In my shoes: How to support people who live with mental illness

Marja Bergen says people will mental illness long to be seen as more than just a 'needy' person.

Marja Bergen says people will mental illness long to be seen as more than just ‘needy’ people.

Marja Bergen wrote this personal reflection to coincide with Mental Health Awareness Week (October 2 – 6).

Most of us who follow Christ want to help sick people, including those who live with mental illness. We would like to be God’s hands for them and show them his love. How very valuable such supporters are to suffering individuals!

As we know though, many with mental illness are affected by the way the world looks upon them. This makes them especially in need of our love. How can we help and, at the same time, help them feel good about who they are, an equal in the family of Christ?

I am 70 years old and have lived with bipolar disorder and other mental health issues for 50 years. Over that time I’ve had the support of friends and family, both inside and outside the church. I’ve also done much to support others, creating Christian support groups and giving one on one support to troubled individuals.

I hope my experiences can build some understanding around these issues. I hope that by putting yourself in my shoes, as I will endeavour to help you do here, you will come to understand how best to be supportive to those who live with mental illness.

Thirty years ago I started following Christ. Through trusting God I received the strength I needed to survive my many challenges. As my realization of God’s love grew I discovered a desire to show love and support to others who live with challenges like mine. I learned to give to others, even as I myself received.

The ways in which we can help our mentally ill friends could be divided into three areas.

  • How can we help people with mental illness with their everyday needs?
  • How can we help the sick person feel good about himself or herself, not demeaned in any way, in spite of the troubles they face?
  • How can we encourage people during episodes?

Before taking on a supportive role for someone, I would suggest doing some research to learn about your friend’s particular kind of illness. This will help you understand his or her needs. But almost all of us will benefit from the kinds of support I list here.

Our everyday needs when sick

Supporters might not realize that people who deal with mental health problems have many of the same needs as those dealing with physical illness. When things are bad we might feel too down or too disorganized to look after ourselves as we normally would. We might lack the ability or motivation to buy groceries, or cook. We might lose our appetite and go for long periods without eating.

One acquaintance told me how, during a particularly bad time, a friend had gone all out to help, coming over daily to make sure she ate – even at times feeding her. That was one amazing friend!

During times of depression I have received jars of stew or soup and deeply appreciated the help. Such care encouraged me. I’ve been taken out for walks. Venturing outdoors with a friend gave me courage. It took away some of my fear. Other times a friend might come for a cup of coffee.

Visits like this were not always easy. I felt self-conscious being in such a bad state. Sometimes all I wanted to do was to hide in bed. Receiving a phone call instead of a visit was then more comforting.

In whatever ways I’m cared for, the love of God is impressed on me – a love I badly need. As commonly happens in depression, God feels distant. But through my friends, he gradually comes closer. I’ll never forget the feeling I had when I was at my lowest, and a friend told me she would always love me. Through her I heard God speaking. Through my friend I felt God’s warmth.

Many times – probably far too many times – I’ve simply needed a friend to listen to me. During difficult times it’s hard to keep all the pain inside, hard to be alone with everything that goes on in my head. I need someone with whom I can share what I’m feeling, someone who will listen with compassion, someone who will try to understand what it is to be me. This can be very hard on my supporters. I’ve learned that talking to friends – within reason – is fine, but too much overwhelms them.

I need to pray and I do by writing letters to God until I’ve emptied myself of everything I can tell him. It helps me find a measure of peace and encouragement. But not always.

When the distress becomes too great I really do need a human being who will respond to my expressions of pain. When I feel I’ve burdened my friends enough, the Crisis Line is a good place to go. Those who man the Crisis Lines have been trained to respond with wisdom and compassion to those in deep emotional pain. They’ve helped me many times.

Helping us feel good about ourselves

I’ve had a number of friends who helped me during difficult times. How good it was to be cared for when the struggle became hard to bear! Their support gave me the sense of security I needed.

