Drew was a minister living in a tiny Southern town. He loved his wife and kids and faithfully lead his church family.
After the birth of his third child, his wife, Lori seemed different. At first, he thought it was because the birth had been complicated and unexpectedly turned into an emergency surgery.
As time went on, Drew couldn’t deny the truth. Something deeper was going on. She struggled with insomnia and she experienced sudden mood swings. She didn’t bond with their third child the way she had so easily their first two. She had no appetite and often didn’t want to do activities she’d once enjoyed.
When Drew gently encouraged her to get help, the physician explained that she was experiencing prolonged postpartum depression. He prescribed an antidepressant and after the dosage was adjusted a few times, Lori slowly began to feel like her old self.
But she lived in terror of talking about the depression. She’d drive two hours to a different pharmacy to pick up her antidepressants. She was afraid her husband would lose his job if her struggles were known by the congregation.
Mental Illness: The Church’s Dirty Little Secret
Over forty-three million Americans suffer from a mental health issue. This can range from well-known conditions like anxiety and depression to less familiar ones like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Unfortunately, Christians are not spared mental health issues simply because of their faith. In fact, there have been many notable Christians that struggled with a mental health condition. Some of these famous names include Charles Spurgeon, Mother Teresa, and David Brainerd.
These spiritual giants are not the only ones. There are multiple accounts of those who suffered from mental health issues within the pages of Scripture as well. Some of these mighty people of faith include Elijah, Hannah, Job, Hagar, and King David.
Why Do Christians Experience Mental Illness?
Just as Christians may have health conditions such as diabetes, cancer, and thyroid disease, Christians may have mental illnesses, too. A Christian can have a strong faith and trust in God but still be diagnosed with anxiety, depression, OCD, or any other number of illnesses.
Christians—just as unbelievers—live in a world where there is brokenness, pain, and illness. Unfortunately, that brokenness means you or a loved one may at some point be affected by a mental illness.
Why Are Christians Afraid to Talk about Mental Health?
Unfortunately, Lori’s fear isn’t unusual. Many within the church walls fear talking about their mental health issues. They worry they’ll be judged. They worry their families will be looked down on. Or as with Lori, they may even worry that their family’s livelihood will be in danger.
Some Christians are afraid to talk about mental illness because they’ve been shamed in the past. Perhaps they tried to reach out and were quickly shut down. Maybe they were told they should keep the struggle to themselves.
Why Isn’t the Church Doing More?
When surveyed, three out of four pastors admitted they knew at least one person in their congregation had been diagnosed with a serious mental illness. Yet despite the staggering figure, many churches are silent on this issue.
Some of this may stem from a genuine fear of saying the wrong thing. But silence on the topic of mental illness only creates further isolation. It allows dangerous beliefs to flourish like: “I’m the only one who’s suffering” or worse, “my mental illness is shameful”.
For other churches, the silence on mental illness may be due to a lack of spiritual education on the topic. Perhaps leadership has never seriously considered Elijah’s cries to the Lord.
“I have had enough, LORD,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” (1 Kings 19:4)
Or perhaps they are unfamiliar with David’s pleas in Psalm 42:3: My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me all day long, “Where is your God?”
But staying ignorant or silent on this topic is ultimately failing those who struggle with mental illness. God longs for us to talk openly about every issue in our lives. In fact, He longs for us to “worship in Spirit and in truth” (John 4:23). We cannot worship in truth if we are afraid to have difficult conversations.
Of course, this leads many Christians to ask, “What should I say? How do I have a conversation with someone who is struggling with a mental illness?”
4 Things to Never Say to Someone with Mental Illness (& What to Say Instead)
It’s a difficult thing to talk openly and honestly about mental health. It can be much harder if you’ve never faced a mental health issue of your own or if you haven’t had a close loved one with a history of mental illness.
You may fear saying the wrong thing and making the situation worse. But staying silent only convinces those who need help that they are alone.
