October 10, 2020

Adventist Leaders Issue a Clear Call to Tackle the Mental Health Pandemic

Marcos Paseggi, Adventist Review

“Every year, about 800,000 people globally die to suicide. That is about one suicide per 40 seconds,” Adventist Health Ministries associate director and psychiatrist Torben Bergland said in a promotional video that a group of Adventist leaders are using as a call to action to tackle mental health issues.

“For every suicide, there may be more than 20 who attempt suicide. For every suicide, there’s more than 1,000 who suffer from a mental illness, a total of about 1 billion, most commonly anxiety and depression. Suicide numbers are not even the tip of the vast iceberg of human suffering,” Bergland said.

The video sought to introduce what church health leaders have called the COVID-19 Mental Health Initiative, and was livestreamed to hundreds of members of the General Conference Executive Committee on October 8, during the second day of Annual Council 2020. Due to COVID-19-motivated restrictions, the annual business meeting of the Adventist Church is taking place virtually this year.

A Dire Situation

Adventist Health Ministries director Peter Landless acknowledged that mental health issues have been on the radar of Adventist ministries for years, especially because of an alarming increase in mental illness around the world in the past few years. The dire situation has been exacerbated by the prolonged lockdowns imposed in 2020 as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Adventist Families Ministries associate director and counselor Elaine Oliver agreed. “Being human in this broken world is tough. Suffering is normal in this world. But, because of COVID-19, things are not normal anymore. Things are worse,” she said.

It is a situation that has brought dramatic increases in the levels of distress and mental illness due to people becoming ill with COVID-19, but also because of the disruptions to daily life, the stress and isolation, Adventist Education associate director and psychologist Julián Melgosa said. “A recent [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] report from the U.S. indicated a tripling of anxiety disorders in the general population, and a four-fold increase of depressive disorders,” he said.

[Image: Adventist Health Ministries]

Melgosa added that the United Nations has acknowledged that “the mental health and wellbeing of whole societies have been severely impacted by this crisis and are a priority to be addressed urgently.” It has also stated that “psychological distress in populations is widespread. Many people are distressed due to the immediate health impacts of the virus and the consequences of physical isolation.” Finally, Melgosa said, the UN has emphasized that “mental health will remain a core concern even as countries emerge from the pandemic.”

Health Ministries associate director and family nurse practitioner Katia Reinert agreed, noting also that among all age groups, young people seem to be struggling the most. “In the age group 18 to 24, 75 percent reported struggling with mental health or substance abuse, and 25 percent reported seriously having considered suicide in the last thirty days. That is a lot of suffering. This is serious,” she said.

Against this background, we cannot but ask ourselves how many are going to die to suicide in each of our church regions in the months ahead, Adventist Youth Ministries director Gary Blanchard said. “How many will be on the verge of giving up? How many will suffer because of fear, despair, loneliness, and hopelessness?”

A Call for Action

Bergland said that given the current state of affairs, Adventist Church members and leaders need to act, and they need to act now. “This must be a matter of utmost urgency for every leader, every pastor, every educator, every parent, every friend,” Bergland said. “We are in the midst of a mental health pandemic. We have the opportunity now to minister to the present needs of this world. If we want to reach people with present and eternal truths, we must also care for and minister to their present needs. That's what Jesus did. Let us do it too. Now. Together.”

Oliver shared that the several departments of the world church headquarters they represent are partnering to tackle this issue. “Health, Youth, Family, and Education are working together on this. Our initial focus will be on reaching young people between 18 and 30. But, we will later expand to other groups. And we pray, hope, and believe that what we do for one group may also benefit others,” Oliver said.

The actions that make up the initiative include sharing recommended resources on how to support mental health. Coordinators also hope to run a social media campaign on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and other relevant platforms. They also said they will host webinars, interviews, and panel talks online.

“You may want to do similar things. You may want to do other things,” Oliver told those watching the promotional video. “Do whatever you think is appropriate and according to the needs in your territory. And please share with us what you do, so we can share with others.”

Bergland concluded by emphasizing that in a world in crisis, partnerships like the one Adventist leaders are suggesting can start to bridge the gap. “If we can stand together and work together, we can make a difference,” he said.