How to Offer Spiritual Care to Your Mentally Ill Friends: Part I

How to Offer Spiritual Care to Your Mentally Ill Friends: Part I May 24, 2016

Juan_Zapaca_Inga_(atribuido)_-_Passing_of_Saint_John_of_God_-_Google_Art_Project
Cropped from “Passing of St. John of God,” by Juan Zapata Inga, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Loneliness. I think above all, this is the single word I want you to remember when you find yourself in the position of needing to love someone going through faith and mental illness. Know that we are lonely. Know that we often feel alienated amidst normal Christian practices – even ones we appreciate – because they don’t hit our messed up brains in the same way they hit yours.

Know that however helpful professionals might be in some areas, they generally can’t touch that spiritual hunger in us, in the best cases dancing around it and leaving it alone as the territory proper to the priest or other religious authority, and in the worst cases treating it implicitly as a neurosis to be tolerated if not cured.

And know that, however helpful you intend to be when you hear we’re suffering from mental illness and recommend us to professionals before dealing with anything spiritual, you’re cutting us off from that thing we need most from you – because messed up in the head though we are, we’re still spiritual beings and still need your love and support. If it’s indeed proper to recognize that except in exceptional miraculous cases faith can’t treat mental illness in the way doctors can, it’s also proper to realize that there are things you can give your Christian friend suffering from mental illness that his or her doctor generally can’t – personal love and spiritual support.

Hence, in this two-part post – loosely undertaken in conjunction with the mental health awareness month of May – I want to offer a few of my own thoughts on what you can do – and what you might want to avoid – in spiritually supporting those of us who are mentally ill.

1. Listen

Because of the difficulty of navigating the worlds around us, those of us with mental illness have often come to rely on various scripts – whether our own or those offered to us – as a way of explaining ourselves to those around us.

For instance, for those of us who are chronically late for things on account of obsessions and compulsions that make us want to do a final check of things again and again and again before we leave our houses, we often won’t tell you this – we’ll awkwardly apologize and talk about our bad habit of being late all the time and reproach ourselves and hope you’ll forgive us.

When we flake out on a meeting, we generally won’t tell you that we were curled up in bed with depression so severe we wanted to kill ourselves, or with social anxiety gnawing at our heads and paralyzing us and keeping us from interacting with even those closest to us.

When our arms are raw hamburger from dermatillomania (obsessive compulsive skin picking), we dismiss the pock marks as mosquito bites – even if it’s the middle of winter and they ought to have healed long ago.

Indeed, sometimes our explanations are absurd, but it’s hard not to hide behind these things – sometimes for your sake because we worry you can’t deal with the level of messed up in our heads – and sometimes for our sake because it’s nice for us to pretend we can fit in with normal people.

But if you want to help us – to be our friends – you need to be willing to listen beyond these scripts, and the best way to do that is to help us trust you because we don’t drop these learned scripts very easily. Not that you should simply come up to us and say, “You know you can trust me and so you can say whatever you like or need to me” – often this just confuses us because we ourselves have so hidden behind these scripts that we don’t even know what we want or need. But surprising things can happen when you make your hearts hospitable around us.

2. Give us love in the minefields – and give us opportunities to be reciprocally generous.

When typically healthy people meet and share friendship, all kinds of social norms are implicitly understood between parties. Now, imagine those social norms as a landscape, and imagine land mines strewn over various parts of that landscape – when you become friends with someone with mental illness, it can at times feel to them like you have asked to meet for coffee in this mine-strewn no-man’s-land. Your friend will have marked out particular parts of this landscape where he or she has found mines – and will try to steer you away from these. But there is always the chance of hitting a mine and then unexpected things happen.

We might lash out, or clam up, or become obsessive about something, or hit a wall. The best thing you can do at these times is to love us anyway the best way you know how. If you try to fix us, it will merely make us ashamed of being unfixed in your presence. If you leave us, we will despair. Be willing to love us – be willing to walk with us through this minefield with patience for trials you might never have imagined and that you might not understand.

But also sometimes let us be generous – even if it’s only in small things. I realized the other day that one of my deepest regrets about mental illness is my own poverty. Coming from an Evangelical background where I was stamped with the knowledge that it was my business to help save the world, it’s so hard to come to terms with the fact that some days I can barely get out of bed. “What can I give him, poor as I am?” I ask myself bemused because theologically true though it is, “give him my heart” seems a poor answer from one whose inner being is gummed up and fogged – my heart a blank – like the fake Christmas tree ornaments meant to look like wrapped gifts but on the inside blocks of white styrofoam.

Nonetheless, we sometimes try. We at times try to lift our feeble hearts to those around us weak and strong – we too would serve, offer our last mites – and we pray on occasion you might sometimes receive our attempted gifts with mercy and gratitude. Yes, being ill, we sometimes don’t even know when and when not to sacrifice, and sometimes need guidance. But we also would serve. When our offerings are tolerably reasonable, permit us this grace. And when our gifts our small, as they usually are, refrain if you might from laughter. We are poor and weak, but are still spiritual beings with as much need to be generous as you.

Of course, after these points, you are no doubt wondering a few things. What about your own life? What about the cost of caring for such people? Won’t they drain your energy? What about boundaries? And further, “What about the spiritual needs this post is purporting to talk about?” These questions will be dealt with in the second part of this post appearing later this week.

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