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What American Christians can learn from other countries about mental health

Americans’ assessment of their mental health is worse than it has been at any point in the last two decades, according to a recent Gallup survey. Nearly 10% of youth in the United States have severe major depression, and one in four older adults report having anxiety or depression.

But also, according to research, people in the U.S. are experiencing greater mental health challenges from the pandemic than other nations. Why is this, and what can we do about it?

Courtesy of Margi McCombs

In my years of doing trauma healing work overseas with American Bible Society’s Trauma Healing Institute*, I’ve learned a great deal from children and families in other countries who face extremely difficult circumstances. Many of them experience ongoing trauma and loss, yet they are still able to experience emotional healing and equilibrium.

In the West, we are easily consumed with our comforts and wealth. This time of prolonged physical and economic suffering has come as a shock, and it’s an opportunity to learn how to stay focused on God in all circumstances.

Here are three mental health strategies, based in Biblical wisdom, that I’ve seen in cultures overseas that Christians can apply to their own healing:

1.  Learn to be content (Read: Philippians 4:11-13 and Hebrews 13:5)

Children who live in family-oriented cultures that prioritize community over possessions typically feel secure and content as long as they have their basic needs met. In rural areas I visited in southern Swaziland, for instance, I saw kids creating toys out of whatever they could find, like making real working toy cars out of soda can tins or a running toy with an old wheel rim and a stick. These little ones didn’t expect the newest, shiniest toys, so they didn’t look to possessions to find joy.

We can manage our expectations by learning to be content with what we have and knowing when we cannot change things. It’s crucial to teach our children the difference between ‘needs,’ like food and water, and ‘wants,’ like a new bicycle or video game. It’s also important that we nurture a spirit of gratitude in children, which goes hand in hand with learning to be content. By making a habit of noticing and talking openly about our blessings, we can teach children one of the most important life lessons they will ever learn. When you say, “Thank you, God, for that amazing sunset,” or “Thank you, God, for friends that love us,” they have tangible examples of what it looks like to live with a grateful spirit.

2.  Practice generosity (Read: Luke 6:38 and II Corinthians 9:11)

When I was in Egypt for a training, a group of kids started following us, curious about what we were doing. Someone in our group found a new pack of gum in his pocket and gave it to one of the little boys – who immediately began to split each piece into smaller pieces and give them away.

We see this often in kids who have limited resources: they instinctively share among each other. As we grow into adults, especially in our individualistic “I earned this” or “I deserve this” American culture, we often have to remind ourselves to practice generosity. Recognize the difference between a scarcity mindset (“When I get something, I need to protect it for myself”) versus a generosity mindset (“This is a blessing that I can share with those around me”).

Remember that generosity isn’t confined to material things. I have been honored by gracious, generous people in humble refugee camp tents who have shared a simple cup of tea with generosity that only comes from the heart. A generous spirit also appears in non-tangible ways like listening to one another, extending hospitality to all, and taking time to simply be together.

3.  Live in the now (Read Matthew 6:34 and Philippians 4:6-7)

In places like refugee camps where some level of trauma is ongoing and relentless, people learn to live for today in order to survive. It’s good to talk about the hurtful things that have happened to us, and it’s good to talk about our anxieties and fears with people we trust. But it’s not healthy to dwell on those memories and worries all the time. We need to find a way to give our minds a rest by thinking about the present.

As Christians, we are instructed by the Lord not to worry about tomorrow. Matthew 6:25 says, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear.” That is hard to do when you’re carrying deep heart wounds and you’re short on resources. But using slow breathing exercises is one way to decrease anxiety, calm your emotions and help you stay in the present.

You can also try this mindfulness technique when you feel overwhelmed with anxiety: (1) Slow your heart rate by taking three big, slow breaths and close your eyes. (2) Focus on your senses. What do you hear/feel/taste/smell? (3) Open your eyes. What do you see around you? (4) Take another deep breath and blow it out slowly. End the exercise with a prayer of gratitude.

Emotional resilience lies in finding gratitude and contentment, practicing generosity, living in the present, working together, and staying connected. If we can take one step toward each of these goals every day, we can relieve some of the stress, sadness, and worry that is burdening us. Hurting people in communities around the world are using biblical values that are ingrained in their culture to overcome heartache, depression and trauma. Let’s pray for and learn from them as American Christians.

* Our Bible-based trauma healing ministry was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in response to the millions of people mentally and emotionally wounded by war. The curriculum, now used around the world with amazing results, combines Scripture with proven mental health practices for healing from grief and trauma.

Margi McCombs, Ph.D., is the director of children and teen trauma healing for the Trauma Healing Institute at American Bible Society.

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