Some faiths are more advanced in their approach to mental illness than others. In a previous article, I highlighted the work of the Presbyterian church and invited experts to comment on the role of churches in addressing mental illness. Adventists are another faith community that set a positive example for how congregations care for their mentally ill members.
Adventists are a protestant denomination that focus on the holistic view of the person. This mindset is how they view all aspects of health, including mental illness. For example, a study of Adventist adolescents in Mexico discovered that they are more likely to have healthier lifestyle behavior than non-Adventist adolescents, indicating the priority of mental health for this faith community. And a new study by AdventHealth University, with one of the nation’s largest faith-based health systems, aims to better understand the health and well-being of clergy. Studies like this demonstrate their strong emphasis on healthy living is why “The Blue Zones” highlights Adventists as one of the longest-living groups in the world.
Jaimie Eckert is a blogger and part of the Seventh-day Adventist faith. She and her husband have been in mid-level denominational employment since 2013. Recently, she transitioned out of her job to work towards her PhD in religion and intercultural studies and offered insight about Adventists and their approach to mental illness.
Acknowledging that every faith has their weak points and strong points, she says “I think that mental health is an area we [Adventists] are doing well. We have a number of mental health experts working for the denomination, producing publications to raise awareness. Each year, we produce one 'sharing book' that is widely translated and shared with every Adventist church member and with neighbors and friends. The 2018 book, The Power of Hope, was about mental health.
Like other faith communities, Eckert’s has families and couples serving in foreign missions, which is a special focus for mental health treatment. Previous research found that mental-health related issues are a top reason for “missionary attrition.” “These individuals [Adventist missionaries] have mental health counselors assigned specifically to support them,” says Eckert. “For my husband and I, our time in denominational employment has been overseas. During that time, I went through a period of clinical depression. I was able to fly home for two weeks, get treatment in an Adventist parachurch depression recovery center and get more than a year of therapy sessions. I have been depression-free for more than three years now, thanks to the great support and understanding I received from my church.”
Eckert points to the Bible to further support their practices. “In Genesis 2, we read that God breathed the breath of life into the handcrafted body of Adam, and Adam became a living soul. Thus, body + breath of life = living soul. When we die, our breath returns to God and our body turns to dust (Ecclesiastes 12:7). We reject the idea of a ‘soul’ that can float around after our death or be separated from our body. We build our views on verses that speak of how in judgment God will destroy both ‘body and soul’ (Isaiah 10:18; Matthew 10:28) and how saving grace is given to both soul and body (1 Thessalonians 5:23). Our view of anthropology, therefore, is very holistic. Humankind cannot be conceptualized as distinct parts. We are one whole, and what happens in the body affects, either for good or for evil, the spirit. Therefore, the things that cloud the mind, depress the spirit, or weaken the body are hindrances to our spirituality."
Because of how her faith community approaches mental health, Eckert believes she has above average awareness about mental health and attributes that to her denomination’s holistic view of human nature — i.e. that the body, soul, and spirit form one inseparable entity. “This openness about physical and mental health has helped me to draw closer to God during times of mental health crisis, because I know God understands. I can bring my depression and anxiety to Him. But more than that, I know that my church supports me in getting the help that I need to function well, that my ‘whole spirit and soul and body be preserved’ (1 Thessalonians 5:23).”
“Even in regular weekly sermons," added Eckert, "it is common to hear references or even entire sermons dedicated to practical living as a follower of Jesus.” (She shared the online repository of Adventist sermons recorded at various conferences; which includes a subcategory of sermons about health, with 40 of those relating specifically to mental health).
There’s more on the horizon with her denomination. She pointed to AMEN (Adventist Medical Evangelism Network), a conference that brings Seventh-day Adventist medical professionals from all around the country to talk about “modern medicine as a way of following in Christ’s footsteps — healing, serving, and restoring.” Every five years, they also offer Your Best Pathway to Health. In the past, this event has served up to 6,000 people in three days at no charge. It includes mental health counseling and is entirely volunteer run.