Christian support for people with mental health challenges

May 2017


Most followers of Christ feel called to help sick people and many have started supporting those living with mental illness. They try to be God’s hands for them and show them his love. Such support has been invaluable to people like me, especially when I’m having a bad time.

But many with such illnesses are affected by a world that looks down on them. We might have developed low self-esteem, making us feel especially in need of friends’ love. How can our supporters help and—at the same time—help us feel good about who we are—an equal in the family of God?

I am seventy years old and have lived with bipolar disorder and other mental health issues for fifty years. Over that time I’ve had the support of friends and family, both inside and outside the church. I’ve also done much to support others, creating Christian support groups and giving one on one support to troubled individuals.

I hope my experiences can build some understanding around what good support looks like. I hope that by putting yourself in the shoes of people like me as I try to help you do here, you will come to understand how best to be supportive to those who live with mental illness.

I started following Christ thirty years ago. By trusting God I received the strength I needed to survive many challenges. As my realization of God’s love grew I wanted to show love and support to others who live with challenges like mine. I learned to give to others, even as I myself received.

The following are the various necessities I, and others with mental illness , could use help with:

  • Help with everyday needs when sick,
  • Learning to feel good about ourselves,
  • Encouragement during episodes.

Before taking on a supportive role for someone, I would suggest doing some research to learn about your friend’s particular kind of illness. This will help you better understand their needs.

Our everyday needs when sick

People who deal with mental health problems have many of the same needs as those dealing with physical illness. When things are bad we might feel too down or too disorganized to look after ourselves as we normally would. We might lack the ability or motivation to buy groceries, or cook. We might lose our appetite and go for long periods without eating. One acquaintance told me how, during a particularly bad time, a friend had gone all out to help, coming over daily to make sure she ate. That was one amazing friend!

During times of depression I have received jars of stew or soup and deeply appreciated the help. Such care encouraged me. I’ve been taken out for walks. Venturing outdoors took courage, but having a friend with me, took away some of my fear. Other times a friend might come for a cup of coffee. Visits like this were not always easy. I felt self-conscious being in such a bad state. Sometimes all I wanted to do was to hide in bed. Receiving a phone call instead of a visit was then more comforting.

In whatever ways I’m cared for, the love of God is impressed on me—a love I badly need. It is common in times of depression for God to become distant. Friends can help him feel closer. I’ll never forget the feeling I had when I was at my lowest, and a friend told me she would always love me. Through her I heard God speaking. Through my friend, I felt God’s warmth.

Many times—probably far too many—I’ve simply needed a friend to listen to me. During difficult times it’s hard to keep all the pain inside. It’s hard to be alone with everything that goes on in my head. I need someone with whom I can share what I’m feeling—someone who will listen with compassion, someone who will try to understand what it is to be me. This can be extremely hard on my supporters.

I’ve learned that talking to friends within reason is fine, but too much overwhelms them. Better then to write letters to God in my journal until I’ve emptied myself of everything I can tell him. This helps me find a measure of peace. But not always.

The Crisis Line is often a good place to go. Those who man the Crisis Lines have been trained to respond with wisdom and compassion to those in deep emotional pain. They’ve helped me many times.

Helping us feel good about ourselves

I’ve had a number of friends who helped me during difficult times. How good it was to be cared for when the struggle became too hard to bear on my own! Their support gave me the sense of security I needed.

Trouble was, when I recovered, I longed to be considered their equal. I longed to be more than just a “needy” person. Sometimes the fact that I could be a perfectly well person was forgotten by friends. I have many periods when I’m good and strong—times when I can give—and I love to give. I want to give to my supporters in the way they give to me. I need friendship too.

Lutheran philosopher and theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1956) eloquently expressed my feelings. He said: “We are not just our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ brothers and sisters.”

It took many years before some of my supporters would confide their own needs and feelings to me. I had to work hard to draw them out in the way they drew me out. Not being allowed into their lives in the way I allowed them into mine made for an unbalanced relationship. It made me feel less worthy. And yet, I doubt that this attitude towards me was intentional. Maybe this is all some people are able to be for me.

However, my experiences show how easy it is to feel looked down on when someone tries to help us. Even the most caring and well-meaning supporters can make this mistake. God calls us to come with an attitude of humility. All of us—whether supporting or being supported—are equals in God’s eyes. Those who want to help people with mental illness need to treat them as they themselves would like to be treated.

How good it would be if we who are suffering from a mental illness were looked up to—respected instead of felt sorry for! How good it would be if our supporters were to learn from us, trying to feel the pain along with us, and join us in protest and prayer! To pity us is condescending. But to share in our suffering would be dignifying and life giving.

Useful encouragement

Treating people with respect will mean having to be careful about how supporters give advice. When done poorly, it’s one of the worst things a person can do. It’s common for supporters to think they know what will help better than the sick people themselves do. They might have spiritual diagnoses when they don’t even understand what the person is going through or what their medical diagnoses and treatment needs are. Giving advice is best left up to professionals.

We who deal with the pain of mental illness feel hurt by “you should” kind of advice. Advice like that makes us feel that the person who’s trying to help thinks that we are able to make ourselves well—that it’s within our power. In actual fact, fixing a broken mind could be as difficult as fixing a broken leg. Sometimes all we can do is make the symptoms easier to bear while having patience for the medications to work and for the illness to run its course.

Rather than telling us what we should do, encouraging suggestions would be more helpful. Some examples of what you could say are these:

  • “Would you like to try a walk? We could go together.”
  • “What has helped you in the past? Do you think it might help again?”
  • “What are some things you could do to take your mind off your negative thoughts?”
  • “I know God seems distant right now, but he is looking after you.”
  • “Let’s read a Psalm. King David suffered a lot of emotional pain as well. His prayers long ago can help us pray today.”

I have a number of supportive friends, each of them helping in unique ways, each of them a priceless gift. I’ll be forever grateful for all they give because their support comforts and encourages me. It’s so good to know they’re there. However, to make our relationships work they have had to set boundaries when I lean too heavily on them. At times that has required painful adjustment for me. But they have been patient with me and I am learning to give them space. I continue to see God’s love reflected in them. Through them I feel God’s presence.

There’s one important supporter I very much need to mention, and that’s Wes, my husband of 47 years. I have a hard time understanding how our marriage has lasted this long, despite my emotional problems. Wes has seen me through much and I feel bad for too often taking him for granted. Though we’re not on the same page spiritually, God has done a wonderful thing to hold us together. I wouldn’t know what I’d do without him.