I sometimes think of a dear friend of mine from college.
He was a committed believer with an active spiritual life. He also struggled with depression, anxiety, and other issues. Sometimes this manifested in day-to-day struggles: he had a lot of difficulty maintaining his coursework in various classes and experienced a lot of anxiety over simple things. Sometimes this manifested as tear-filled existential crises where he desperately reached out for anyone who could help him. And, more alarmingly to those of us who knew him, he experienced what I can only call moments of deep delusion and paranoia related directly to his spiritual life: the sense, for example, that Satan was literally hunting him on an hourly basis, or that God had given him a particularly strange (and occasionally alarming) message.
My friends and I all had a passing understanding of mental illness at the time, but no real grasp on what it encompassed, how to treat it, or what any of us should say or do. One girl we knew would sit with him for hours until the early morning, intent on casting demons out of him. Others recommended a jumble of confused remedies: more Bible studies, more fellowship, more Scripture study. We were helpless.
One night, as I sat with him and tried to piece together coherence from his increasingly-incoherent ramblings, I had the alarming thought that he was going to end up hurting himself or, possibly, someone else very soon. And that thought was what moved me to finally blurt it out: “Do you think you should…you know, see someone?”
He looked at me. “I talk to my pastor about this stuff a lot.”
“No, not like that,” I said. And I felt very uncertain, because even then I was very aware that a lot of believers I knew would object to what I was about to propose. “Like, I mean….a therapist? A doctor? Someone who kind of can…diagnose what’s going on?”
Fortunately, he wasn’t offended. He listened. And then, eventually and after some prodding, went to see a Christian therapist, who then recommended him to a psychologist. He got some help, a trained listening ear and, most importantly, some techniques and methods to deal with his struggles.
After that, we stayed good friends. I checked in with him frequently and he’d share his progress and what he was working on with his doctor. But not many others did – at least, not many of those who knew. He hid the information from a lot of people for fear of being judged, and those who did know, I think, simply didn’t know how to ask about his problems and his growth.
I think a lot of us still don’t.
Even in churches where believers and staff consider mental illness to be a valid issue worthy of attention, I think there’s still a lot of confusion and awkwardness surrounding how we minister to that and to those people in the middle of it. Sometimes, out of a misplaced sense that people might be embarrassed by struggles with depression or anxiety or bipolar disorder or any of a number of issues, we simply don’t mention it at all. So I thought it might be worth detailing a few ways that we can minister to people both in and outside of our congregations who are struggling with mental illness:
1. Be sensitive and, if necessary, discreet. Not everyone wants their struggle with mental illness to be public. If someone in your congregation or your community comes to you, don’t necessarily slap “SUSAN HAS DEPRESSION” down on the church prayer board. Ask if the information is private and, if not, where and how you can share it with others who are willing to pray or serve.
2. Do some learning. Unfortunately, we live in a culture where some people confuse depression with “regular sad,” anxiety with “worrying when she doesn’t have to,” and bipolar disorder with “doesn’t listen to anybody.” Take some time to read up on an actual medical website about the facts of these conditions and what they entail.
3. Don’t play doctor. I think the temptation when we’re confronted with mental illness is to want to fix it, especially in whatever way we would want to fix it for ourselves. But we’re not doctors. And we don’t know what’s going to work for a particular individual. Throwing Bible verses at someone and expecting it to cure them doesn’t really help, and sometimes only makes people feel worse. Steer clear of “hey, you should try…” or “my cousin was depressed and she…” It’s not really relevant. Let their treatment remain between them and their doctor.
4. Treat it like the illness it is. What’s the church response to a broken leg or pneumonia or a disease? Well, casseroles, for sure. But also get-well cards and flowers and encouraging notes and offers of help. Do these things! If you don’t feel comfortable mentioning the specific mental illness or you don’t know specifics, that’s fine: a note simply saying “I’m sorry you’re having a hard time, and I want you to know I’m praying for you” is more than enough. Whatever you do, don’t ignore it. Let people know you love them, care about them, and support them.
5. Encourage them to reach out. Don’t just assume that people will be “fixed” by sitting around and doing nothing. God has blessed us with a lot of modern resources for those who need them. And if you’re a Christian wary of the psychology field, please be assured that many, many believers serve as psychologists, as psychiatrists, as counselors, and as therapists. My church, for example, has licensed counselors and therapists available for members and they work on a sliding-scale basis. Encourage those who need it to reach out and to get help.
6. Have compassion and empathy. I think there can be a serious “empathy gap” when it comes to mental illness because it isn’t always a struggle that is visible on the outside. One thing that I hear a lot when it comes to people struggling is “Well, if it was me, I would….” But they’re not you. So I think one of the best things that we can do is to reach out to people and be kind and try to meet them where they are in terms of their pain and their struggle. To listen to them. To meet them where they are rather than trying to drag them to where we want them to be.
The truth is that a little bit of kindness goes a long way. And as long as we’re willing to be kind, to keep our heads out of the sand, and to listen to people – to help them on their journey as they struggle with mental illness – our congregations can be a warm and welcoming place to be for those who are sick.