Practical Help for Church Members with Mental Illness

In recognition of Mental Illness Awareness Week (October 7-13), I'm pleased to share this guest post from Aaron J. Smith, blogger at Cultural Savage and author of the new book Cultural Savage: The Intersection of Christianity and Mental Illness

How do you help someone with mental illness?

How do you reach out when they withdraw due to depression? How do you deal with the hyper-anxious mind that can become paranoid? How do you love the people in the pews and pulpit that live with mental illness?

Mental illness is a reality in the world, and that reality includes the church. There isn’t some magic shield that keeps people who trust in Christ safe from this illness of the mind. Mental illness is the reality for one in five Americans. So, count out five people in your church registry. One of them is likely to live with mental illness.

So, back to my original question: how do you help someone with mental illness? If our church has so many people who live with mental illness, what are some practical ways you can reach out and offer aid? And they, we, need aid. Living with mental illness is sometimes crippling. Often, it is a miracle we make it through a day. Other times, we might be ok, but don’t believe that we are cured. Mental Illness is a beast that comes and goes, stalks us, devouring us at times and hiding in the shadow’s other times.

You can help though. You can help us survive, thrive, and feel loved (which is something we often feel devoid of).

First off, you have to show up. You have to be present if you want to help, and you have to keep being present. You can’t get tired and give up, get busy with life and forget about us, or simply decide it’s too much to deal with. I suggest you don’t do this alone because being present is exhausting. So, do it in community. Find a close group of people that can commit to being present in the life living with mental illness. Do it as a team, as a family. Be present no matter what. It’s going to get messy, hard, and downright ugly. But please, don’t give up. We need to know we’re not alone, even when our brain lies to us.

While you’re present, you can do things. Normal, everyday things. Cook us food. Clean our house. Do laundry. These tasks may seem insignificant and small, but when mental illness take a bite out of our head and heart, these things are insurmountable. We can hardly take care of ourselves let alone a house. And kids and spouses need you too. Shouldering the burden of household chores while trying to care for the ill person is a heavy load to carry. So, take the kids out to the park for a playdate. Send the spouse out for a night with friends. Help them cook, clean, and care for the home.

And care for us directly. We need treatment, and often that includes therapy and medication. When we are in a crisis though, when the illness is raging, and we are weak, we can’t reach out for help. Making the phone calls to therapist offices, checking insurance eligibility, getting a referral to psychiatrists, all of this can be near impossible when we are deep in depression, anxiety, and psychosis. Now, there are some things you can’t do due to privacy laws, HIPPA, and clinic and therapist policies. However, don’t let that deter you from doing what you can. Maybe it’s making initial phone calls. Maybe it’s filling out forms for us to sign. Maybe it’s taking us to the emergency room when things are bad. Whatever it is, do what you can. You don’t have to fix us. That’s not your place nor is it your responsibility. But you can help us.

The best thing you can do for us is to be a friend. Don’t get sick of our relapses, but also don’t think of us as only our illness. We’re still humans who laugh, tell jokes, enjoy movies, and who can come over for dinner. Make us feel wanted, liked, loved. We are your neighbors, your fellow church citizens, believers, just like you. Don’t treat us like a charity case or a pariah. Treat us with the dignity that is due the Imago Dei. Show us the love you would want us to give you. Put hands and feet to loving your neighbor as yourself.

Now, a word specifically for leadership.

Don’t tell us how to get better. Stop preaching that anxiety and depression can be overcome through prayer and faith, that this is a spiritual issue and not a physiological one. If you want to speak about mental health, talk to us first. Hear our story’s, not for some sermon illustration but because you are giving pastoral care to your congregants. When you counsel people, know your limitations and when you need to refer to a mental health professional. Be aware, educate yourself, and stop preaching the victorious life that is everything happy when some of us with deep faith can’t experience life like that this side of the new creation. Be the pastor we need, not the pastor you think you need to be.

These are a few ways to practically help those of us with mental illness that is in the church with you. There are more, and I encourage you to talk to those in your congregation who live with mental illness and ask what they need. That is the best way to love them specifically.

And love is what we need.

(Aaron's book, Cultural Savage: The Intersection Between Christianity and Mental Illness, is available on Amazon in paperback and electronic formats.)

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