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. And I can share some of the wisdom I have learned in countless conversations with people who have experience in similar situations. 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: My husband has bipolar disorder, and my daughter really struggles with depression. My husband has started taking medication, but things are still rough. Sometimes it helps and sometimes it seems like it’s not working. My daughter gets so depressed, sometimes I’m afraid I’m going to lose her. And sometimes she seems like she doesn’t want to get better. Family life can be really hard, and I wish I had some help and support from my church. I’ve mentioned it to my pastor, and he says he’ll pray for me, but he doesn’t offer anything else. I think I might need to tell him some specific ways the church could help. Sometimes I feel like people are keeping their distance because they don’t know what to say or do. But I know these are good, loving people who care about me. What’s a good way to ask them for help?
Answer:I have spoken to many people in situations similar to yours, and I can tell you you’re definitely not alone in this struggle. It can be very difficult to approach the church, especially if they don’t seem to be responsive or seem to understand how to help. I think you’re on the right track when you say the pastor may need you to be specific. That may be what other people need as well.
When it comes to mental illness, unfortunately, people tend to react with a feeling of helplessness. They think that if they aren’t mental health professionals or they don’t have some way to fix the problem, there’s nothing they can do to help. We don’t respond that way when people in other kinds of crisis come to us for help; if your daughter had cancer or your husband was living with diabetes, people in the church would probably think very quickly of ways to help, even though they probably can’t “fix” cancer or diabetes either. So you may need to help them think of mental illness as less unique and mysterious than it seems to them.
In some churches, people (including pastors) want nothing to do with those affected by mental health problems. I’m hoping your church isn’t like that; you sound as if you don’t believe it is. In most places there are people who want to help but they have no idea how to do so. So I encourage you to think about your practical needs–does your family need rides, meals, money for medications, someone to sit with an ill family member so you can run errands? Think about your spiritual needs–do you need prayer, or someone to talk about your faith questions that come up in the face of mental health problems? Think about your social needs–how about 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?
Also think about what your church already does for families who are having a hard time. Do they bring meals? Visit people in the hospital? Provide financial assistance? Provide pastoral counseling or comfort? If any of those things would be helpful, you might point to them as things your family needs. If your church is already offering them to others, a request like this will help them feel confident in responding. Most people just don’t connect the dots and realize these are things that families in mental-health-related crisis need too. When they hear you asking for help, they may automatically think you want them to solve the problem, and if they can understand that you’re really just asking them to be with you, they may respond differently.
I hope this is helpful. And I hope you get an encouraging and helpful response from your church. You may want to also look into a support group to see if there’s one in your area for spouses/parents/family members of people with mental illness. You could start with these two excellent Christian programs to see if they’re in your area:
Remember, one of the things you need is to take care of yourself and make sure you are living in the healthiest way possible. Ultimately, no one but you can be responsible for this. So consider ways you can address your own needs, and resist the temptation to make your husband’s and daughter’s struggles the focus of your life. They may be consuming at times, and they may create emergency situations when you need to concentrate on keeping them alive or out of danger. But you also need to have a life that allows room for your own relationship with God, friendships with other people, and a sense of purpose that applies to your whole life. Those are some of the things your church may be able to help with. It all starts with recognizing what you and your family need, so you can explain those needs to others.
*Question has been modified for the sake of brevity and to protect privacy.
© 2017 Amy Simpson.