Addressing Hidden Pain

Mental health ministry is a growing need around the world, especially in Cambodia. From 1975–1979, approximately 25 per cent of the population was killed during the Khmer Rouge regime. Neighbours betrayed neighbours. Family members betrayed family members. After the purge, very few Christians, medical personnel, or intellectuals of any kind remained. It’s in the wake of situations like this that OMF workers are sharing the good news of Jesus.

A growing issue

This history has increased incidences of fear, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder among Cambodians. Unfortunately, the problems that are hardest to see are often the ones that are never resolved. ‘The internal issues are still largely untouched, though there are multiple signs of development now taking place,’ says OMF worker Mary Haag who has  worked in Cambodia since the mid-1990s, first as an English teacher, but now for over a decade as a counsellor working with a variety of mental health services and ministries.

Born from suffering

For Mary, who grew up on a farm in Montana, USA, this ministry was born out of both recognised need and personal suffering. Shortly after arriving in Cambodia, Mary received the devastating news that her sister, the most important person in her life, had been murdered. Later, Mary also lived with a debilitating back problem that left her immobile for much of the day. God used Mary’s personal pain to teach her important lessons and prepare her for future work with people with mental health issues. Lying on her back, she listened to cassette tapes from the American Association of Christian Counselling. When she needed to go back to the US for two years before returning to Cambodia, she decided to use those years to pursue a degree in counselling. ‘Counselling is not coming top down, that “I’m helping you”,’ she says. ‘Rather, it’s incarnational; I’m coming into your world and meeting you where you are at; I’m with you, like Jesus came into the world to be with us.’ 

Connected healing

Mary has also developed a deeper awareness of the connection between physical and mental health, helping patients who frequently neglect this possible connection. Mary’s first client was a rape victim, referred by a missionary doctor who recognised that some of the physical issues she had were a result of her need for psychological healing.

Mary’s work at Mercy Medical Centre, a Christian hospital in Phnom Penh, has been one part of a growing vision for mental health ministry in Cambodia. Often people with serious mental health issues are neglected or marginalised, but Mary hopes that God will build structures that can bring freedom and healing. Local churches could play a significant role in this. As church members grow in their own emotional health, love for God and love for their neighbours, Mary believes they will have hearts to welcome and serve those who have more serious mental health issues along with their families. This kind of support would go ‘a long way toward bringing healing’, she says.

God at work

Addressing mental ill health in Cambodia is ‘too big; without God’s work, it won’t happen’, Mary reflects, but there are encouraging signs that God is working, moving and equipping more Cambodian Christians to respond. For the last few years a course from CWR, a training ministry in the UK, introducing Christian counselling and pastoral care has been offered in the Khmer language; the audience is primarily members of the Cambodian Church. Several graduates of the course are now getting additional professional training, both at Cambodian universities and abroad, and CWR is preparing for the first run of a diploma course. Mercy Medical Centre now has three full-time Cambodian counsellors, one of whom has almost finished his MA in Clinical Psychology and Counselling. As the number of trained Cambodian counsellors grows, a Cambodian Christian counselling association is being formed. 

Mary is also offering a course on the basics of listening to God, self, and others at two Bible schools to equip pastors and Christians with some of the counselling skills needed to bring healing in people’s lives. ‘I see the Church as God’s primary instrument of healing,’ Mary says. ‘As the Church receives healing and transformation, they will become his channels of love and compassion, reaching out to bring his healing to the needy.’

Please pray for

  • God’s work in developing people with his heart for this ministry.
  • God to continue to deepen this work in his people, building systems of care that flow from God’s own heart and reflect his nature.
  • God to build his Church in Cambodia, bringing fullness of life and healing to his people so they can reach out to those around them.