The trouble is, when I recovered, I longed to be considered their equal. I longed to be considered more than just a “needy” person. Sometimes the fact that I could be perfectly well was forgotten. I have many strong periods when I can give – and I love to give. I want to give to my supporters in the way they give to me. I don’t need support alone. I need friendship.

Lutheran philosopher and theologian Paul Tillich eloquently expressed my feelings. He said: “We are not just our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ brothers and sisters.”

It took many years before some of my supporters would confide their own needs and feelings to me. I had to work hard to draw them out in the way they drew me out. Not being allowed into their lives in the way I allowed them into mine made for an unbalanced relationship. It made me feel less worthy than others. And yet, I doubt that this attitude towards me was intentional. Maybe this is all some people are able to be for me. Everyone is different. Everyone gives in his own way.

My experiences show how easy it is to make people feel looked down on when we try to help them. Even the most caring and well-meaning supporters can make this mistake. In offering support there needs to be an attitude of humility. We are all equals in God’s eyes.

In the world we live in this sense of humility isn’t always there. But Jesus shows his followers the kind of love he wants us to have for others, especially those who are too often stigmatized. We who want to help people with mental illness need to treat them as we ourselves would like to be treated.

What would a truly good attitude be? It would be quite different from what we might think, not the easiest to attain.

How good it would be if we who are suffering from a mental illness were looked up to – respected instead of felt sorry for! How good it would be if our supporters were to learn from us, feel the pain along with us, and join us in protest and prayer! To pity us is condescending. On the other hand, to share in our suffering can be dignifying and life-giving.

How to offer useful encouragement

If we’re going to treat people with respect, we will have to be careful about how we give advice. When done poorly, it’s one of the worst things we can do. It’s common for supporters to think they know what will help better than the sick people themselves do.

We might have spiritual diagnoses when we don’t even understand what the person is going through or what their medical diagnoses and treatment needs are. Giving advice is best left up to professionals.

We who deal with the pain of mental illness feel hurt by “you should” kind of advice. Advice like that makes us feel that the person who’s trying to help thinks that we are in control of making ourselves well. In actual fact, fixing our broken mind could be as difficult as fixing a broken leg.

Sometimes all we can do is make the symptoms easier to bear while having patience for the medications to work and for the illness to run its course.

Rather than telling your friend what she should do, giving encouraging suggestions would be more helpful. Some examples of what you could say:

  • “Would you like to try a walk? We could go together.”
  • “What has helped you in the past? Do you think it might help again?”
  • “What are some things you could do to take your mind off your negative thoughts?”
  • “I know God seems distant right now, but he is looking after you.”
  • “Let’s read a Psalm. King David suffered a lot of emotional pain as well. His prayers long ago can help us pray today.”

I have a number of supportive friends, each of them helping in a unique way, each of them a priceless gift. I’ll be forever grateful for all they give because their support comforts and encourages me. It’s so good to know they’re there.

However, to make our relationships work they have had to set boundaries when I lean too heavily on them. At times that has required painful adjustment for me. But they have been patient with me and I am learning to give them space. I continue to see God’s love reflected in them. They reassure me of his presence and help me know that I’m not alone.

There’s one important supporter I very much need to mention, and that’s Wes, my husband of 47 years. I have a hard time understanding how our marriage has lasted this long, in spite of my emotional problems. Wes has seen me through much and I feel bad for too often taking him for granted. Though we’re not on the same page spiritually, God has done a wonderful thing to hold us together. I don’t know what I’d do without him.

Marja Bergen is the author of Riding the Roller Coaster (1999), A Firm Place to Stand (2008) and Reflections for our Highs and Lows (2014). She is the founder of Living Room, a Christian peer support ministry now part of Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries.

On Mondays she sends out reflections on living with mental health issues in a Christian context, sharing words of comfort, encouragement and inspiration. Go to her website here.

A couple of local events related to mental wellness are coming up soon:

* Mental Health First Aid

* Understanding Mental Illness from the Inside

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