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 among 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. Sometimes it’s a matter of sharing my own personal experience and my own perspective.
Occasionally I share some of these interactions* here, for the benefit of others who may have similar questions.
Question: Our daughter has a mental illness, and our whole family has had to make adjustments to help her. There are times when she does really well, especially when she does what her doctor recommends: gets enough rest, eats well, and works with her therapist. But sometimes things are really hard, and this has a big impact on all of us. We haven’t told many people about our daughter’s illness, but it would be nice if we could have some help and support from our church and from other people we know. But how do we help our church and community understand what we need? We aren’t sure ourselves!
Answer: Good question. It’s tough for many people to ask for help; it’s even harder when you don’t know what to ask for. And while you didn’t mention this, for many people there’s the added stress of wondering whether anyone around them will want to help, or if they’ll only receive judgment or dismissal.
So perhaps a good first step is to make sure you’re in a loving group of people who will respond to you with compassion and who will be willing to help. You may not be able to predict this with 100-percent accuracy, but most people have a sense for whether their church or community tends to treat others lovingly. If this is not true for you, you may want to start with only the people you trust or find a new church or another group where people are generally kind and supportive.
Second, you may need to get past a sense of shame. It’s possible that what’s holding you back from asking for help is not that you don’t know what you need, but that you’re too ashamed to even envision other people helping you. For some people, receiving any kind of help is difficult. For others, acknowledging a mental health problem carries a heavy burden of stigma and shame. If this is true for you, a counselor or coach may be able to help. A support group could be hugely valuable. Or you may be ready to simply push past the shame and move on for the sake of helping your family.
You also may want to have a conversation with your daughter. Many people are held back from seeking help because they want to respect the privacy of a loved one. But if they haven’t had a conversation about it, they may not know their loved one’s wishes on the matter. And while a request for privacy can be legitimate, it can also mask shame or an unhealthy desire to control others. Only you and your family can decide what’s right for you. If your daughter understands that the whole family needs support, and she is willing for you to judiciously share your needs, that’s great. If not, you can still consider how you can reach out for your own support, owning the part of the experience that is yours, not hers, and respecting her wishes to the degree that it’s healthy and helpful to do so. Doing this may help to bring healing to your whole family, including your daughter.
When you reach out for help, consider starting by just sharing your story. As much as you can, tell people about your experience and some of your struggles and challenges. Help them get a picture of what you’re living with, and maybe it will help them understand some ways they can help or support you. They may come up with ideas you would not have thought of. And having them listen to you may, in itself, be really helpful to you. It might also open the door for them to share with you, and you might be surprised at how many people can relate to some part of your story.
If someone asks how they can help, let them help if they can. And if people haven’t offered to help, they might still be willing to do so if they understand how they can. So try thinking it through and giving them specific ideas:
Think about your practical needs–rides for your other kids, meals, money for medications, someone to sit with your daughter so you can run errands.
Think about your spiritual needs–prayer, someone to talk with about your faith questions, encouragement from God’s Word.
Think about your social needs–someone to sit with you and just listen or be silent, a small group of people who will let you be honest about your struggles, a faith-based support group of people who are going through similar hardships, a night out to laugh and enjoy the company of friends.
It’s easy for people to think the only useful help they can offer is to take the mental illness away. And if they don’t have the ability to do that (and they probably don’t), they believe they can’t do anything valuable. Offering them some really concrete ways to help may be just what you need and just what they’re waiting for.
*Question has been modified to protect privacy.
© 2017 Amy Simpson.