God has called Christians everywhere to be the hands and feet of Christ. That means running quickly to our hurting brothers and sisters and bandaging their wounds. As you minister, here’s what to avoid saying and what to say instead…
Don’t Say: God only gives His toughest battles to His strongest soldiers.
This sounds like a compliment and you may truly be in awe of the strength of someone you know who’s dealing with mental illness.
But the problem with these words is that they can leave the person you’re speaking with to feel as if they’re failing God in the moments that they are weak. They may also internalize your words and believe they have to suffer alone in stoic silence.
Do Say: God is with you in this battle.
Those who are dealing with mental illness often feel fragile, weak, and scared. Instead of praising their strength, point them to the One who is strong. Encourage them that though they feel alone, God is their rallying point.
Verses about God’s presence include:
- “The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.” – Exodus 14:14
- “The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” – Psalm 34:18
- “For the LORD your God is the one who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies to give you victory.” – Deuteronomy 20:4
Don’t Say: You just need to pray harder.
The last thing someone with mental illness needs to be told is to try harder, whether that’s encouraging the other person to pray more, have more faith, or read their Bible more often.
When you make statements like this, it can leave your friend or loved one feeling as if they’ve failed in some way. They may focus on trying to do everything “right” so they can get some relief from their pain.
Do Say: God is holding onto you right now.
You can never go wrong by pointing a hurting heart back to the presence of God. When it comes to mental illness, Satan often whispers to those who are hurting that they’re disappointing God by not being strong.
Reassure your loved one, friend, or congregant that God delights in them, just the way they are. God wraps those who hurt in His loving embrace. He longs to nurture, protect, and heal us when we’re aching.
Verses that may encourage a hurting heart include…
- “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.” – Isaiah 40:11
- “Praise the Lord; praise God our savior! For each day he carries us in his arms.” – Psalm 68:19 (NLT)
- “The Lord your God, who is going before you, will fight for you, as he did for you in Egypt, before your very eyes, and in the wilderness. There you saw how the Lord your God carried you, as a father carries his son, all the way you went until you reached this place.” – Deuteronomy 1:30-31
- “I will be your God throughout your lifetime— until your hair is white with age. I made you, and I will care for you. I will carry you along and save you.” – Isaiah 46:4 (NLT)
Don’t Say: God is testing you. Just think of the testimony you’ll have!
God may very well intend to take someone’s battle with mental illness and turn it into a beautiful testimony of His healing and redemption. But during times of anguish and suffering, promises of a beautiful testimony aren’t comforting.
Even though Jesus understood His suffering—He knew exactly why He would face a cruel death—the reason brought Him no comfort. Instead, what He craved was the same thing every Christian facing a mental health crisis craves: the comfort that comes from the presence of God.
Do say: I don’t know why you’re suffering, but I’m here for you.
Long before they started making silly guesses and accusing Job of sin, his three friends did something profoundly beautiful: they sat with him in silence for seven days. For a whole week, they didn’t leave his side. They surrounded him with quiet, steady support.
It’s OK to walk into someone’s pain and not have all the answers. It’s OK to admit that you don’t know what God is doing. It’s even OK to admit that you don’t like what’s happening in someone’s life. In these moments, all you can do is point them back to the God who tenderly loves each hurting heart.
Encourage your fellow believer with these words…
- “See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are ever before me.” – Isaiah 49:16
- “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.” – Psalm 46:1
- “The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.” – Isaiah 58:11
- “For the LORD your God is living among you. He is a mighty savior. He will take delight in you with gladness. With his love, he will calm all your fears. He will rejoice over you with joyful songs.” – Zephaniah 3:17 (NLT)
Don’t Say: Have you tried…ABC?
Your friend or loved one has just admitted to struggling with a mental illness. You’re eager to help. You love this person and just want them to feel better. So, you share your best suggestion. A vitamin. A weekend away. A nap. A new job. A different house.
