Mental Health: What Not To Say (Part 1/2)
This article is the first half of a post addressing some of the approaches we can often take when talking to someone facing mental health challenges, that can potentially be unhelpful - even if we didn't intend them to be that way. Whether you’re chatting to a friend after church over coffee, or you’ve met up separately, or someone else has told you about the situation and you want to show them that you know and care…
This post is designed to humble our hearts.
I want us to see that we are all guilty of ignorance in this topic. I want us to seek forgiveness for the unhelpful and unloving ways we’ve spoken to our brothers and sisters. I want us to aspire to the Christ-like standard of love and counsel to which we are called. My prayer is that, through this post, you will realise the ways in which you are weak in your approach to mental health and will engage with the content throughout Mental Health Awareness Week in an effort to learn how best to serve and love those around you in future.
1. “What is God teaching you through this?”
At first glance, this is a perfectly biblical question. We know that God teaches us in our suffering because we know He is working all things for our good (Romans 8:28). However, just because this is a gospel truth, it doesn’t mean it is the right gospel truth for this moment. Ed Welch summarises four key ways that this question falls short of an edifying response to suffering:
- It can be condescending – Scripture is filled with mystery, especially surrounding suffering. This reminds us that we are children who can’t understand that what parents do is for our good. We are to be humble in the face of Scripture. If your friend can’t identify a particular ‘teaching’, it is an opportunity to depend on God in the mystery, like His child.
- It suggests that suffering is a riddle to be solved. The question implies that God has a specific purpose in mind and we have to guess what it is. The stories of Job and the blind man in John 9 show that we are not always supposed to see exactly what God is teaching us. Perhaps, for example, God is teaching your friend how to ask for help, through their bipolar disorder. Does discovering that lessen the pain of their mental distress?
- It suggests we have a specific sin that has unleashed the problem. Feelings of being guilty, worthless or a burden already show up in the majority of mental illness; you don’t need to make a connection between their sin and suffering unless it is absolutely clear.
- It subverts God’s call to trust. If we focus on hearing the specific lesson God has planned, we rest in our own ability to understand rather than faith in Jesus.
As I said before, this question is perfectly biblical. If it was asked and it wasn’t discouraging, expect that it was not the first question asked, and that it was asked in the context of a secure relationship.
2. “If you need anything, please call me — any time.”
Again, at first glance, this is a generous offer. You haven’t forced your help on them, and you’ve given them control over how and when to call on you. Take comfort that your heart is in the right place. But are you prepared to follow through? Especially if you are a family member or close friend of the sufferer, you may find yourself following through on this offer a lot of the time, for a very long time. I can tell you with near certainty that the person requiring this much support from you, would rather not have to; they may not even be aware what they’re asking from you. When this happens, don’t demand gratitude from the friend facing anger issues. Don’t beg your brother with ADHD for just ‘one night off’.
Let me offer three insights to prompt you in thinking differently about this offer. Do talk to a friend about your thoughts and responses:
- If comforters knew how deep suffering feels, they would know that sufferers usually don’t know what they want or need.
- If comforters knew about the sufferer, they would already know what she needs.
- If comforters knew the sufferer personally, they would know that she would never call.
3. “You have OCD? Is that the one with….?”
If you have come across some information about your friend’s diagnosis, don’t assume you know their situation. Mental illness isn’t like appendicitis – the symptoms and cure are not consistent. As Ed Welch explains,
“There is much we do not know about psychiatric problems. And it is easy with these kinds of severe hardships to default to either biological or demonic explanations. Before you do this—wait... As soon as we commit to a certain explanation, we stop listening to the struggling person. We no longer seek advice from other people. We have forgotten the person in front of us.”
God has less and less of a role in a medical context, but Scripture reminds us that even when the problem is significantly biological, like Alzheimer’s or brain injury, we are called to turn to the Lord, and grow in faith (2 Corinthians 4:16).
Secondly, do not write them off as a friend. Yesterday, a clinician wrote a diagnostic word on their file. Today, you can learn from them, they can pray for you, you are called to encourage and rebuke them, just as you are required to listen to their encouragements and rebukes. The diagnosis is not their identity, and it’s certainly not their destiny –
“’What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived’ – the things God has prepared for those who love him.” (1 Corinthians 2:9)
To reiterate my introduction, please do not be discouraged. If reading this post made you feel ill-equipped and inadequate, join the club. Let us be excited for the ways we can grow and mature in our approach to mental health. If reading this post made you feel confident that you’re ticking all the right boxes, pray with us all the same: Father, please use the material this week to change our hearts, to humble us and push us towards you. Only when we see our true need for you can we begin to help those in need too.
This afternoon we'll release the second half of this post, looking at these two approaches:
“Oh yeah, that’s a common diagnosis…It could be worse”
“If I were you, I’d…”
We will also begin to draw together what we’ve been learning this week and identify some key principles that provide the foundation for all our love and counsel in the area of mental health.
Abby became a Christian aged 20 and joined the More Precious team a year ago to oversee City Reps. Abby recently graduated in Psychology from Sheffield and spent some time with CCEF studying biblical counselling in the USA. Abby is now continuing to study back home with Biblical Counselling UK and gaining experience before applying for the Clinical Psychology Doctorate. Abby has been touched personally by the destructive effects of mental health and is, God-willing, dedicated to the battle against mental illness from all angles.