How The Church Can Help Those Who Struggle With Mental Illness

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If you read last week’s post, you will know that I (and quite a few others that I’ve come into contact with) have found that attending church can actually worsen their mental health. Of course, this is certainly not always the case, as there are also a lot of people who find great solace in the house of God. What makes the difference? How is it that some people find church comforting, while others find it unnerving? What can churches to do help those who struggle with anxiety, depression, and other types of mental health disorders? I believe the answer to that question can be found in how as Christians treat others. Here are a few things that can help.

Don’t Insist You Know The Answer

There is nothing worse than when someone confides about their mental health struggles and the listener says, “Well why don’t you just ________________” It seems this is a very common issue everywhere, but especially in the house of God. “Why don’t you just spend more time with God?” “Why don’t you just focus on others instead of yourself?” “Why don’t you just ask God to help you?” “Why don’t you just…” You get the picture right?

As someone who suffers with social anxiety and depression, let me tell you, if it was just as easy as any one thing to be cured, I would do it in a heartbeat. I absolutely believe spending time with God, serving others, getting proper nutrition, and plenty of other suggestions I’ve heard help. Perhaps there is even a cure out there that I don’t know about yet.

But questions and statements such as those given above do not help anyone, especially the person struggling with their mental health. These statements make them feel as though you believe they are stupid or not faithful enough. They may cause them to feel as though it is their fault they are suffering. The truth of the matter is, even if to a certain degree they are making things worse on themselves, you pointing it out so directly without having a secure relationship with them, is just going to push them farther into depression. You don’t want that.

Make An Effort To Get To Know Them

I don’t mean a, “Hello, how are you?” I mean truly make an effort. Unfortunately, this might be more difficult than it is with neurotypical members of your congregation. People with anxiety and depression do not tend to trust others easily so they may tend to push people away in the beginning. It will take a little while to gain their trust. Here are a few suggestions on reaching out.

  • Sit beside them or even in the row behind or in front of them and make a conscious effort to have a real conversation before or after the service starts.
  • Invite them to your home or to a neutral location for dinner after service (but don’t be upset if they decline).
  • Sit with them at church dinners or potluck
  • When they do tell you something, even if it seems trivial, listen intently and ask questions.
  • Specifically invite them to upcoming special events.

Learn Their Boundaries and Respect Them

If you know they don’t like hugs, offer a handshake instead. If you find out they would prefer to sit alone, respect that as well. Don’t push them or pressure them to do something that is out of their comfort zone. Just because you think they have an amazing voice does not give you the right to insist that they sing a special. If they don’t like attention in a crowd, don’t ask them to stand in front of the congregation. In general, respect their boundaries. Don’t insist they’re just being “silly”.

Point Them To The Love Of God

No I don’t believe in the “Health, wealth, and prosperity gospel” but I absolutely do believe in teaching the world that God loves them. People who struggle with anxiety and/or depression often truly feel they are not loved by anyone. When they attend church and hear a heavy emphasis on the wrath of God, they may feel even less worthy of love. Of course, preach the whole counsel of God, but don’t forget the parts where He describes His love for His children.

Love Them Yourself

The end of James chapter one and the next chapter talk a lot about vain religion versus pure religion. The second chapter contains that popular phrase, “Faith without works is dead.” This is so true when spending time with someone with a mental health disorder.

If a church member hears you say you love them, but watches you drive by while they’re broke down on the side of the road, do you think they’re going to believe it? I don’t care how good of a Christian you are, if you aren’t loving people, no one is going to know.

If you know someone has lost their job, don’t just say in a crowded vestibule, “If you need anything, let me know.” Why do they need to let you know? You already know. Do you think they want to admit their personal financial struggles in a crowded room full of people? They don’t. They also don’t want to be seen as needy. They probably are too embarrassed to approach you. Rather than making such vague statements, how about going to them at their home, or even just catching them at their car and quietly saying, “I know you lost your job. I want to help you, but I’m not sure how. Would it be more help to you if I brought you some groceries tomorrow or if I just gave you a gift card to go shopping for what you need?”

