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Made in the Image of God

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Last month, we published the first of two interviews with GBC members who work in mental health on their work and how they draw strength from their faith. In this second interview, we speak with Bryan Tan who reveals that mental health problems are more prevalent than we might think.

1. What is your experience like on a daily basis encountering mental health challenges in your professional capacity?

I am currently starting my 6-month posting as a medical doctor in Yishun Community Hospital in the Department of General Medicine. Prior to this, I was working at the Institute of Mental Health as a Medical Officer in General Psychiatry and Forensic Psychiatry. 

In 2020, I was also privileged to serve migrant workers who were isolated due to COVID-19 in the EXPO Community Care Facility (CCF). I was part of a team that looked after the psychosocial needs of these workers whilst they served their quarantine period in EXPO CCF. 

Lord willing, I am hoping to pursue a graduate diploma in mental health that might allow me to serve patients with psychiatric needs better. 

2. How is mental health a concern for the average person who doesn't go to a professional for help? 

Picture your average 16-year old Singaporean girl. She finds herself constantly overwhelmed with anxiety as she prepares for her upcoming GCE “O” levels exams. Will she be able to meet her parents’ expectations to qualify for the junior college of her choice? Has she prepared sufficiently for all her subjects? Her school’s overly-competitive culture is not granting her peace of mind nor conducive to study. 

Her 18-year old brother has just enlisted into the army a few months back. And the army life hasn’t been the easiest thing to adjust to. The new recruit finds himself terrified of his commanders, inadequate in all physical activities, and isolated from his platoon mates. His often blunders had unfortunately earned him the title of the Platoon Clown. Every night, as he lays awake on his bunk bed, he contemplates what might be the best way to end his suffering by taking his own life.

Their father is completely oblivious to the struggles of his two teenage children. Something else more alluring has captured this man’s attention. The middle-aged man spends late nights in the office pleasuring himself with pornographic material when his colleagues have gone home. Sexual intimacy with his wife is non-existent. He discovered that he could only get aroused by the most graphic pornographic acts. He lies to his family that he's working overtime at the office, hiding his lustful addictions from them.  

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Or so he thought. His wife knows that her husband has been consuming pornography daily. However, the timid woman has never planned to confront him in fear that he would fly into a rage and abuse her. Worst still, he might threaten to divorce her and leave the family. But she needs his income to survive. As an only child, she has to shoulder the responsibility of caring for her frail mother with advanced dementia. Sleep is often fleeting—no amount of time in bed helps her feel rested. Overwhelmed with caregiving burdens and marital discord, the lady struggles to get through each day. 

I wonder if you might relate to any of these stories. Social difficulties and mental health issues often co-exist, and can perpetuate each other in a downward spiral of problems. Mental health problems are more prevalent than you might think. It can affect anybody, including you and me. 

3. Any advice on how do we help folks overcome this stigma of mental health in the church, family and community? 

A first step would be to recognise the biases you currently hold, and confess them. My stint in IMH served to unveil the deep-seated prejudice I held against individuals with mental health illnesses. Over time, I could sense the Holy Spirit dealing with these biases in my heart, helping me to care better for my patients. It is easy to develop stigma against people who talk and behave differently than we do. But if we consider them to be human beings made in the image of God, we ought to bring our biases and prejudice before Jesus, and ask Him for forgiveness.  

Secondly, you can grow in your understanding of mental health issues. Mental health presentations are yet another way in which sin has wrecked God’s beautiful creation, distorting what we believe about Him and ourselves. In a nutshell, allow me to introduce a brief overview of mental health problems affecting adults:

  • Sad: Depression, bipolar, bereavement
  • Scared: Anxiety, Panic disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Mad: Schizophrenia, delusional disorder
  • Bad: Substance abuse, addiction
  • Grey-Haired: Dementia 

Online resources and books, even Christian ones, are readily available to us. Pastor Jacob Ng had made several recommendations during the first EQUIP session on Mental Health in June 2021.  

Finally, seek to love your neighbour—your depressed neighbour, your schizophrenic neighbour, your suicidal neighbour etc.—as yourself. Many individuals suffering from mental health issues face social isolation (mostly due to stigma, see my first point above). As a church community, I pray that we can find opportunities to love our brothers and sisters in Christ with mental health struggles. 

On that last point, I would like to share my experience with treating patients with mental health issues. Virtually every psychiatric patient previously under my care also experienced social problems. Often, one’s social circumstances can be a predisposing, precipitating or perpetuating factor to their mental health illness.  

As a doctor, I could happily treat the depression or psychosis with medications, and get a patient well enough for discharge. However, the patient may become unwell again in the community due to poor social support, and land up being admitted again to the hospital. I often wished I could do something about the social challenges that my patient’s faced in order to allow them to lead a fruitful life in the community.  

In such areas that I have limited usefulness as a doctor, I believe we can do more as a church, “the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” (Eph 4:16) 

Do you know someone struggling with a mental health illness? Do you know someone who is a caregiver for another individual suffering with a mental health illness? Perhaps God has placed them specifically in your life to reach out and to love them the way Christ loved us. 

4. As believers how do you draw strength from your faith as mental health workers? 

“What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” (AW Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy

I love the above quote from AW Tozer. Back in 2016, I struggled immensely with anxiety and suicidal ideation. During that period, my heart chose to believe the lies Satan kept feeding me with. That affected the way I viewed God and His relationship with me.  

Whenever I question God’s character or His purposes, I need to hear His truth spoken clearly into my disbelieving heart. I need to hear once again the timeless truth about what the Bible says about God, and what the Bible says about me in light of the gospel. Praise God for His eternal Word that never changes (and the people He has put in my life to speak these truths to me)!

5. How can we pray for you at this time, esp during COVID?

I have been posted from Sengkang General Hospital to Yishun Community Hospital from July to December 2021. Please pray for wisdom as I contemplate future career decisions.  

Please pray that I might grow to trust God more assuredly in my spiritual walk. Perhaps the one person in the Bible whom I relate most to is Martha, busily scurrying around to do many things. But Jesus words to her are words I need to hear too—“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” (Lk 10:41) Pray that I will never lose focus on the one thing that is truly necessary. 

A fellow Christian doctor shared this recently published article on how to pray for Christian doctors—I think it’s a great read! 

https://www.crossway.org/articles/how-to-pray-for-christian-doctors/

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Related:

1. By The Spirit: Interview with Lianne Ong

2. EQUIP series on The Gospel and Mental Health