Studies have shown that one out of four people on the African continent may experience common mental problems each year. At the same time, there is a shortage of mental health professionals which create a huge gap in the treatment.
On the other hand, the church has traditionally been the gateway into communities. It has been our access to social services, family counselling, and a sense of belonging. Namibian faith leaders also play a pivotal role in community messaging about what is important to our people.
We have historically looked to our faith leaders for guidance in social matters, and to be the spokesperson when our communities have needed a champion.
As stigma is a significant barrier to accessing the needed support and care for individuals facing mental health concerns, the ability for individuals in distress to have a conversation with a trusted faith leader with whom they have a shared history is often an essential component.
It is imperative that our faith leaders are equipped to respond appropriately to the lack of mental health resources in our communities while removing barriers to care and silence stigma.
Faith leaders can play a pivotal role if we are to move the needle on improving mental wellness in the Namibian communities. The use of the term ‘wellness’ is intentional; a crucial first step in changing the narrative is to change the language. The focus should be on wellness rather than ‘illnesses’. Illness implies that something is wrong.
Wellness lends itself more easily to viewing treatment as preventive. Being mentally well means that your mind is in order and functioning in your best interest. You are able to think, feel and act in ways that create a positive impact on your physical and social wellbeing.
Mentally well people are positive, self-assured and happy. They are in control of their thoughts, emotions and behaviour. This enables them to handle challenges, build strong relationships and enjoy life.
If we want to strengthen the role of the church in promoting mental wellness, we must: Educate church leaders about mental health, make sure they understand that mental health conditions are just as real (and common) as physical health conditions and that it is likely that several families in church congregations may be experiencing mental health challenges.
Seek opportunities to collaborate and work together with community mental health providers – imagine how much more comfortable a church member would be accessing his mental health clinician virtually from his local church, rather than visiting a clinician’s office.
Opportunity exists for church to provide depression education and treatment on their campuses – reach out to community stakeholders and invite them to speak to your congregations about mental health, and include mental health when scheduling health fairs: Encourage churches to offer mental health first aid training at their facility.
Prepare church leaders to recognise mental health symptoms, learn how to have an appropriate conversation about it, and refer congregants to mental health professionals rather than trying to ‘counsel’ them themselves; Recruit trained mental health professionals to church staff.
Find ways to normalise the conversation and increase social support for those experiencing mental health symptoms.
The topic of mental health is still often associated with a sense of shame among our community, making it hard for those experiencing distress to reach out for help, and for those who care about them to help connect them to that help. By spreading awareness and understanding about suicide prevention and mental health, the church can become an important place of refuge for those struggling.