During her late 20s, Charmaine Wee started seeing visions and hearing voices that seemed different from her usual spiritual experiences. As she struggled to identify which of these were from God, the Christian community she was surrounded with was none the wiser.
“Some leaders were telling me that I wasn’t sick, but I was just spiritually gifted,” said the 37-year-old, who received conflicting advice. “I was also told that schizophrenia was just about root issues in my heart that I wasn’t facing, completely bypassing the chemical and biological things happening in my body.
“I was very confused and left feeling very alone. I couldn’t find anyone in church who could relate to what I was going through, and there was no real help.”
Charmaine attended inner healing ministries which worked for awhile, but by the third year her condition relapsed.
Her experience reflects the ongoing journey that the Church is still on with regard to mental health. From understanding whether it is just a spiritual issue, to being equipped to walk alongside those who are struggling with mental health conditions, it’s clear from new findings that Christian communities still have a long way to go.
Surveying 451 pastoral staff and church leaders across Singapore, the Christian Mental Health Advocates (CMHA), in collaboration with Focus on the Family, sought to understand their perceptions of mental health, how churches were responding to this issue, and the personal well-being of ministers themselves.
Released on July 7, 2020, the Mental Health Survey for the Church 2020 was conducted from January 7-February 14. Respondents spanned churches of various congregation sizes, and around half had been serving for more than 10 years.
While it was heartening that the majority of respondents (96%) were able to identify cases where mental health disorders required medical treatment, there was a split on views with regard to mental health disorder being a spiritual issue, with 44% agreeing to that statement.
The survey also found that only 28% of respondents felt that their church had sufficiently equipped them to help a person facing a mental health issue, while most (85%) agreed that their church needed to do more to address mental health.
This resource gap – not just within the Church but society in general – was one that Charmaine experienced first-hand when she was living with schizoaffective disorder.
“I felt really ill-equipped during the seven years of my recovery journey,” she recounted.
At that time, Charmaine struggled to find support and didn’t know there were organisations such as Psaltcare, which connected her to other Christians who were going through similar mental health issues.
After volunteering at Hope Alliance at the end of 2018, it was then she realised that there was actually a wide variety of resources available.
“I realised that there wasn’t a central place to access all these resources,” said Charmaine, who is now serving in the Secretariat of CMHA and as a marketing and communications manager at Promises Healthcare.
Together with her boyfriend Alex, the couple decided to start a non-profit platform called Mental Connect in December 2019, with the aim of helping people find the appropriate care and support they need.
It does this through a one-stop portal that connects persons in recovery and caregivers to various resources in Singapore pertaining to mental health and mental wellness.
Unlike existing websites, the directory includes listings across a wide range of categories, including counselling; coaching; art, music and play therapy; psychodrama; employment reintegration; and day rehabilitation. These resources can be located on a map, based on your preferred area.
Another helpful feature is its event listing, which compiles workshops and programmes held around the island.
While Mental Connect is meant for anyone who needs help, one of its unique offerings is its aggregation of faith-based services. These are intended to support Christians who desire to involve both Jesus and healthcare professionals in their mental health journey.
“Take your meds to continue your marathon of life.”
Sharing from her own experience, Charmaine said her Christian psychotherapist and psychiatrist were of great help, as they were able to support her recovery in light of who God is.
Her turning point came in 2018, when an encounter with God encouraged her to press on. Charmaine had been on different medicines for around three years at that time, but she really just wanted to stop treatment because of their side effects.
“If a marathon runner were to break her leg, what would she need to do?” said Charmaine, recalling how God spoke to her. This was followed by another word she received from Him: “Your brain is like that broken bone, and the medication is like the cast. Take your meds to continue your marathon of life.”
She explained how her eyes were opened: “This revelation helped me see my schizophrenia as a combination of both having a spiritual influence and it being a sickness. I needed to take my medicine to run the race well and do God’s work.
“How could I do God’s work if I was sick and not getting the right treatment and care? How could I run the marathon if my leg remained broken?”
Charmaine added that what gave her a deep sense of peace was the assurance that receiving medical treatment did not mean God couldn’t give her greater levels of breakthrough.
She said: “I can still hold on to the promises of miraculous healing while taking my medicine and going for therapy and counselling. Seeking care didn’t mean my faith wasn’t strong enough or that I wasn’t a good-enough Christian.”
As it turned out, her psychiatrist also agreed to a change in her medication to one that ended up working a lot better for her – which Charmaine felt was God’s divine intervention.
Noting that it is often shame that can stop a person from getting the appropriate care, she said: “We shouldn’t carry that burden of shame, and we shouldn’t shame anyone else in our community for having any sicknesses and struggles.
“There are many out there who want help but are not going out to get it because they’re scared they’ll be looked upon with shame, or that people in their church might think they are not walking in faith by relying on medical help instead of God.”
Charmaine urged those who are feeling trapped to step out in boldness and receive medical treatment.
“It took me years to finally accept that I have a diagnosis – that not everything was just a spiritual problem – and to learn to integrate a biological, psychological, social and spiritual recovery model into my life.
“I hope my testimony will encourage those in similar situations to not run away from seeking help, so that they won’t have to go through the long journey that I did because early intervention is important for a better recovery.”
If you or a loved one would like to be connected to mental health and wellness resources, visit Mental Connect.
For immediate assistance call these 24-hour hotlines: National Care Hotline (1800-202-6868), Institute of Mental Health Emergency Hotline (6389 2222) or Samaritans of Singapore (1800-221-4444). To be a part of an ongoing Christian peer support recovery community, email [email protected] or visit Psaltcare for more details.