Encourage Them

People with anxiety are constantly afraid of disappointing others. To combat that, we as Christians need to exhort them, or lift them up. Little gestures can go a long way in this department. If you know someone struggles with getting up in front of people, but they stood and sang a solo, shake their hand and let them know you’re proud of them. Don’t be surprised if they don’t know how to respond. They might struggle a lot with receiving a compliment, but that’s okay. As they replay the events of the day, I can almost promise you they’ll smile remembering your kind words. If you feel too awkward to give a verbal compliment, leave an anonymous card where they sit with their name on it.  Write down how much they mean to you and how glad you are to be in church with them.

Focus On Your Goals, Not Their Shortcomings

I have to bring James back up again. The last verse in the first chapter says this, “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” Did you get that last part? “To keep himself unspotted from the world.” Christian, your job is not to police everyone else. Yes, I understand we are called to reprove and to rebuke. But make sure you’re doing it in love, and not in self gain. And make sure your primary focus is on worshiping God, and serving others.

If you put an extreme emphasis on the dos and don’ts of religion, especially those aspects that are not even discussed in the Word of God, you are doing yourself a disservice. Worse than that, however, you may be causing people to focus on rules rather than on a relationship with Jesus Christ. And those rules may very well cause a person to look at the storm instead of the Savior and sink into the sea of depression.

Ask Them

Okay so that sounds simple, right? But seriously, take some time, sit down with them and say, “I can tell you’re struggling.” Or, if you know they have a specific disorder say, “I’d like to know more about how _______ affects you.” Listen to them, and then ask, “What can we do to help?”

Recently, I was told of a church who put up a separate altar at the back of the sanctuary for a lady who was unable to get close to loud sounds (including the piano which is traditionally played during the altar call and is directly next

What Kind of Religion Do You Practice?

Please, take the time to read James chapters one and two and ask yourself, “Do I have vain religion or pure religion?” That is what makes the difference between if church hurts or helps. Here is a little bit of a comparison between the two according to the Word of God.

How Can Christians Help? One Word – Love

The bottom line is this: Loving people uplifts them. It gives them self worth. It shows them they are important. It eases anxiety and fights against depression. The opposite of love is hatred. Unfortunately, regardless of how much we try to deny it, churches have become full of that negative emotion. Sure, we say we “hate the sin but love the sinner.” Do you love the sinner enough to sit with him this week? Do you love that lady who came to church pregnant without knowing who the father is enough to go and visit her as Jesus did with Zaccheus and truly show her love and compassion? Or do you just “love” her enough to shake her hand before the service starts and then rush to the bottle of hand sanitizer?

My brother, the assistant pastor of Lighthouse Baptist Church in Superior, Montana, recently told me of a situation in which a young man came into the church house who was not a regular attendee. Almost immediately my brother realized he was very distraught. He didn’t just go over and shake his hand. Rather, he talked with him, called him by name, and said something to the effect of, “I can tell you’re upset and I just wanted to let you know that I care and if you want someone to talk with, I’d be glad to spend some time with you.” And the fact is, he meant it with all of his heart. I fully believe he would have given up the rest of his day for that young man. The visitor did not accept the offer, but later did agree to go and play some basketball.

As he was telling me this account, I fought back tears as I recalled the number of times I have walked into church with tears flowing down my cheeks and not one person has ever said, “I know you’re upset. Do you want to talk about it?” The truth is, many times I would have loved that opportunity. I don’t have many people in my life to discuss spiritual matters with and I would jump at that offer if it were available to me. But it has never been made. After 27 years in church, I can truly say I do not recall a single time someone has volunteered to just sit down and talk with me about what’s going on in my life for more than a quick handshake and a, “glad to see you today.” I have, however, on numerous occasions been given that opportunity by co-workers, classmates, and even strangers in the middle of a grocery store..

I am not saying that to shame anyone. I am guilty too. I’ve sat in the pew and saw someone visibly upset. I’ve not known what to do or what to say. I’ve been afraid to make a fool of myself. I valued my own pride more than the hurt of others. And that’s not love. It’s hate. And that is exactly what determines if the church helps someone out or forces someone into a state of depression. Let’s choose love.




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