1. Talk openly about struggles: especially mental health struggles.
This might be the single most effective way I’ve found to encourage others to talk about their struggles: talk about your own. On the most fundamental human level, we all want to know we’re not alone. Whether it’s a talk on asking for help, or sharing some struggles in a 1-on-1, every time I’ve shared a bit of my own walk with mental health, I’ve been amazed at the response. And that’s not a brag on me, I truly believe it’s because people are so relieved to know that there’s someone who understands, to know that they’re not alone. This is critical, because if your church/ministry/whatever isn’t a safe place where people can be honest about their pain, there’s a good chance they might not have one. And the one thing people hurting need to know is that they’re not alone, despite what the stigma and shame of mental illness is telling them.
2. Listen to those who are hurting.
A wise friend once told me ‘the first duty of love is to listen.’ I’ve never forgotten the truth of that sentence. You can’t love someone well without knowing what’s hurting them. You need to be okay listening to things that make you uncomfortable. If the hallmark of cruciform love is sacrifice, then be willing to sacrifice your comfort to listen to someone’s pain. Galatians 6:2 says ‘Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.’ (NIV) You can’t help carry things you aren’t willing to listen to.
3. Recognize the difference between curing & healing.
“..what they find is when they bring their pain or their doubt or their uncomfortable truth to church, someone immediately grabs it out of their hands to try and fix it, to try and make it go away. Bible verses are quoted, Assurances are given, Plans with ten steps and measurable results are made. With good intentions tinged with fear, Christians scour their inventory for a cure.
But there is a difference between curing and healing, and I believe the church is called to the slow and difficult work of healing. We are called to enter into one another’s pain, anoint it as holy, and stick around no matter the outcome.” Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday
We need to be more comfortable in the tension and the grey. The church places a lot of emphasis on the healing power of Jesus and the life transformation available (both good things), but sometimes forget that most healing takes time. It is possible to be a Christian and struggle with mental health, just like it’s possible to be a Christian with diabetes. Some people might be cured immediately and miraculously, most will require the long process of healing. Neither is indicative of a stronger faith. Neither is failing. And since to a lot of us, hurting feels like failing, this is an important thing to express.
4. Stop giving bad answers.
This one’s going to sound more offensive than it really is. Listen, of course you’re going to use the Bible for guidance. But simply quoting scripture such as “Do not be anxious about anything” (Phil 4:6) to someone battling anxiety isn’t going to help. Chances are, it’s going to make them feel like they’re doing something wrong, and actually make them feel worse. Jesus talked about money the most, but we hardly just give someone in financial woes a pithy bible verse and move on. Recognize that there’s probably no quick fix-it verse you can give someone. This doesn’t mean it’s useless. I regularly read bible verses on hope when my Depression is at it’s worst, but someone telling me (or implying) that I’m doing something wrong because I’m supposed to be finding ‘joy in all things’ isn’t helpful when my brain is already telling me I’m a failure.
5. Know what you’re talking about.
Do some research. If you find that mental health is a huge concern in your church (hint: about 1/5 of American adults will experience mental illness in a given year), than it’s your responsibility to be more knowledgable about it. That’s part of being a good leader: knowing what the people you’re leading/serving need. Read some books, talk to local mental health professionals. At the very least, Google search and find some credible websites that give you more information. (*added note: since the original posting of this blog, I've added a Resources page which includes local resources, websites, and books.) In fact, it’s likely there are people around you or in your congregation that have experienced various mental illnesses. Talk to them, get their stories. Talk to their families, get their stories. Hearing first-hand accounts not only gives you more information, but humanizes things you might’ve only seen as abstract problems before.
6. Know your limits.
There are many roles of a pastor/mentor/whatever your role is. Talking people through their battles in life is absolutely one of them, as is giving pastoral advice. But there comes a point where you’re not equipped to handle things. That’s not a knock on your abilities, just a fact of training. If someone came in with a broken leg, you’d refer them to a doctor. Heck, you might even drive them there yourself to make sure they got the treatment they deserve from the people who are properly equipped to do it properly. The same principle applies to mental and emotional health. You’re equipped for some situations, but not others. If in doubt, you should refer them to a trained mental health professional and do everything in your power to help them go. If you have to go with them to their first counseling appointment because they’re nervous, then go. Again, consider any other illness: if someone was refusing to go to the hospital despite bleeding profusely, but said they’re go if you went with them to make them more comfortable, there’s no chance you’d refuse. And you certainly wouldn’t cobble together your best attempt at trying to stitch them up. You’re serving and loving them better by encouraging them towards getting the healing they deserve.