Christians need to rethink the way they view mental health, and how to respond when someone approaches them suffering from mental health issues.
If you’re anything like me, finding yourself in a situation you don’t know how to handle can be difficult to muscle through. Imagine a friend or loved one, perhaps even someone you don’t know that well, coming up and confiding in you that they believe they might have major depression, that they’ve been having dark thoughts, even thoughts of self-harm. How would you respond? What would you say?
Depending on who you are or what culture you live in, talking about feelings or deep personal problems might be very difficult and uncomfortable for you.
Regardless, conversations like these still happen, and can come up seemingly out of the blue from people we least expect, so it is vital for people to know how to handle situations like these in a calm and cool-headed manner. This is especially true for youth leaders within churches, as children do not have the adequate thinking abilities and life skills needed to seek help for depression (or any mental illness) on their own. So how we respond, and our words and reactions to the suffering individual is paramount for their step towards healing.
First, understand that depression is entirely too large of an issue for Christians not to have a viable and adequate response to it. In 2014, around 15.7 million adults age 18 or older in the U.S. had experienced at least one major depressive episode in the last year, which represented 6.7 percent of all American adults. That is no small group of people, and the ones that suffer from this mental illness are our friends, coworkers, and even family members.
Oftentimes, Christians’ response to mental illness is often to pray about it, or recommend more time with God because they mistakenly believe mental illness is a spiritual problem. Although these ideas are well-meaning, they fall short in adequately interacting with someone with a mental illness. Below are a few steps on how to appropriately respond to someone when they have confided in you that they are depressed or have suicidal thoughts.
It might feel like you’ve been thrown a bomb and you have to find a way to diffuse it in twenty seconds. It might even seem like this person’s life is now entirely in your hands, but relax, take a deep breath. This might be awkward for you, but imagine how it must feel for the other person. Depression and suicidal thoughts often come with deep feelings of shame, guilt, and embarrassment, so be extra sensitive to that.
You want to appear approachable so mind your body language. Place your hands by your side, or if you’re sitting, place them on your knees, and don’t cross your arms. Soften your face and listen to what they are saying. Engage in the conversation, ask questions, be gentle, and just listen.
Thank Them for Sharing
Telling someone the darkest thoughts that run in your mind is no easy task. It takes a lot of courage, and is absolutely worth commending. This person has handed you something very delicate and they’re waiting to see how you react to it. Be grateful that this person found you trustworthy enough to speak to on such a tough subject and be sure to tell them you’re glad they did.
Think Before Speaking And Don’t Make It About You
Telling the person to focus on good vibes, dishing out Bible verses, recommending uplifting books, or telling them that “the night is darkest just before the dawn” (it’s not) are often said with great intentions, but realistically, they can have adverse effects. It might be tempting, but try not to reach for that inspirational phrase you believe will magically disappear their dark feelings, because it more than likely won’t work. People battling depression are incredibly intuitive, and will pick up when you are trying to say things simply to make them feel better or to change the subject.
Try to refrain from stories of when you were very sad once, or when you had depression one time, because it really is entirely irrelevant at the moment. This is not about you or how you’ve overcome similar struggles, this is about the other person and them only.
Responding with, “I’m very sorry you feel that way. What can I do to help?” is the direction you want to steer, and often, will make the individual feel like you are empathizing with them.
Seek Wisdom, Speak To The Appropriate People
Don’t be afraid to acknowledge to this person that you don’t know how to handle it. Strongly suggest local mental health professionals they can see, perhaps even a trip to the hospital might be in order. Offer to help them get in touch with the people they need, and then suggest the two of you go to a mentor, a trusted family member or friend and gather a very small group of people to rally around this person. The key is for the person to feel like you are with them, that you acknowledge their struggle, and that you are going to help.
Unless you are a licensed mental health professional, you don’t have the knowledge, training, or ability to correctly diagnose or treat anyone with depression or suicidal thoughts. It’s best not to even try. If you are dealing with an underage minor, you have a moral and legal obligation to not keep it a secret. Let the minor know that you must bring the subject to light with their parents or guardians. They might feel like you have betrayed their trust, but in the moment, their well-being and safety is of far greater importance.
Do Something, Don’t Just Pray About It
There is nothing wrong with suggesting prayer to someone who is hurting with mental health issues, but prayer must be done alongside professional help, not in place of it. When the individual does not feel better after being recommended more prayer and “quiet time with God”, they are bound to feel as though they are not praying well enough, aren’t devoted enough, or even that God has abandoned them entirely.
Depression is made up of misfires in the brain, either brought on by trauma, major life events, or just not enough of a certain chemical they need to function. Prayer alone is not enough to remedy this.
Speak To Your Church About Setting Aside Money For Therapy
I know of some churches I’ve attended that do it, but it’s a good idea to open a conversation with your church about setting aside funds for people who need to seek therapy. Life is tough, and sometimes it requires a helping hand from professionals who know how to work with people. Having funds for therapy can also be beneficial for married couples or for people in need of crisis counseling.
We would do well to remember Luke 5:17-39, when a band of people lowered a man through a roof to be healed by Jesus. They were not content with merely waiting outdoors in prayer. Rather, they climbed the building, broke through the shingles and rafters, through the sheet rock, and lowered the man to be healed. Jesus declared it was by the action of their faith through which the crippled man could be heal.
What would it look like now for church communities to rally around, uplift, and support not only the physically afflicted, but the emotionally and mentally wounded? What would it look like to not allow prayer to be limited to words, but be made into a call to action?