In light of May being Mental Health Awareness month, I’d like to offer a different approach. See, mental illness is a very real presence in the lives of many individuals. Perhaps more individuals than you even realize. I would even be so bold as to say that each one of our lives has been touched and affected by mental illness – either our own or that of a close friend or family member. Mental illness whether it be depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, or a host of other disorders can often leave individuals and families devastated, broken, and at a loss of what to do. Additionally, the Church often further compounds the problem by insensitive remarks – sometimes meant with sincerity but said in the wrong way or at the wrong time. This creates confusion and chaos, for the very place that is meant to be a welcoming and inclusive environment often becomes a hostile and excluding reality.
In the paragraphs that follow, I’d like to offer an alternative approach. Although at present I have been enjoying relatively good health for the past 4 years, I, too, have had my struggles. I know the difficulty of getting out of bed on mornings when you have no strength to even take a shower let alone write a thesis. I know the pain of agonizing over small decisions for hours when your appetite has waned and I know all about dual diagnoses (when you thought one disorder was bad enough then *pow* here comes another). I’ve also learned over time that people connect to realness.
So, know that when I share these suggestions, they are shared straight from my heart. I don’t for a minute pretend to know everything about mental illness. There are various types of mental illness and definitely what works for one person may not work for another, but in general, here are three ways I think all churches (or other places of worship) can become better allies to our brothers and sisters who struggle with illnesses we cannot see and which we can hardly imagine (unless we ourselves are living in that reality).
1) Ditch the Clichés, Bring in the Truth
My former roomate one described clichés in this way: “they may not be helpful, but they are little things we say because we don’t know what else to say when the person is going through a difficult situation.” Here’s the thing: clichés may fill the awkward silence, but they rarely add anything of value to the conversation.
Oftentimes when someone is going through a difficult and painful situation they do not need to hear Bible verses taken out of context, feel good philosophies, or judgmental quips about how they simply need to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps” or “snap out of it.”
Instead, what they need is love and support. They need to know that you are there and that you care for them. That you are going to be there no matter how challenging the situation becomes and that it isn’t going to be too much and if it does become too much that it is not because of you but because of the weight of the situation.
2) Time and Be Strategic About Your Visits – But Don’t Stop Visiting Altogether
When I was struggling with depression, the greatest show of friendship for me was in my former roomate who would visit me every so often. She would sit on my bed and talk to me for 2, 5, or 10 minutes. She would ask me how I was and she would pray with me, but she never overstayed her welcome. I would ask about her life, she would answer. I told her I didn’t want things to change between us in our friendship just because of what I was experiencing. I told her I still wanted to be there for her and pray for her, and she took me up on that offer. But she also didn’t overwhelm me with more strain and stress than I could handle.
When someone is going through a difficult patch in their life journey, it can often be an immense comfort to know that they are there and that they care. For me, it wasn’t about the words they said (I have long forgotten those), but the sacrifices they made in trying to invite me out, reading the Psalms or poetry while I nestled under blankets, or simply sitting at the edge of my bed while I cried. These are precious moments I will always cherish with me – even though now I am in better health.
3) Resist the Temptation of Thinking the Person is Lazy – Be Empathetic and See Things From Their Point of View
Depression is a thick fog. If you’ve never experienced it, you may not know what it feels like, but the best description I can give is that it’s like piling 10 blankets on top of yourself and expecting someone to still see what is happening outside the blankets.
When someone is struggling the last thing they need to hear is that they should try harder, cheer up, or get up and go back to work. See, they would if they could. When I faced depression, I could tell you about the agonizing hours of doing nothing. I missed spending time with my friends, going to class, and volunteering with the freshmen on my campus – but in that moment, all I could think about was crying (despite there being no logical reasoning).
When someone is going through an experience like that, don’t tell them what they should or shouldn’t be doing. Don’t throw the Bible at them or start lecturing them – simply ask if there’s anything you can do to help. It may be frustrating at times to watch them act in strange ways and it may even make you feel helplessly inadequate, but by simply showing you care, they will forever be grateful.
Dealing with mental illness is a challenging reality for many individuals, families, and churches. There is no easy answer to solving it and it will be an area that churches will always need to continue working at. Nevertheless, I firmly believe that by showing love and compassion and embracing those who are struggling, we are doing our part to open up the Body of Christ and we are emulating His presence in the lives of those who feel so helpless and so frail.
Deborah-Ruth Ferber is a Field Associate for Anabaptist Disabilities Network. She has lived and worked in three L'Arche communities, in Toronto, Ontario; Edinburgh, Scotland; and Nova Scotia, Canada.