Reaching Out to the Whole Person
Ana Wong-McDonald (PhD '99) doesn't just believe in the integration of psychology and theology; she lives it on a daily basis. In 2001, as chair of the Spirituality Committee at Hollywood Mental Health Center (HMHC), she began a dialogue within her workplace regarding the importance of spirituality in the recovery of persons. In 2003 she began leading a spirituality and psychotherapy group within HMHC's psychosocial rehabilitation program. In 2004 she founded Hollywood HealthCare Partnership, mobilizing ten agencies of various types--medical, mental, spiritual, and social service--to join their resources for a common goal: outreach to the homeless. And, most recently, she is endeavoring to empower faith communities to be more effective in recognizing and addressing mental health issues.
Her vision for this latest project developed as she observed a tragic disconnect between ministers and mental health workers. After attending a clergy forum at which faith leaders voiced the needs of their congregants, Wong-McDonald "became keenly aware of the great need in faith communities for assistance with mental health." As she explains, "Many mentally ill persons and their families initially approach the clergy rather than mental health professionals for assistance with their problems. Most clergy, however, are not equipped to cope constructively with mental illness." Meanwhile, mental health professionals often "fail to appreciate the relevance of spiritual factors in treatment. In particular, the clergy could play a key role in augmenting the efforts of the public mental health system."
In response to this disconnect, Wong-McDonald is working to build bridges from both sides. As a mental health professional and the director of several programs at Hollywood Mental Health Center, which is administered by the County of Los Angeles' Department of Mental Health, she continually seeks to raise awareness among her colleagues of the role of spirituality in recovery via presentations, publications, and discussions. On the other side of the gap, she assists churches through workshops and consultations; the goal is to help "faith leaders and congregants become informed about mental illness so that they can assist the needy within their own faith communities and also outside the church." Without this critical understanding of the nature and appropriate treatment of mental illness, churches run the risk of stigmatizing those who could otherwise benefit greatly from involvement in a community of faith, she explains.
Wong-McDonald has been encouraged in her work by seeing lives transformed through a combination of psychological interventions and heightened spirituality. One graduate of her psychosocial rehabilitation program, a man suffering from chronic mental illness, had been homeless for ten years. While in the program "he spoke of God removing the suicidal urge from his heart, and shed 125 excess pounds over a one-year period," Wong-McDonald recounts. "He now maintains his own apartment, owns a pet, volunteers at an animal shelter, and serves on the clinic's homeless outreach team"--helping people whose lives mirror his own past experiences. Another client lost a craving for smoking immediately after prayer, and has not experienced any further cravings since that time.
These are not just isolated cases; a full 100% of the clients in Wong-McDonald's spirituality group achieved their treatment goals within six months--outcome data that is in press in the Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal. Meanwhile, her Hollywood HealthCare Partnership has served more than 5,000 homeless and disadvantaged people in the past two years, and is the recipient of a 2005 Achievement Award from the National Association of Counties.
Wong-McDonald has faced challenges along the way. Finding funding for her programs is an ongoing issue, as is the development of trust with those on either side of the mental health / spirituality divide. In dealing with these difficulties, Wong-McDonald looks to the biblical figure of Nehemiah as a "hero for triumph under adverse circumstances." She believes strongly in the development of personal character for leaders, "which, of course, can only be gained by deepening one's relationship with Christ." She also draws on the education she gained at Fuller, especially from courses in theology, integration, and spiritual formation.
Wong-McDonald is passionate about integrating theology and psychology through any channels necessary in order to see people restored to wholeness in every way possible. She is available to assist congregations in dealing with issues relating to mental health; she frequently consults with pastors who find themselves ministering to mentally ill individuals, and has given workshops for church staff and congregants on topics such as stress, depression, bereavement, healthy boundaries, marriage enrichment, sexuality, intergenerational issues, and cross-cultural adjustment. Churches or individuals who are interested in learning more about the resources she has to offer may contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.