.
Missionaries are often isolated from family and friends and without a support network. Grief can creep up on a missionary without even realizing it due to the loss of home, security, friends, and “normal” life. If not handled well, these feelings of stress, grief, and isolation can lead to harmful mental health.
Kids are often described as “resilient” and can easily handle transitions, languages, and life changes. However, these dramatic life changes can have lasting effects on kids.
ACEs are adverse childhood experiences and can have long-term health effects if not addressed. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says:
“ACEs can have lasting, negative effects on health, well-being, and opportunity. These experiences can increase the risks of injury, sexually transmitted infections, maternal and child health problems, teen pregnancy, involvement in sex trafficking, and a wide range of chronic diseases and leading causes of death such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and suicide.”
I want to give you a few resources that should prove handy when thinking through serving God in missions and counseling.
First, Richard Bagge and Samuel Thielman have a talk on resilience and sustaining global workers. In this first part of two, they discuss missionaries and other overseas Christian workers and how they are subject to unique stressors, and providing proper support for this group requires a commitment from sending organizations. Despite the fact that in the past mental health problems in missions have been neglected, mission organizations have developed an increased capacity for supporting missionaries. This presentation describes the best practices for behavioral health support. They point out how organizations have reduced stigmatization, developed sound procedures for evaluating, supporting, and triaging missionaries and their families who develop psychiatric problems. They also review current medical thinking about resilience, compassion fatigue, vicarious traumatization, and burnout and discuss how these concepts can be used to inform medical support for expatriate Christian workers.
The next resource I want to share with you comes from Roger Brown. He points to Dr. Samuel Thielman’s presentation at the Global Missions Health Conference (GMHC) on Resilience, endurance, and doing God’s work in hard places. You can download the PDF and the presentation slides for reference.
Finally, I want to direct your attention to Dr. Karen Carr’s breakout session from GMHC. Carr is a Clinical Psychologist for Barnabas International and discusses the topic of how medical missionaries can be resilient in the midst of trauma and stress. Drawing on principles from psychological research and Christian scriptures, Carr’s recorded workshop explores factors of resilience for those working in high-risk, high-stress cross-cultural work. You will discover what enhances resilience and what contributes to decreased coping.
Carr’s workshop introduces practical resources for responding to stress and trauma with resilience, grace, and perseverance. After you listen, you’ll be able to identify incidents of trauma and common sources of stress in cross-cultural medical workers. You’ll know how to identify factors that contribute to resilience in cross-cultural medical workers. You will be able to identify factors that decrease resilience in cross-cultural medical workers. And, you’ll also learn about resilience factors to increase coping when working in high-stress environments.
My hope is that answering these questions and reviewing these resources will help you cut through any and all confusion as it relates to counseling for missionaries. God has called you to serve Him. My hope is this post will help you think through counseling and missionaries—so you can serve Him more faithfully.