PTSD: A reality as missionaries face trauma worldwide

by Bonnie Pritchett |

FORT WORTH, Texas (Christian Examiner) — Three years ago Toby and Rebecca Scott accepted a call to ministry in Paris, France. As they prepared to move overseas and share the Gospel, their friends and family would quip, "Oh, so you'll be working in Paris? Suffering for Jesus, eh?"

That's not so funny anymore.

Following two horrific terror attacks that have left over 200 people dead in Paris and Nice, some of those same people are asking the Scotts if they should come back home to the United States.

"It has gone from sarcasm to safety concerns in just a year and a half," Rebecca said.

Acceptance of a commission into foreign missions is not an act of blind but, rather, pragmatic obedience. Safety is not promised to any Christian the missionaries said. On the contrary, scripture guarantees hardship and persecution for believers.

But entering the mission field with eyes wide open neither prepares people for the tragedies — natural or man-made — they will witness nor the psychological and spiritual toll those events will take. And resources for missionaries struggling emotionally or spiritually in the aftermath of such events can be effective, but spotty.

PTSD CAN STRIKE MISSIONARIES IN WAKE OF TRAGEDY & DISASTER

Susie Rain followed disaster. For 19 years she willingly entered disaster zones as people were fleeing. Her work as a correspondent for Christian publications took her to regions of the world suffering under the horrors of genocide, religious conflict, famine, tsunami, and earthquakes.

"I had people die in my arms before while on assignment. They died of AIDS or hunger, dehydration," she said.

She traveled from the relative safety of her home base in east Africa to the events. But one Sunday morning, without warning, the conflict came to her town in the wake of a contentious election.

RESOURCES:

PTSD can strike missionaries who are serving as journalists or in other capacities. The following list of resources is a starting point and meant only for information. If you or a loved one or friend has symptoms described in this article, please seek medical advice.

Trauma and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Among Missionaries

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Self-Assessment

Missionaries as an At-Risk Population for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

"This fight in my backyard was more about hatred and perceived inequalities. I personally knew the people hurt," she recalled.

After years spent immersed in human tragedy, someone noticed a change in Rain's demeanor. Signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) became evident and her company got her the help she needed.

"I have journalist friends in other organizations that covered the same events as I did," Rain said. "I'm sad to say that several of them have since committed suicide or left the field of journalism. Their organizations did not see the signs or help to take care of them."

Access to the effective care Rain received can be problematic in the filed according to Donald Adams who spent 14 years working for some of the same organization as Rain planting churches and, when necessary, assisting in disaster relief in Africa, Asia, and Europe.

The far-flung disbursement of employees around the world and the frequency of traumatic events spread thin any available counseling and chaplaincy resources, claims Adams, who also said the fact that some missionaries do not or will not recognize their need for psychological care only compounds the problem.

"Unfortunately missionaries sometimes equate Christian maturity and faithfulness to [the organization] as not being affected by disaster, trauma or threats in the ways common to mere mortals," Adams said.

ATTACKS CAUSE WIDESPREAD FEAR — AND OPPORTUNITIES

While holding fast to their faith and remaining steadfast in their calling, the Scotts recognize the effect the terror attacks have had on the people of France and themselves. Although they did not witness the multiple-site assault by Islamic militants last November, the Scotts had friends who did witness one of the shootings and others who felt the concussion of explosives set off by suicide bombers just outside a soccer stadium.

The attack hit, literally, too close to home.

"I was also very shaken up because I did not understand," Rebecca said. "It was (and is) very scary to know that it was in cafes and concert venues — just normal places where people go on a normal day."

Toby said Parisians are increasingly alarmed.

"Many seem to believe it's only a matter of time until it happens again," he said.

And when it does the Scotts – like their predecessors Adams and Rain – can take the opportunity to speak the peace of the Gospel into the most tumultuous of circumstances.

Following the 1999 earthquake in Istanbul, Turkey, Adams recalled sharing much-needed drinking water with people who had never heard the name of Christ or met a missionary.

In the wake of tragedy people will be confused, angry, and grief-stricken, Rain said.

"There is always an opportunity to show Christ's compassion. The Holy Spirit takes it from there," she said.

It was in a region of Japan known for its proud rejection of Christianity that simply mentioning the name of Jesus while serving a meal led to the founding of a church.

SOUP, TEARS AND JESUS AFTER THE JAPAN TSUNAMI

Rain was among a handful of Christian relief workers to enter the tsunami ravaged coast of northeastern Japan just days after the March 2011 event. The sights, smells and compounded by the utter desperation of the survivors made Rain want to sit down and cry.

"Instead," she said, "my Japanese friend and I cried as we served [miso soup to] people. It was the only choice. The only way to get out emotions. The only way to keep going."

The Japanese, known for their notoriously stoic countenance, asked Rain why she was crying for them. Her reply: Jesus.

Her work took her back to the region several times over the next year. During one trip she met a husband and wife who recalled her mention of Jesus — a name they had never heard. The couple told her, "He must be important if he sent me to give them a bowl of soup in their time of need. They set out to find out who Jesus was."

And they found him. A growing church is a testament to the Holy Spirit's prompting and the faithfulness of Christians pressing on in the face of unfathomable hardship.

ABANDONING GOD'S CALL IS NOT AN OPTION

Scheduled to spend a few months in the Middle East next year, the Scotts realize they could be jumping out of the proverbial frying pan of sporadic terror attacks into the fire of ongoing conflict. But abandoning the call to share the Gospel overseas is not an option.

"First, safety is relative and terrible events can happen anywhere," said Toby. "Second and far more significant, the Gospel does not promise safety. Rather believers ought to be willing to be wisely unsafe for the Gospel."