People who live with a mental illness have been my teachers. I have learned a lot about life from what they model and say. Almost everything I have learned about how best to support them I have learned from them, and that is what I pass along to you.
However, before we begin with those kinds of tips, let’s think a little bit about love and how that includes treating all people with dignity, respect and sensitivity. As Christians this is our starting place and let’s let 1 Corinthians 13 be our guide.
I know that it is not always easy to treat people with dignity and respect, and this may be even more difficult when a person’s thinking is distorted, delusional or hallucinated
because of an illness. The person may simply not be able to think rationally or logically, and if we have not experienced this ourselves it is hard to understand what that person is going through.
Willingness to learn is essential
First, be willing to learn about mental illnesses. Local mental health services, medical clinics and self-help groups have lots of resources. Articles, podcasts and many other resources are available on the Internet. Here are two places to start:
Second, learn to listen and be willing to learn from the person with the illness. Listen attentively and without judgment. I do not know how the other person is feeling and I may not understand. I need to be the learner. I also need to listen to what may be under the words. I need to listen to the tone and observe. I need to be okay to sit silently, to see the tears or to hear a tirade of anger. I need to be ready to listen for a while. It may not be enough to give only half an hour while watching the clock.
Quick to listen, slow to speak
Be slow to speak. I must not think I have the answers or that a quick, short, simplistic solution will be helpful. If and when I ask questions they need to reflect back to the person what he or she has said. Or I could ask open-ended questions to encourage them to say more. Comments like, “Tell me a little more about what you just said,” or “You said you were really feeling down” are examples of questions that can encourage further talking.
There may come a time when I encourage someone to find more resources or to try something, but that needs to wait until I have really heard and listened. Be careful of the attitude of “You can fix this if you just do this or that.”
There are times when it may be appropriate to divert the direction of the conversation. Continuing to listen to stories and incidents that repeat consistently may not be helpful. Some people can get very emotionally engrossed in talking about what they experience as reality through delusions or hallucinations. Changing the topic to another emotional topic may break the pattern and turn it in another direction.
Tips on being a good friend
One thing I still sometimes forget is that when we meet casually I need to say, “It’s good to see you” rather than saying, “How are you?”
Many people who live with serious mental illnesses have already been disappointed with people who seem to be really good friends for a while and then disappear. They
don’t need more of that. However, you may need to pace yourself carefully so as not to over expend and then drop someone when you are exhausted. Agreeing on a next time to meet and putting it into our calendars is often good. In that way we don’t forget, but it’s also a way of setting healthy boundaries.
It is often helpful to gather a small circle of people who will all be part of the person’s life. No one person can meet all my needs, so I should not try to be the person who can meet all the needs of someone else.
Being remembered is important. A quick text to say, “I love you,” or a note saying, “I was thinking of you today,” or (if appropriate), “I am praying for you,” are quick ways of letting the person know that he or she is not forgotten.
Some people would enjoy a party for their birthday or being invited to a Christmas party. Some might prefer a one-on-one visit. It’s easy enough to ask what they prefer.
There are times to take a meal, do the laundry, offer childcare or go to an appointment.
It is also good to invite people to contribute with their gifts. I remember a woman who hand-drew beautiful bulletin covers. I know that was in the pre-computer days,
but maybe some people would enjoy hand-drawn bulletin covers in 2020 too. That’s just one idea to start you thinking creatively.
Offering spiritual support
Spiritual support is very important for Christians. When God seems far away, as sometimes happens when a person has a serious mental illness, some people want us to be praying with them. Others don’t. Some want a comforting Bible verse; some don’t.
Let’s never assume that because a person does not want prayer at a certain time that they are not in a solid relationship with God. Maybe their faith is even stronger and more meaningful then mine. Maybe they are tired of platitudes when their prayers are cries and laments. It is appropriate to ask, “Would you appreciate a prayer or a Psalm or would you just prefer to sit in silence or to chat?”
The same caution applies to touch. Do we hug or shake hands? Ask. See what the person wants and go with that. People who have been hurt by touch may pull back if you seek to touch. Others are hungry for physical touch because they hardly ever experience it.
If we seek to be supportive and the person does not seem warm to our friendship or does not reply to a message, let’s not take that too personally. If we have made a mistake or done something unkind we need to apologize, but it may not have been a good day or there was a reason they couldn’t reply. Try again later.
As with any relationships, supporting and learning from people who live with a mental illness takes love, time and sensitivity. I already referred to 1 Corinthians 13. A metaphor that may be helpful is the one about the body in 1 Corinthians 12 where we have the idea of the faith community being one body and all of us significant members of that body. If some part of our body suffers we all suffer. If the whole body functions well and together we have a strong and healthy body.
While this article speaks specifically about supporting people with mental illness, we all need support, sometimes more, sometimes less. Let’s accept the gifts that people with mental illness bring to our community so that indeed we are one body and that people around us recognize us by our love for each other.
This article was first published in The Messenger, the Evangelical Mennonite Church publication and was included in a series published as part of EMC’s Mental Health Initiative 2018.
Irma Janzen has served in education, as the coordinator of Mennonite Central Committee Canada’s Mental Health and Disabilities Program and as a pastor. She is part of Fort Garry Evangelical Mennonite Conference Church, Winnipeg, Manitoba.