General Conference

Thank you, Adventist Church for properly recognizing mental health issues

In addition to clinical psychologists, social workers often provide front-line care

John Gavin

T he Seventh-day Adventist Church last year demonstrated an important milestone regarding a religious organization’s approach to mental health – it takes it seriously.

The denomination held an international conference on Emotional Health & Wellness, which was significant for several reasons:

It pulled together several church departments to work together on an issue.
The event was a joint effort of Loma Linda University, Adventist Education, Health Ministries, Women’s Ministries, Chaplaincy Ministries, Family Ministries, and others.

For a long time these organizations have struggled alone with the challenges of helping people who suffer from mental health problems. By joining together their impact is multiplied.

The conference also demonstrated that the Adventist Church is willing to address real issues regarding mental health. As Dr. Carlos Fayard pointed out in his ANN Commentary (July 6, 2011) about last year’s conference, there are many within the church who deny or minimize mental health issues or who apply simplistic solutions, relegating them to simple matters of spirituality. 

Adventist psychiatrists, psychologists and physicians know first-hand the living nightmare that characterizes the existence of those experiencing depression, anxiety, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, grief, addiction and other problems. They are the ones who bring hope and healing to those experiencing emotional distress.

What some people might not realize is that that many front-line professionals addressing mental health are social workers. Pioneers in Adventist social work education such as Dr. Edith Fraser – who presented at the conference – have led to the development of academic programs at Adventist universities in the U.S. that have produced hundreds of Adventist social workers. At one time the Adventist Social Workers Association boasted more than 700 members.

Many social workers serve as professional counselors on the front lines and in significant numbers. The International Federation of Social Workers is an association of national organizations in 90 countries representing more than 745,000 social workers serving worldwide.

Adventist mental health professionals are aware of related spiritual dimensions. Emotional distress can prevent someone from experiencing a full and vibrant life in Christ and extending His grace to others in meaningful service.

The counseling process then serves as a change process that begins with surrender of will and involves a conscious process of understanding oneself and changing one’s behavior.  This surrender of will, or “ego death,” is similar in concept to the biblical principles of conversion, of death and rebirth, and a central belief for Adventists.

I echo Dr. Fayard’s call to strengthen the ministry of the church worldwide to those with emotional distress. His challenge should be extended.

I urge local Adventist churches to choose this year to sponsor support groups and open community-based counseling centers. In 2012, every church can take action to not only become a “haven of acceptance” but also a center emotional health and wellness programs.

John Gavin is chair of the Social Work Program at Washington Adventist University, secretary-treasurer of the International Association of Adventist Social Workers, and a Senior Fellow with the Center for Metropolitan Ministry.