Questions and Answers about Mental Illness

I receive a lot of inquiries from people asking for advice about living with mental illness, loving someone with a mental disorder, and doing ministry to people with mental illness and their families. I can’t offer the kind of advice and help a mental health professional can give, but I can point people in the direction of resources that might help them. Sometimes it’s a matter of just introducing people to resources that are available.

This week it occurred to me that it might be helpful for me to share a few of those interactions* here, for the benefit of others who may have similar questions.

Here’s a sampling of advice that might help address a question you have…

Question: How should the average churchgoer who is not judgmental or afraid of the mentally ill interact with mentally ill people? It’s hard to interact with a mentally ill person (or someone you think may be mentally ill) when they can’t interact on a normal level. You can have sort of a surface-y relationship, but you’re afraid of saying something that will set them off, and thus you can’t have a genuine relationship with any level of vulnerability or give-and-take. So then what can you have? Sometimes the only other option seems to be to avoid them to keep the peace.

Answer: You’re right: a relationship can be only as healthy as the people who are in it. When a person is actively symptomatic with a mental illness, all of that person’s relationships will be affected, including casual friendships. But part of what people need (all people–but this need is especially critical with mental illness) is friendship that will not quit on them when they don’t have anything to give. People with mental illness don’t always recognize their need for others, but loving and stable relationship is one of the greatest instruments of healing. When a person with mental illness is stable and symptoms are well managed, we actually can engage in give-and-take friendships with them. When they’re struggling with their symptoms and their health is seriously compromised, that same friendship has to be willing to become a one-way street, at least for a time.

Of course, everyone is different. Some people need a friend to just make eye contact and smile–because they rarely get that. Other people need someone to draw strong boundaries with them because their definitions of reality and social appropriateness are out of whack. Many need people to help meet their physical needs (healthy meals, child care, help with expenses), emotional needs (listening for a while, being with them in quietness, showing that we notice things about them), and spiritual needs (hearing hard questions without flinching, reminding them of God’s revealed truth, praying with them). This doesn’t mean we have to meet all their needs; no one can do that for another person. But we can be part of the support structure they need.

All of this must be done with an attitude of love and humility, not superiority or pity. Our actions will flow from our hearts, and changing our view of people with mental illness will help clarify how we should relate to them. If we insist on seeing them as individuals with the same desires and needs we have, plus their own, we will be able to treat them like people who happen to have disorders that affect their brains, rather than walking disorders.

Question: Do you have any advice for starting a Christian mental health support group at my church? I want to get something started, but I’m not sure how. And when I mentioned it to my pastor, I didn’t get an enthusiastic response. In fact, I heard several reasons why this won’t work in our church. But I believe it will.

Answer: In my experience, most churches (and church leaders) who seem apathetic or resistant either don’t understand (and need to hear stories from people like you and me) or are motivated by fear–fear of mental illness, fear of getting in too deep, fear of having to take on one more thing when they are barely keeping their heads above water with all the responsibilities and expectations that threaten their own mental health. So I think the most effective approach, in most settings, may be to start small and let it build as people start to see successful ministry happening, begin to overcome their fears, and want to get involved. It’s important to show church leaders that others are willing to carry much of the burden for this kind of ministry and don’t expect them to do it all–we just need their support.

I do have recommendations for you. There are a few great Christian organizations that can help you start a Christian-based support group. I suggest you check to see if their materials would work for you and your group:

Fresh Hope

Mental Health Grace Alliance

Sanctuary Ministries

You’ll also find a list of recommended resources in the back of my book, Troubled Minds, and definitely check out the churches I highlighted in Chapter 8. Some of them have helped other churches get started with similar ministries, so you could contact them as well.

If you can start a group, even if you don’t have enthusiastic buy-in, I’d say go for it! Even if you reach only a few people, it’s worth doing–it can make an enormous difference in an individual’s or family’s life–perhaps you know that from experience. And who knows what God may do with it? These grassroots efforts may turn into something big as people in various places see the power of hope-filled ministry to people who are short on hope. Tell your story, find a place where you can start your group, minister to a few, and see where it goes.

Question: I believe God can heal mental illness. So why hasn’t he healed me? I have a serious mental illness, and no matter how much I try to follow the Lord, read the Bible, pray, and have faith, it doesn’t go away. I must have done something God can’t forgive, and I’m afraid I’ll go to hell. Have you heard of anyone being healed from a disorder like mine?

Answer: I’m so sorry to hear of your troubles. What a difficult trial you face. To answer your question, I have heard of a few people who say they’ve been miraculously healed of mental illness. But for most people who do experience some healing, it comes as a result of faithfully taking medication, participating in therapy over a long period of time, making healthy lifestyle choices, and involvement in a loving community of Christians. I hope you have, or can find, a few people who support you and encourage you to believe the truth about Jesus and about yourself.

You’re right, the Lord can heal you and can make you whole. But usually–just as with other forms of illness–he provides that wholeness through the work of doctors, medications, and counselors.

Please remember that all of us are undeserving of God’s grace. Even the most righteous, most well-behaved person on earth is full of sin and unworthy of the love Jesus offers us. So his grace and his free gift to you have absolutely nothing to do with what you’ve done, how you feel, or even the thoughts you continue to have. He loves you regardless–just the same as he loves me or your pastor or anyone else. If you have asked him for forgiveness, he has forgiven you. You can live in the freedom and light of that truth. You can make good choices to get more and more mentally healthy, a little bit at a time. “There is now no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). Jesus doesn’t want you to live in fear and guilt. He wants you to accept his love and forgiveness and take good care of yourself so you can be the person he has placed you on earth to be. He has a purpose for you.

*Questions have been modified to protect privacy.

  1. Tony Roberts says:

    Some very helpful advice — particularly “This doesn?t mean we have to meet all their needs; no one can do that for another person. But we can be part of the support structure they need. ” I have bipolar disorder and when I have been symptomatic and tried to lean too heavily on one person (even my wife), it has contributed to the break-down of relationships. Now that I am more stable, I am building a network of friendships within the church, among family members, and around the mental health community so I don’t consume any one person when I have desperate needs.

© 2014 Amy Simpson.