Unfortunately, mental health fixes are seldom easy. While you are operating from a good place, know that if someone trusted you enough to open up about their struggle, they don’t want your solutions. They want your presence. They want your comfort. They want you to sympathize and understand.
Do Say: I care about you. I will listen without judgement.
Treat your friend, loved one, or congregant the same as you would anyone else facing a serious diagnosis. Say honestly and with feeling, “That sounds really tough. Would you like to talk about it?” You might also say, “Can I pray with you right now?” or “Is there something you’d like me to do for you in this moment—perhaps a hug or a place to cry?”
Sometimes, the other person will reject all of your offers. Understand that it’s not about you. Perhaps they simply wanted to unburden. Some people will share because they want to feel as if they’re not the only one bearing the weight of their secret.
Others may not need or want help in the moment but may ask for it later. Be open to walking with your friend, no matter what that looks like. And if you’re looking for ideas on how to offer support, here are a few suggestions…
Practical Ways to Help Those with Mental Illness
Praying for someone who is dealing with a mental illness is a wonderful idea. But sometimes you want to go above and beyond to show someone you truly care about their suffering. But you might be at a loss on how to do this. Here’s what to do…
Check In by Text
Thanks to technology, it’s easier than ever to stay in touch with those suffering from mental illness. Reach out two to three times a week with text messages. Let them know you’re thinking of them.
Send them funny memes or clean jokes. Share a picture of something unique you saw on your way to work. Texting about little moments can give the person suffering a feeling of normalcy in the midst of their struggles.
Offer to Drive to Appointments
Depending on someone’s mental health medication, they may not be in the frame of mind to drive or operate machinery. Those with mental health issues may need rides to and from their various appointments.
Stop in with a Meal
Dealing with a mental illness can be overwhelming. It can sap someone’s strength, leaving them without the energy to make nutritious food for their bodies.
You can step in the gap by showing up with a meal once or twice a week. This doesn’t have to be anything fancy. The next time you’re preparing a meal simply double the recipe.
Parents and caretakers are often overwhelmed, especially if they’re dealing with their own mental health issues. You can help out by offering to provide childcare once a month. This doesn’t have to be difficult. Take kids to the zoo, the park, or simply plan a fun afternoon of arts and crafts.
Let them Know about Pharmacy Deals
If you’re very close to someone with a mental health issue and know they’re struggling financially, be sure to let them know that some pharmacies offer certain mental medications for discounted prices (even without health insurance).
Come Over Once a Week
Some people may want to chat. Some may prefer to simply enjoy the gift of your presence in silence. In these situations, consider bringing a relaxing activity you can do together like a jigsaw puzzle, adult coloring books, or another craft-based pursuit.
Don’t Take It Personally
It’s possible that the person you’re ministering to with a mental illness may not be able to show their appreciation for what you’re doing. They may not be able to feel anything at all right now.
This means you shouldn’t take it personally if they seem unenthusiastic about your help and sacrifices. Remember that you aren’t just serving your brother or sister in Christ. You’re doing this for the Lord.
In Matthew 25:40, Jesus explains, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
Start the Conversation
There might be times when you notice something doesn’t seem quite right with someone you love. It might be your spouse, a family member, a friend, or another Christian at your church.
Don’t be afraid to start the conversation. You can say something like, “I notice you seem different lately. I don’t want to overstep, but I’m worried about you. Do you need someone to talk to?”
Ask the Spirit to lead you during these conversations. In Jeremiah 1:9, there’s a beautiful moment recorded: Then the LORD reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “I have put my words in your mouth.”
Just as God gave Jeremiah the words to speak to the nation, God can give you the words to whisper over a hurting heart.
A Prayer for Your Journey…
God, open my eyes to those who are suffering from mental illness. Give me great compassion and empathy for them. Grant me the courage to speak life and hope over their pain. Let Your words and love for the hurting and broken flow through me. In Jesus’ name, Amen.