This is the third article in our short series on mental health. The first set out to define mental health, biblically. The second demonstrated that causality is a very complex question concerning mental health; struggles with mental wellbeing are rarely single issue matters. In this final article we’re going to consider what we can do as individual Christians in seeking to care for friends and loved ones who struggle with their mental health. These pastoral principles for approaching mental health could also be worked out in the life of a church more generally, but we will primarily keep the individual in mind.
Mental health engagement is relational. So as we approach someone else, we bring our own experiences and insecurities into the relationship. When speaking to our friends and family, what they say impacts us and stirs something in us based on our own experiences. Therefore it’s helpful to be self-aware. How are you thinking and feeling even as you engage with others?
Be Present and Available
Being there for someone begins with precisely that: being there. We can be tempted to jump in and fix things, but this risks losing sight of the individual suffering right in front of us.
Being present means prioritising time to hear someone, listening attentively, and listening to understand (not merely listening to respond). Mental health challenges can be overwhelming to hear (so just imagine what they must be like for the person suffering), and there are rarely simple or quick solutions. One of the most powerful things we can do is be present with someone in times of distress. In many ways, this is the foundational pastoral principle for helping those struggling with mental health.
Loving others well often begins by listening to them.
When Nathan was at university, one of his lecturers taught him an African proverb that saw psychotherapy as “being witness to another’s pain.” Just being there intentionally for another person makes a difference. Loving others well often begins by listening to them.
Attend to Others with Grace and Compassion
“Behold, my servant…a bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not quench” (Matthew 12:18). When Matthew describes the ministry of Jesus, he draws on this beautiful description from Isaiah that highlights grace and compassion. And just as the Lord gently restores the weak and the wayward (people like us), we should also seek to gently move towards those suffering. So move towards your friend with care, seeking to be gentle and kind.
Move towards your friend with care, seeking to be gentle and kind.
Seek to Understand
It can be very hard to understand how others experience life. And this ignorance can cause harm: “Ignorance concerning mental illness has historically often resulted in brutal treatment of suffering persons, of their being fettered both literally and figuratively by the chains of helplessness and hopelessness.”
It can be very hard to understand how others experience life.
When seeking to help others, we must remember that we cannot know what someone else’s experience is. But we can ask questions and listen. As we do this, we will slowly grow in understanding of what life feels like for them. Take your time, and seek to understand the precise details of their heart and life.
Grow the Support Network
Engaging in this mental health conversation is a relational enterprise. So we shouldn’t do it all on our own. There are numerous areas of social support that we should access when it comes to engaging with mental health and applying these pastoral principles. Who are some of the people we could include in our support network?
- Pastors: these are our frontline soul-care providers. A wise pastor can be of great support to a Christian person who is battling. Do you have a godly and thoughtful pastor you can speak to? Enlisting the help of a biblical counsellor can also be valuable.
- Wise friends: who else in this person’s life can support and encourage them? A circle of godly friends, especially those in your local church, can greatly help with our mental health struggles.
- Mental healthcare workers: there are options here: nurses, psychologists, psychiatrists, counsellors, occupational therapists, etc. Can friends or family recommend anyone?
- Other helpers: depending on the particular struggle—and after reflecting on the causality issues involved—we may also need help from others. A nutritionist, a medical doctor, a financial planner, an addictions specialist, etc. Complex theocentrism means that even while we seek to centralise our friend’s relationship with God, we realise the need for other help.
As you reflect on social support, your friend might need help answering the question: do I need counselling? There are some key questions you can ask yourself. To see what those are, download and read the first chapter of this booklet.
Share God’s Gracious Word
Having listened well, understood the complexity of the struggle, and sought to identify relevant help in the different dimensions, let’s not forget to share God’s gracious word. Only we must do this in a manner appropriate to the capacity of our friend. We might read scripture with them, paraphrase some verses, do something artistic and creative; we may even help each other memorise precious promises.
Keep sharing God’s word because of what it can do in our souls.
But we’re keen to keep sharing God’s word because of what it can do. Take a look at how it describes what it can do in our souls (Psalm 19:7-8):
“The law of the Lord is perfect,
refreshing the soul.
The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy,
making wise the simple.
The precepts of the Lord are right,
giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the Lord are radiant,
giving light to the eyes.”
God’s word can bestow refreshment, wisdom, joy, and light. Is this not precisely what we all need? Refreshment for our weariness, wisdom for our folly, joy for our sorrow, and light for our darkness. As we encounter God’s words, we encounter God himself. And through his word, God wants to work in us: to comfort, strengthen, correct, console, and much more besides. How important it is, then, for us to be reading scripture ourselves and sharing it with our friends.
Keep Looking to God
May God give you the grace to help others along the way.
As we conclude this three-part series on mental health, we hope it has brought some clarity and practical guidance. As we have said several times, this is a complex topic. And yet, because it touches on who we are as people made in God’s image, the Bible has something valuable and wise to offer us.
May God help us grow in wisdom as we seek to navigate life’s challenges. And may he give you the grace to help others along the way.