I found my breath and asked my mom, “Can we go down there?” We had just walked onto the observation deck of the Grand Canyon. The vast gorge wound before me as if God had reached down and dragged his finger through the earth. It was simply too beautiful to be real.
So much in this world—from nature, to films, to conversations—makes us ask ourselves, “Can I go in?” And many times we do, especially when it’s easy. We’re eager to climb into beautiful canyons or listen to a coworker talk about the birth of his son. Entering into the joys of life often comes naturally to us. But when it comes to difficult memories, places, and people, we’d rather stay out.
Few people want to enter into the grief of losing a child or the stress of unemployment. It’s tempting to run, hoping the hard things will somehow go away on their own.
Mental health is one of those uncomfortable things we’d rather not confront. Those who struggle with their mental health can seem like that rundown house on the edge of town no one goes to. People are afraid to walk by, let alone step inside. We surround mental health issues with caution tape and proceed with our day.
I felt the brunt of it as a college student struggling with depression. My moods swung beyond my control and none of my close friends understood what to do or say. Instead of propping me up and sitting by my side, they left.
Since then, I’ve learned that mental health struggles aren’t isolated to the outskirts of our society. They’re next door.
Understanding Mental Illness
One in five adults struggles with a mental health condition, which means it’s impossible to avoid—even among Christians. The church needs a guidebook on how to enter into the pain of those dealing with mental health issues. We should be the most empathetic and loving people to the suffering. But when it comes to mental health, we’ve dropped the ball. It’s more common than most Christians realize, and many don’t know what to do or say when a friend opens up about mental illness. Personally, I found myself feeling helpless in those situations, even though I had a brief brush with depression in college. So I asked several of my friends who battle mental illness what they needed from those who mattered most to them.
Stopping to See the House
Before we try to enter into the lives of people struggling with mental illness and walk alongside them, we have to begin at the exterior. We need permission to even come in. And we gain permission by grasping an essential truth—the people are right in front of us and their issues are real.
People with mental illness cannot ignore it. Neither can we. But we have. People kept reminding me that mental health issues are real—not a figment of the imagination. One college student told me she hoped Christians would see that mental health was “real and tangible.”
I’ve been tempted to think a person struggling with mental illness is simply having a bad day or feeling upset. Many Christians who haven’t experienced mental illness for themselves often confuse it for normal, negative emotions like sadness or fear. Those emotions are definitely present in mental illnesses, but that’s not the same thing.
On top of the reality of mental illness, we need to realize that it’s also not simply a spiritual matter. It’s tempting to throw our favorite verses at a situation and hope for the best. A mom and empty-nester told me, “Christian platitudes help zero percent of the time. To me, it means the person doesn’t want to take the time to really listen or understand. Clichés stop the conversation and leave the victim to retreat and lick her wounds.” While well-intended, taking catchy verses out of context has more potential to do harm than good.
Another person I talked to diagnosed the deeper issue behind our well-intended platitudes. He said, “There’s this weird form of Gnosticism that seeps into Christian conversation about mental health, especially when it comes to taking medication.” He explained many Christians have split the mind, soul, and body apart when talking about mental health. We think of it as a purely spiritual issue. Though sometimes that is the case, most of the time the cure has as much complexity as humans themselves.
We aren’t simply spiritual or physical or mental beings—we’re multi-dimensional. Mental health issues impact the whole person. Yes, sometimes healing comes through prayer. But often it comes through exercise, mended relationships, a good diet, or through medication. And for many people, it’s an ongoing issue that might not ever be fully resolved.
Once we’ve grasped the reality of mental health and its complexity, we can look to the actual person in front of us and begin to enter into their experience.
Depression and anxiety cling to a person in an abiding way, while emotions like sadness or fear often fade over time. A seminary student described the impact anxiety has on her life: “Everything I do—from chatting with coworkers, to meeting a paper deadline, to calling a friend on the phone—is harder than it should be for me because I operate at a heightened anxiety level.”
The number one thing I heard is people need their feelings validated. The source of most of their hurt came from friends who either didn’t understand their feelings and moved on, or from those who seemed to ignore their feelings and offer a quick-fix solution. One friend said she “would get cut off in the middle of talking by someone who wanted to give advice too soon.” I’ve been that friend—the one who shuts people down and invalidates their feelings. But people feel loved when they feel heard. It’s the simple act of listening and saying, “I’m sorry. That sounds so hard.” It communicates we want to enter into the difficult and ugly parts of life with them and not just the beautiful things—it tells them we’re safe.
It might be tempting to stop there. We may have come to terms with the reality of their experience with mental health, but we’re still standing outside the house.
Let’s be honest, once we know how seriously people are affected by their mental health, it feels overwhelming. It’s tempting to make every interaction with them about “fixing” the problem. But that causes more harm than good. Overwhelmingly, the people I spoke to said the best thing a person could do for them after listening and validating their feelings is to do normal friend things.
The seminary student I mentioned earlier called it “undemanding company.” Another woman described a fun movie night with a few people as uplifting and helpful. The college student said her friend called her on the phone during a panic attack. A business leader and dad summed it up best: He said he needed people to invite him “to do fun things with them where there wasn’t a lot of pressure to talk deeply—but also they would let me know they were open to talk if I wanted to.”
Think about the things we normally do with a friend that don’t require much emotional energy —a homemade dinner, a movie night with a few people, a round of golf. Do those things. We don’t have to be wildly creative—in fact, it’s probably worse if we are. A quick text to invite someone over for pizza and card games can show we truly do care and that we aren’t scared of them.
Many might think this is the end of the story—we’re in the house, after all. But the journey isn’t over yet because mental illness isn’t a quick fix. It’s tempting to compare mental illness to a broken limb. We think it takes some time to heal, and is inconvenient at times, but after some time in a cast and in physical therapy, a person should be good as new. This isn’t often the truth with mental illness.
Many people struggle with mental health for years, sometimes their entire lives. One woman described her current battle with depression this way: “I haven’t found a medication that works to this day, and my mental health has been up and down.” Her story is the reality for many struggling with mental illness. It’s not going away with the rip of a Band-Aid and neither should we. Staying is one of the most Christlike things we can do for someone with mental illness.
That’s not to say bearing with a friend through mental illness won’t be difficult. It will be. I feel deeply burdened by the weight each of my friends carry. It pains me to see them struggle and I often feel powerless to help. But what I’ve realized over the years of walking alongside people with mental illness is that they need the thing I couldn’t find when I was in college: someone to recognize and shoulder their pain without negating or ignoring it.
Choosing to enter into people’s struggle takes intentional effort. And if we are honest with ourselves, it’s easier to stay away than engage with someone with mental illness. But as Christians, empathy and love aren’t optional. They’re modeled and commanded by our Savior. We’re called into people’s mess, even when it’s uncomfortable. And like trekking into the Grand Canyon, it’s worth it.
Cover image by Elizabeth Lies
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