By Lark Braten
Having a mental illness makes it challenging for one to maintain the respect of others. It might draw sympathy, curiosity, suspicion, or disdain; but, rarely does it cause anything but a downward trend in respect. This happens for a variety of reasons but regardless of the cause, it comes at a point in a person’s life when they’re greatly in need of social support and confirmation of their value to help them heal. Learning how to respect those dealing with mental health issues through word, action, and attitude is a skill we as Christians would do well to develop.
The following are five ways that individuals in churches can show respect toward those with mental health concerns:
1. Believe them regarding their experiences, emotions, & needs
We all have a framework in our heads through which we view the world, including a way that we explain the phenomenon known as mental illness. That explanation may frame it as a physical disease, a medical condition, a sign of moral failure, or a spiritual battle with demonic forces. The explanation may incorporate negative stereotypes about different kinds of mental illness, that those who suffer from them are lazy or deceitful or that they are prone to overdramatic exaggeration. Our individual way of explaining the world lies very near to our heart and is difficult to change. For this reason, it can be tempting to ignore others’ experiences of mental illness if their experiences don’t fit our expectations. It can also be tempting to try to force those experiences to fit our own expectations by glossing over how others describe their personal mental health issues.
This is counterproductive. It only serves to alienate the person coping with mental health issues. Mental illness is typically a confusing, isolating, and frightening experience. It’s made even more so when those they should be able to trust—like those in the church—won’t believe or listen to them. It can erode their trust in Christians and their faith in their church as a positive resource, pushing them away from the family of God at the exact time that they need that connection the most.
2. Comply with their boundaries
In nearly any form of mental illness, the sufferer experiences loss of control as either a cause or a symptom of their illness, and sometimes as both. Although surrender and submission to God and to others is a central principle of Christianity, there is a world of difference between the willingness to relinquish one’s control and the loss of it via force – literal or metaphoric. The former lies at the foundation of the Kingdom of God; the latter has no place in it. You can help someone regain some of that lost sense of personal control by respecting their boundaries. Offer your help and support, make sure they know you are available, but refrain from pressuring them to accept assistance on your terms.
There are times when someone who is mentally ill will require someone else to step in and get them the help or protection they need, whether they want it or not. However, this will almost never be your job as a friend or an acquaintance. At most, it may be fitting for you to say some hard things. Take the nature of your relationship with them into account. Speaking meaningfully into someone’s life is a right you earn through the give-and-take of a relationship over time and the establishment of mutual openness. Gauge how much of that right you have earned before you speak or act. If it turns out you have gauged incorrectly and overstepped a boundary, respect that. Little will be accomplished by trying to force your way into the heart of an already hurting person, whether you think you should be allowed to or not.
3. Don’t expect their progress to fit your expectations
The process of working through a mental health issue is rarely quick, easy, or predictable. It is uneven terrain. Neither you nor the person working toward recovery can make it happen any faster than it’s going to. Unfortunately, that time table is often longer than what anybody involved would prefer. This can be likened to physical therapy after a severe bodily injury. The fact that a person still can’t walk two months into therapy doesn’t mean that they aren’t trying. It takes time to relearn how to perform physically after a trauma takes that ability away, and it takes time to relearn the capacity for mental health after a period of living without it. Impatience on the part of people around someone with a mental health issue can not only impede recovery by adding one more burden to their load, but also disrespects the work that’s gone into whatever degree of healing they have attained.
4. Don’t make their recovery about having another healing testimony
We all want people we know who are unwell to get better for their own sake, but otherwise healthy spiritual motivations can twist our hope into something less than selfless. Humans are remarkably good at recognizing when someone has come to them with an agenda, even if that agenda is the righteous desire to see God glorified. Mentally ill people can tell when someone is more concerned about their potential to become a future testimony of healing and transformation than about their current well-being. This is a subtle shift in focus, but the difference is immense. It can be the difference between someone being affirmed in their dignity in the eyes of God and feeling like they are nothing more than a means to His ends. We are children, not slaves; we are important to God beyond what He can accomplish through and in us. This pitfall can be especially tempting in cases where the personality or mental condition of the person in question results in them being difficult or unpleasant. It’s easier to look to a future when they are better than it is to value them in the present. The fact, however, is that God is at work in each one of us now, in the present, regardless of how unformed any of us might be currently.
5. Don’t make their mental illness the only thing your relationship is about
A person is always more than what’s wrong with them. If they’re trying to cope with a serious mental health issue, there’s a good chance that they already feel like everything in their life has been swallowed up by the struggle. As a friend—someone who isn’t directly involved in their medical or psychiatric care and who isn’t primarily responsible for them—you can provide a haven. Let your relationship with them be about more than what they’re going through. It doesn’t mean you won’t ever talk about it or that you can’t ever bring it up. It just means you talk about more than just that and do more than just activities focused on it.
Part of respecting those who are mentally ill is preventing everything from becoming about their mental illness. Not only would that result in a lopsided relationship with the needs of other groups being neglected, but it would make their mental illness the basis of their role in the church, reducing them to their mental illness. Those around the mentally ill have needs, too. Dealing with someone with a mental health issue can be difficult and even exhausting. It does not respect that person if you pretend that you have an endless store of emotional energy to offer them. You don’t. And if you have a good relationship with someone, respecting them fully means being lovingly honest about that.
Respect is an attitude toward another person that assumes their responsibility, dignity, and validity as a person. This is both a duty and a privilege. It is closely tied to love as described in 1 Corinthians 13. Assumption of responsibility equates to not rejoicing in unrighteousness. Assumption of dignity speaks to the theme of valuing others implicitly in the description of love. The assumption of validity speaks to believing all things. This kind of respect is inextricably bound up with love; you cannot love someone without having this kind of respect for them, and you cannot have this kind of respect for them without also loving them. Like so much of life, mental illness is both a manifestation and a field of the battle between the opposing forces of fear and love. By treating someone in the heart of that struggle with respect, you treat them with love, supporting the side of love in their inner conflict. You support their effort. You support their victory. That is to say, you support the work of God in them.